Learning to love Gustav Mahler


One evening in 1966, not long after the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, concertgoers were surprised to find a picket line in front of the hall on opening night. Though picket lines were a dime a dozen in the ‘60s, this one was unusual, for these young music lovers were protesting the shortage of works by Gustav Mahler on the philharmonic’s agenda. The protest received radio coverage, and it had the effect of launching the local Gustav Mahler Society.

Can you imagine such a scene today? The composer who ruefully called himself “thrice homeless” -- a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world -- is as indelible a presence in the classical music universe as Beethoven or Brahms in 2010, the year of Mahler’s 150th birthday, and leading into 2011, the 100th anniversary of his death.

It is hard to think of another great composer who blasted his way from near-oblivion into the basic repertoire with such force in the last third of the 20th century.


And he has stayed there with undiminished popularity. When young conductors make their first big splash these days, they often do so with one of Mahler’s massive, all-embracing 10 symphonies.

Two cases in point: Gustavo Dudamel attracted early attention with his precocious mastery of the Second and Fifth symphonies and launched his term as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the First (which he will be reprising at Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 25). His predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, came out of nowhere to sub for Michael Tilson Thomas in Mahler’s Third with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and later made his debut as music director here with the same piece.

Defying the fading classical CD market, Mahler symphony cycles keep pouring out; more than 20 are available with more coming soon.

David Zinman is up to the Seventh in his straight-forward cycle from Zurich; most of Valery Gergiev’s demonic London cycle is now out, with only the Fifth and Ninth awaiting release. Tilson Thomas recently completed his own set of the symphonies with the mighty Eighth, which gathered a triple crown of Grammy Awards in January -- and he and the San Francisco Symphony will be playing four of Mahler’s symphonies in Europe next season.

“I have been very much transformed by Mahler’s message,” Tilson Thomas said by phone.

“I’m sitting here looking out at San Francisco Bay -- and it’s a misty, foggy day -- and somehow my whole experience of taking this in is shaped by some of the landscapes I’ve experienced in passages of the Ninth Symphony. No one since Schubert has been as involved with the act of walking [in nature], of interacting with the people. What Mahler did was succeed in fulfilling Schubert’s ambitions using Wagner’s methods.”

In his own time, Mahler was much more famous as a conductor, an object of gossip like any celebrity; indeed, Vienna was abuzz when his marriage to the beautiful, intelligent Alma Schindler (he was 41, she only 22) became known. He kept up a hectic, workaholic pace, running the Vienna Court Opera and later the New York Philharmonic, with only a few weeks each summer devoted to composing. He wanted to be remembered as a composer, first and foremost, but such recognition eluded him during his lifetime and for decades afterward.


The past 50 years

One only has to go back to 1960, the year of the Mahler centennial, to marvel at how scarce his music was then and how much his stock has rocketed since. Little by little, Mahler was gaining attention, thanks to championing by a handful of surviving Mahler disciples ( Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter) and a few mavericks ( Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hermann Scherchen), but he was still relegated to the fringes of the repertoire.

The unfinished Tenth Symphony was just a fragment consisting of one or sometimes two movements, the sketches still awaiting a full performing version. All nine completed symphonies had finally been made available on records by 1953, but the pickings were still scarce; the Third, Seventh and Eighth had only one version each in print, and the first cycle by a sole conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was seven years away.

The same old excuses about Mahler’s music were still being casually thrown about: too long, too difficult, too morbid, too bombastic, too derivative, too vulgar and, unfortunately, in some unrepentant circles, too Jewish.

Interestingly, according to Henry-Louis de La Grange’s decades-in-the-making, four-volume biography of Mahler -- which, like a Mahler symphony, is huge, all-encompassing and immediately gripping -- the composer’s music could make a big impression upon audiences of his time, particularly his longest and most discursive symphony of all, the Third.

La Grange reports the observations of composer Ernest Bloch, who, after a performance of the Second Symphony, prophetically wrote, “I will not forget the demeanor of the audience as it emerged from the cathedral; it wasn’t arguing, it wasn’t theorizing, it wasn’t analyzing! No, it had just lived life itself, relived its joys, its sorrows, its weariness, its hopes. And without worrying about whether Mahler’s philosophy was Christian or pantheist, it went on its way touched, stronger, happier, more powerful!”


Rather, it was the critics who went after Mahler with long knives. Some of it was stained with personal grudges because of Mahler’s position as the career-making-or-breaking director of the Vienna Court Opera. Some Viennese papers were openly anti-Semitic -- and Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism in his mid-30s wasn’t good enough for them.

Mostly, though, they just didn’t get it, and their opinions hardened into gospel. “Oh, if only I could give my symphonies their first performances 50 years after my death,” Mahler wrote in 1904 with accurate prescience.

Bernstein’s role

So then why did Mahler emerge in such an overwhelming way after 1960? The persuasive Bernstein started pushing the Mahler symphonies hard at a New York Philharmonic centennial festival that year, identifying completely with the composer as an agonized figure racked with dual identity issues.

Technology made it possible to get a Mahler symphony onto one or two LPs -- before that, you needed a forklift to carry a stack of 78 rpm discs -- and stereo really brought out the details of his stupendous orchestrations. Technical standards were rising, orchestras were better able to negotiate these demanding works; even youth orchestras could play them passably, or much more so.

But it was also the tumultuous times -- of sky-high hopes dashed by apocalyptic tragedies, of the status quo being challenged -- that made Mahler’s message resonate. Imagine listening to the Sixth and Ninth symphonies for the first time in 1968 with the assassinations, the Chicago convention, Prague and Vietnam in the background -- as I did as a kid.


In his famous 1967 essay “Mahler: His Time Has Come,” Bernstein follows a long list of the cataclysms of the 20th century with this comment: “Only after all of this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all.”

This music was more than a soundtrack to the events; they amplified each other to a terrifying roar.

A few years later, Mahler’s music did become a soundtrack -- to Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” -- whose lead character was based, with extreme license, on Mahler himself. The mixture of Mahler and humid, cholera-ridden Venice created a haunting image, further fueling the Mahler boom.

And the boom continues. What Bloch noticed a century ago could apply to the reactions of today’s audiences, who never heard the warnings to stay away.

Yet Tilson Thomas isn’t so sure that the boom is permanent. “Even at this stage, [some] people in Europe are still uncomfortable with his music. Still,” he said.

“He’s satirizing them, not treating them respectfully, too many quirks. It is exactly those quirks that make him appealing to [Americans]. The whole picture of man’s activities is there, and that big picture is disturbing to some people.”


For now, Mahler is much in demand; even the Vietnam National Symphony is planning a massive-scaled performance of the Eighth in October. The L.A. Philharmonic has several Mahlers on the calendar.

Don’t expect another picket line this time. Mahler doesn’t need one anymore.