Mahler: Where to Start

Gustav Mahler is one of classical music's most introspective composers and divides opinion more than most - let Classic FM show you where to start with symphonies, lieder and more.

We'll admit that approaching Mahler's music can seem a bit like jumping over a double-decker bus with a pogo stick, but if you're prepared to give it time and really listen, the rewards are there for the taking. Responsible for some of history's most incredible and bombastic symphonies and staggeringly poignant vocal works, he's not one to enter into lightly. To put it mildly, few composers divide opinion like Mahler.

That immediately makes the question of where to start quite a tricky one. The temptation is to go straight into one of the big symphonies, but that might be a bit rash. Our suggestion is to go straight for the fourth movement of the fifth symphony, the Adagietto (listen to our playlist below). It's quietly emotive and actually rather accessible. In fact, it's easy to see where Samuel Barber might've gotten the idea for his Adagio for Strings.

The Adagietto was meant as a love song to Mahler's wife, Alma, but few of his compositions  share that spirit. Mahler was a firm believer that in order to truly appreciate life, one has to suffer its worst aspects. Still, his rather dim view of life has produced some incredible music. Inspired by the breakdown of a relationship with a young soprano, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer are beautifully emotive, if not too cheery.

So, now that some of the 'lighter' works are out of the way, it's time to get stuck in. The meat of Mahler is undoubtedly in the symphonies, but with nine to choose from, each with their own quirks and eccentricities, it's tricky to know where to begin. Generally speaking, the second symphony (known as The Resurrection) is a good place to start. If you think of it as a concept album about life, death and rebirth with added cymbal crashes, you're half-way there. Like Beethoven before him, Mahler creates a seamless bridge between  instrumental and vocal works, so you'll hear plenty of massed singing as you experience it.

When you're listening to The Resurrection, there are a couple of things to watch out for. First of all, Mahler originally wanted a five-minute gap between the first and second movements, so if you've got a recording then make sure you stick the kettle on in-between those two. Secondly, look out for the incredible 'death shriek' in the third movement and in the finale - it's a horrifying orchestral crash supposed to be the musical embodiment of the horror of death, so you can't miss it. Nicely, the final line that the chorus sings is 'Die I shall, so as to live!' - so it's not all doom and gloom, eh?

After you've recovered from all that, we recommend a nice cup of tea and a sit down. But then, you might want to think about the other symphonies. Number six is probably the most stressful (encouragingly, it's subtitled The Tragic symphony), but the first movement is marvellously stroppy and good for stomping around the lounge to. The other symphonies, from the all-encompassing ninth and the 'Titan' first to the lengthy third and the 'Symphony of a Thousand' eighth, have so much to explore that you could spend weeks getting to the bottom of each of them. Elsewhere, song cycles like Des Knaben Wunderhorn (which has the rather nice English translation of 'The Young Lad's Magic Horn') are chock full of surprisingly light ditties.

But the main thing with Mahler is to pay attention. That doesn't mean take notes or sit an exam, but just make sure you aren't doing anything else. This is music to immerse yourself in completely, not just to have on while you do the washing up. Sometimes immersing yourself in a world created by Gustav Mahler can be scary, but it sure is rewarding. Trust us, once you've given it a chance to work its magic on you, Mahler's music will be irresistible.