Gustav Mahler: An Appreciation

Classic FM looks at Gustav Mahler, the creator of awesome symphonic worlds that embrace the breadth of human experience.

What makes Mahler’s music so different? 

“The symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything!” That one statement provides the very essence of Gustav Mahler. The last great figure in the Austro-German symphonic tradition, Mahler expanded the scale of music to near-bursting point – there are single movements in his works that last longer than an entire symphony by Mozart or Haydn. He also stretched the accepted system of major and minor keys to its limits, taking music to the very brink of atonality (keylessness). 

Why does Mahler feel so relevant today? 

Mahler poured everything into the creative melting pot – his literary tastes, neuroses, responses to nature, the inexorable cycle of life and death and his sense of loneliness: “I am condemned to homelessness as a Jew throughout the world.” 

But his music was slow to catch on – right? 

Vaughan Williams found him “a tolerable imitation of a composer”, while Walton’s tongue-in-cheek quip about the Third Symphony speaks volumes: “It’s all very well, but you can’t call that a symphony.” But Britten adored his music. 

And composing wasn’t his only talent? 

Mahler was also a brilliant pianist. At 13 he was already performing ferocious note-spinners by the likes of Thalberg, and he could also throw off Scharwenka’s wrist-crippling First Piano Concerto apparently without batting an eyelid. 

What about his conducting? 

Mahler was principally celebrated as a great conductor during his lifetime; his pioneering methods of rehearsing set the standard for the rest of the 20th century. His major appointments included the Vienna Opera, the Met and the New York Phil. 

And what’s all this about marital advice from Sigmund Freud? 

It’s true. During 1910, Mahler began suffering from a certain lack of prowess in the bed department. He sought out Freud who diagnosed the problem as a “Holy Mary” complex, whereby Mahler felt that his wife shouldn’t be defiled by physical lust.