Mulling Over Mahler

Most of my practice time lately has been spent prepping the forty-odd-page viola part to Mahler 6. I’ve listened to the piece once a day since I learned I’d be playing it, and I’m now wrestling with a very basic question: do I, or do I not, like this music? I listen again and again, trying to discern some kind of narrative in this ninety-minute mass.

Okay, kids. Gather round.

The first movement begins with a march. It seems to presage the Great War with its grandiose character of pomp, brass, and militaristic pageantry. The grandiosity, however, intimidates more than it inspires. The melodies seep a kind of brave, romantic defiance. They are beautiful at first listen, unnerving at second, and terrifying by twentieth. A strange, listless chorale comes and goes. After five long minutes, just when the thirst for musical violence finally seems to have been quenched, the brutal opening is…repeated. And not just partially so: it is completely, totally, turn-the-score-back-to-the-beginning repeated, with all the strength and savagery of the first go-through. Eventually, a full ten minutes after starting off, we finally move on, but even then the same vicious mood persists for quite a while. After a long protest the music slides into a kind of dreamy moonscape, lit by high tremolo, soft woodwinds, magical celesta. But the dream’s seductive beauty never feels quite right; the memory of that march is always lurking. When the dreamer is awoken, abruptly and without mercy, the militaristic sounds returns, apparently inescapable, inevitable. Things come to a terrifying head at 16:50, when one of the majestic primary themes is twisted in the grandest, most terrifying manner imaginable. As the movement comes to a close, the moods wildly seesaw between heavenly and hellish, wrapping up with a manic, wild-eyed sprint to the finish.

At this point, twenty-five minutes into the symphony, an emotional respite would be more than welcome. (Hint, hint, Mr. Mahler.) Chances are, however, you’re not getting one; many conductors opt to move on to the weighty mid-tempo scherzo instead. (I questioned this decision when I first listened to this piece. Surely the slow movement should be put here, I thought, so I can take a breather from that massive introduction! But then when I found out – spoiler alert! – that the last movement was even bigger than the first, I quickly changed my mind.) At first glance the score looks relatively simple…until you realize that every line contains a new rhythmic pitfall with the capability to derail your whole performance. The emphasis hops from first beats to third beats; fourth beats are sprinkled throughout; the tempo yanks back and forth. The only way I’ve found to keep it all half-straight is by screaming “ONE!!! two three ONE!!! two three” in my head in an attempt to ignore that frequently off-balance third (or fourth) beat. Mahler’s wife Alma famously compared the rhythm of this movement to children playing. As you listen, the metaphor seems apt, even charming…until the orchestra’s bows begin playing a spooky col legno passage, conjuring up the image of little clattering skeletons.

Well, you might say. Bleak ambiguity only goes so far. Things have to start feeling a little more optimistic in the third movement (at 39:30). Right? Wrong. Here we get a theme that is neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad, neither hopeful nor hopeless, neither yearning nor satisfied…neither black nor white. The only indisputable thing about it is that it is achingly, impossibly beautiful.

So. Apparently Mahler was waiting until the last movement – roughly an hour into the symphony – to express the inevitable heroism, certitude, catharsis, that we’ve come to expect from our monumental symphonic music post-Beethoven.


It certainly seems that way when, at the beginning of the final movement, an emphatic line rises from a misty tremolo (55:00). The stage seems set for a grand resolution indeed. However, before long we realize there will be no straightforward Beethovenian triumph. Instead we find ourselves skidding down the rails on a fast, frantic, frenetic ride, clearly uncontrollable (59:00). This is music determined to charge the gates of hell…regardless of the futility of the task.

Then the terrifying militaristic percussion from the first movement comes back…as well as the creepy celesta-laced dreamscapes. There are some uncomfortable moments of deja vu. We’ve tread a lot of water in the past ninety minutes, but you have to wonder: have we really gotten anywhere?

Then, if you were delusional enough to think you had any idea where this was all going, a percussionist raises a person-sized hammer above their head, and you realize, well, clearly all bets are off. At this point absolutely anything could happen and it wouldn’t be surprising.

In case you haven’t heard how Mahler 6 wraps up, I’ll save you the surprise and stop there. Next time you have ninety minutes to spare, look it up. Just make sure you’re not suicidal at the time.

I’ve read so many conflicting opinions about this symphony. Some feel it’s Mahler’s masterpiece. Others see it as seriously flawed: maybe fatally so. Some find it to be fatally flawed…and yet cite it as their favorite anyway. It is said that Mahler cried at the first rehearsals for it, unable to come to terms with what he’d unleashed. Alma alleged that the hammer blows prophesied the catastrophes that would later shake their marriage. Heck, even now, a hundred plus years after its composition, we can’t even agree about something as fundamental as what order to put the movements in. I imagine I’ll get a dozen comments on this post sharply disagreeing with my opinions, and with everybody else’s. Because that’s just the kind of conflicted reaction this massive music seems to engender.

Personally, I go from loving it to loathing it back to loving it again…sometimes within the span of a few measures. Nothing about it is clear. Everything is difficult. A forceful ambiguity reigns supreme. Mahler assembles us in the concert hall, asks humanity’s most important questions, raises an envelope, announces all the answers are within, takes out a sharpened knife, carefully slits open the flap…

And then throws the envelope into a raging bonfire.

What to think?


Yesterday I said to my mother, impulsively, “I haven’t felt well lately.”

“In what way?” she asked.

“Mm,” I said.

“How don’t you feel well?” she pressed.

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. I wished I hadn’t even mentioned it.

A moment passed.

“Maybe it’s all the Mahler I’ve been playing,” I finally said.

I’d said it as a joke. But as soon as the words were out, I realized they had an uncomfortable ring of truth to them, and I frowned.

I thought she’d laugh at me, but she didn’t. “That could very well be,” she said, and we both fell quiet for a while.


Filed under My Writing

6 responses to “Mulling Over Mahler

  1. I remember the first time I heard a Mahler Symphony, probably the Ninth, I had no idea how to listen to it. I simply felt lost in a torrent of notes. Only when David Nice introduced me to a DVD of Abbado playing Mahler’s Ninth with the Luzerne did I begin to understand. Transcendent, I’ve come to think. But I write, more to the point, to say I’ve been introduced to new pieces of Faure recently, and I always think of you. I love each of them. I begin to think there is nothing he wrote that wasn’t utterly lovely.

  2. David Sanders

    Hello Emily,

    I was directed to your blog in reference to your great article about the Minnesota Orchestra. I just wants to say that I love the Mahler 6th, and, I’m playing on the Haitink performance you have showcased here. It is one of my favorite pieces, and a great thrill to perform, especially, as I have been so incredibly fortunate to do it with so many great conductors. The Haitink performance was certainly one of my favorites.

    Keep up the great work.

    David Sanders
    Cellist, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

    • Okay, so NO. WAY. Love this comment. I was actually in touch with you about musical autographs once a long time ago! It’s a small world. Love it. Congrats on the great performance. Best wishes, Emily

  3. Terry Carlson

    All I can say is that Mahler’s music saved me. All of it, any of it. Perhaps not best to begin with the 6th but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. It’s an enormous body of absolutely glorious music. YouTube videos of Claudio Abbado and Lucerne are thrilling, perfect, just like heaven (one can only hope).

  4. Terry Carlson

    Now I’m overstaying my welcome, and you’re undoubtedly way ahead of me on this, but Mahler’s 3rd is really something to behold. Don’t miss the documentary “What the Universe Tells Me” (Jason Starr):

    One of the best, if not the best, documentaries ever made about a work of art.

    Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (1893-1896)
    1: “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”
    2: “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
    3: “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”
    4: “What Humanity Tells Me”
    5: “What the Angels Tell Me”
    6: “What Love Tells Me”
    Mvt6: “The more I know this movement, the more I’m convinced that this has to be the single most beautiful, most transcendental, most uplifting piece of music ever written. The title says it all: “What Love Tells Me.” — comment on YouTube

    Mahler was well acquainted with Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player, during the time period when he composed this third symphony. The structure and content was not revealed by Mahler to the public but he informed Bauer-Lechner about it. She kept a private journal on what he stated about this third symphony. (Wikipedia)

    • No, you’re not overstaying your welcome at all, and no I don’t know the third symphony or this documentary, so thanks for that tip. (I continue to have an ambivalent relationship with Mahler, unfortunately… Hopefully this will change as I get older.) Will go look up Ms. Bauer-Lechner now, as that’s relevant to my women-in-the-history-of-string-playing interest! I see she played with Marie Soldat in a quartet; fascinating stuff. So much to uncover and appreciate. Thanks for this comment; it’s nice to get away for a moment from controversial apocalypses and slip back into my comfort zone, which is history…

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