Mahler: Thus Far

We’ve taken the Mahler symphonies quite out of order so far.

But Thursday’s piece is a big one. A big place filled by his smallest symphony. Let’s talk about that.
In many of my other endeavors with other composers, I’ve tried to start with symphony (or sonata or concerto) no. 1 and familiarize myself with the pieces in chronological order. This has happened with Brahms and Beethoven, Schubert, Sibelius, Mozart, and some others, but it didn’t happen with Mahler. For various reasons, what we’ve got at this point is 1-3, 5 and 6. Can you see what’s coming on Thursday?
Another goal of mine is to hear each of the symphonies live. I’ve heard 4 and 5 (twice) and 9, and recently had the glorious chance to hear the third. The most challenging will probably be the eighth, but the third is no small production either.
Anyway, on that evening, as mentioned, a coworker accompanied me to the event and I had the chance to share some background information about that monumental piece, and it reminded me that it is understood even better in the context of the first four symphonies, the last one almost an epilogue, and that’s what we’re talking about on Thursday.
So let’s go, for a moment, to my favorite way of explaining things: heavy generalization in the interest of clarity and simplicity and brevity at the expense of some degree of accuracy.
The first symphony is his pastoral. Maybe. The subtitle ‘Titan’ that isn’t often (and shouldn’t
really be) used reminds us that there was at one time some kind of a narrative or program for this piece, but to be honest, it doesn’t really register to me except in the fourth movement. But then again, perhaps it is this titan character (Hans Rott?) who is the subject of the Auferstehung (resurrection) in the second symphony.
This is the piece that first blew my mind. I don’t know exactly what it was about it, but I listened to it over and over and over and over again and it got better each time. Very different from the first, it’s in five movements, with a chorus and two vocal soloists, much more involved than the first, and it is about redemption and hope and all of those things. Just listen to it. It has that long line from beginning to end that leads from despair to utter joy and bliss. It’s the shortest 80-90 minutes ever, once you come to love it.
The third is even longer and bigger. It feels in some way like it deals more with creation, with humanity as a whole, and not just our single hero character from the first symphony. It’s universal. It continues the long climb, from the very craggy creation of (or just existence on) the earth, from the depths of prehistoric something and after an hour and a half, ends in heaven. It is an ascension.
That’s where we are (extremely vaguely and inaccurately) with the first three symphonies. Also, go back and check out the concert review from the concert with Maestro Inbal from earlier this month.
To be honest, I don’t like programs. I like to know what the composer was feeling or wanted his audience to feel, what his thoughts were and what the focus or ideas behind the piece are, but don’t tell me what to think too much. That is kind of why I’ve still not gotten into any of Liszt’s symphonic poems or those of Strauss or anything. It’s a different kind of structure. So one of the things that’s so wonderful about these symphonies of Mahler, these first four, is that you can look at them as individual ‘movements’ of a four-part series (the Wunderhorn symphonies), but even outside of that context, they still stand perfectly on their own as solid, respectable, very enjoyable works.
The only one left to fill this gap is the fourth, and even though I described it above as an epilogue to the monstrous third, it is still a perfectly wonderful symphony, one of my favorites of his, to be honest, and maybe the best introduction to the large-scale world of Mahler.
After this, we will have finished symphonies 1-6, which puts us in the middle of his middle period symphonies, so the next one we will do is his seventh. I’m really excited about the fourth, and if you’re interested, you can check out the first three symphonies linked below:

3. Symphony No. 3

You’ll notice, if you’re really that diligent about reading those above three articles,  that the first two symphonies are two pieces that are early, not just in my undertaking of Mahler’s works, but relatively speaking, of this entire blog’s efforts as a whole, so… I’m really considering revisiting them once I’ve gotten through all nine, because they’re quite… amateur efforts (I mean, this whole blog is amateur, but even relative to the rest). In any case, it’s some background and lead up to what is the last section of kind of a four-part symphony cycle in and of itself, and kind of almost the first half of Mahler’s entire symphonic output.
What we’ve essentially got is two enormous, mold-shattering groundbreaking symphonies bookended by two of the smallest, shortest symphonies in the composer’s oeuvre.

This article ended up being much shorter than I’d expected, mostly because I just can’t get into the entire history of these works all over again. If I start, it’ll be by far the longest thing ever written on here, so… go back and do some research of your own. I suppose it’s enough to say that what’s coming on Thursday, for those of you who haven’t heard it before, is in many ways a welcome change of pace in our Mahler coverage. I am looking very forward to it. See you then.

One thought on “Mahler: Thus Far

  1. Excellent comments. I will be following your progress through the rest of Mahler. And I totally agree about the programs.Mahler himself rejected them for the same reason we don't like them: he wanted the music to speak for itself. I like Strauss and Liszt much less than Mahler for the same reason as you. When I first discovered this great composer, I played a record of his First Symphony over and over, then got hooked on all of them. And I agree about the Fourth, a really terrific piece of music from start to finish. It may be a good intro to Mahler, but I'd still probably start somebody with the First. As beautiful as the Fourth is, it's kind of weird for a novice (The First is weird in its way, but it's a more conventional symphonic form). Anyway, really enjoying your articles

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