Sunday, August 16, 2009

Music to play for your kids if you hate them

Today's entry is about the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. He was not a particularly prolific composer, with his only works that are routinely performed being his 9 symphonies, along with The Song of the Earth and two song cycles that he frequently recycled music from in his symphonies. It is a testament to him then that someone who wrote so little (compared to figures like Beethoven or Schubert) has exerted such a profound influence on the course of music. He was a neurotic conductor who was doing his part to push the bounds of tonality as well as create larger and larger sounds in his works. His 8th Symphony is called symphony of a thousand not as hyperbole, but because it literally requires about 1,000 performers, which I'm pretty sure was the largest orchestration ever performed up to that point. Arnold Schoenberg was a big fan of his, but Mahler actually fell out of favor in concert halls until Leonard Bernstein and Bruno Walter led a revival of his music in the 1950s, and now his symphonies are fair game for any symphony that can hire enough performers for them.
Mahler probably didn't write so much because he was obsessed with revising his works, which would take up lots of his time. He even made it clear that he wanted future conductors to continue revising his music after he was gone to improve it, although this plan hasn't panned out for him. He also died rather young, because he had pretty terrible health both physically and mentally, and there's no telling how his crappy homelife affected him. He was married to Alma Mahler, who regularly would cheat on him (there's a good story about how she was cheating on him daily while he would rehearse for the premiere of the symphony of a thousand), and their daughter Maria Anna died at age four. He also had tons of pressure because of the anti-semitism in Vienna, where he was employed as the Opera conductor. He converted to Christianity (probably only nominally) but according to one biography of him that I read, he viewed his Jewishness as almost a physical problem, which I think shows how screwy he was. He was so superstitious that he didn't call his Song of the Earth a symphony because he wanted to cheat death, believing that he would be cursed to die after writing his ninth symphony. It sort of worked in that he wrote 9 symphonies plus a work that was like a symphony, but he still ended up dying after writing 9 symphonies, so death was really out to get him or something.
As a man he was a small weak kook, but as a composer he wrote some of the most amazing, loud, brash music you'll hear, as a sort of concluding fireworks display to the tradition of Romantic symphonies. My choice today is not quite as representative of this as some of his other works (check out the finale of his sixth symphony), but I have always found it to be particularly intriguing. It is the third movement of his first symphony, called the "Titan," and it opens as a funeral march that twists the song Frere Jacques into something demented. I get a big kick out of it, along with him throwing in some semi-klezmer music and an unrelated central part that is extremely melodic, so I hope you enjoy it too. My recording is of Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and I think it does a fine job since Bruno Walter of all conductors was the closest friend of Mahlers who made it into the era of recording. The video however is of the National Symphony of Ukraine in concert.

1 comment:

  1. It is a very nice and good post. Keep up the good work.