There’s something about these two…. This is a complicated heavy topic, one which I am not really quite ready to address. I have been more and more enthralled with the music of each of these great composers (mostly the symphonies), but I see similarities that link them on an intriguing, deep, almost spiritual level. (They even look a bit like each other in the photos above, no?)
There are the obvious parallels: they were both Austrian composers who left the world nine-ish symphonies with some unfinished bits. They are both known for their ninth symphonies (among other works) (see the curse of the ninth here
for more details about that), and they both (now) hold a significant place in the canon and history of classical music, hailed as some of the greatest composers in history.
They both also faced many a challenge to their careers, and either could be poster children for the “starving artist” at some point in their lives. They both died young. There’s all of that. But aside from the more physical aspects, the more concrete parallels that can be drawn, there’s something stronger about their form of expression, their styles, their sentiments, that while I am not well-read enough about these two men to speak on at length, is still noticeable to me.
For one, they both love the human voice. Schubert (it seems to me) was more famous for his Lieder than his symphonies during his lifetime, and boy did he write a lot of them: hundreds. Someone on the interwebs claims Schubert viewed his early symphonies (perhaps up to number 5) as “throwaways,” which I find hard to believe because I think they’re fantastic, but he may have been more at home in a more intimate setting than a whole symphony. He wrote many a string quartet and sonata and his Lieder are certainly very intimate works as well.
Mahler also had a series of song cycles and Lieder he wrote from an early point in his career, and while I am not terribly familiar with Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, I am even less familiar with Winterreise, but there seem to be some rather strong similarities in expression, ideas, and feelings that these two composers share.
There’s something also about their methods that is similar. While Mahler himself didn’t care
much for Schubert’s music, I believe criticizing it for being too…. classical, they do have things in common. Despite the fact that Mahler is not known for quaint, intimate, small-scale symphonies, there are almost always quaint, peaceful, idyllic, even pastoral elements in his symphonies that call to mind the Austrian landscape, or the outdoors, the mountains he loved to hike in, and this rings out in Schubert as well. Perhaps they both found some solace, some escape from the pressures and complications of life in the peaceful outdoors. Doing a search on Schubert and Mahler produced this New York Times article, which says:
The Austrian composers shared a taste for earthy, countrified dance idioms; a keen interest in setting poetry; and a generosity in pouring out sheer, glorious melody.
Schubert’s increasing predilection for lengthy statements paved the way for symphonists like Bruckner and Mahler. Schubert and Mahler each left 10 symphonies, with various completions by others figured in. Each pulled back a bit toward the middle, seemingly taking stock, in mellow smaller-scale creations: Schubert with his Fifth Symphony, Mahler with his Fourth.
Each left, as the basis for a 10th symphony, a single, virtually completed slow movement exploring new manners of expression. In Schubert’s case the Andante in question is, in effect, proto-Mahlerian.
Perhaps there is something patriotic about it, something nationalistic, related to their culture and the love of the surroundings in which they grew up that instills such a melodic, pastoral spirit in these men. Whatever the reason, I think of the Ländler that Mahler uses in his symphonies, the folk tunes like in his first symphony, his adherence to poetry as the text for his songs, and all of those things recall an earthiness that Schubert also seems to express or represent. They are the sweetest, most delicate moments in Mahler’s symphonies, those that stand in stark contrast to the Romantic, complex, loud, developed, sometimes even terrifying passages in the same symphonies, those that express a yearning for a simpler time and a delight in basic happinesses.
I am speaking way outside of authoritative or objective ideas here, but it is almost as if Mahler’s roots were in Schubert’s time and style and everything that he represented, and while it was what he wanted (a simple, beautiful, happy existence), he was being pulled into the 20th century by another force, one that compelled him to push the limits of what a symphony really was and could be. Although he looked down upon his fellow countryman for some reasons or other, there is no denying strong similarities in their backgrounds and sentiments, both being wonderful lyricists, poets with wonderful melodies and musical geniuses. It just happens that the two used their talents in very different ways in what ended up being two very different worlds. As I prepare the article for this week’s symphony, these are the things I think about and the reasons I scheduled Mahler to follow Schubert, even though it follows one of Schubert’s early “throwaway” symphonies and not one of his late, great works. We shall indeed get there, and perhaps the parallels are even stronger in Schubert’s truly great final completed symphony, one that gives pause and awe to its listeners every time in its stark, clean beauty and perfect complexity.
For now, I am still thinking of these two great composers, and what they would have done had either of them lived for another ten years. Would Schubert have continued in his career to finish where Mahler began? Would the connections be stronger? What would Mahler have done had he lived past 51? They both could have completed those tenth symphonies, but that is for a later date.
In preparing the next Mahler symphony, I am fascinated by the progress and development of one of the world’s greatest composers, and learning about this symphony is a journey in itself, not to mention one episode in the long story that is the life of Gustav Mahler and his own journey into and out of the twentieth century.