Best known for his large-scale orchestral works, Gustav Mahler had a profound influence on musical composition and helped usher in the modern era. Born 150 years ago on July 7, 1860, his works are more popular than ever.
Gustav Mahler was born in eastern Bohemia
These days, symphonies by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler can be found on the programs of all of Germany's major orchestras. It's hard to believe that, just 50 years ago, the composer was a good as forgotten. His music draws audiences in a time when classical music institutions are scrambling for solutions to ever-dwindling ticket sales.
"I think it's the intangible [aspect of Mahler's music], and those who are sensitive enough recognize great potential in it," said conductor Stefan Blunier, music director of the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, of the composer's appeal.
Not always well received
Mahler's music has been called schmaltzy, but Blunier countered this criticism by explaining that such a description doesn't have a negative connotation in his native Switzerland.
Mahler is known for his massive orchestration
The parts of Mahler's works that may seem "archaic or even afflicted are also relevant to our time, and I think the listener can compensate" for the differences that come from living in a different era, added the conductor.
Still, even contemporary audiences found Mahler's works problematic and didn't always understand what he was trying to communicate. The Nazi regime condemned and banned his music, but the postwar avant-garde rejected it as excessive and overblown.
It wasn't until 1971, six decades after his death, that interest in Mahler's music revived - thanks to a film by Italian director Luchino Visconti. For the score to his blockbuster "Death in Venice," Visconti used the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony - and a Mahler boom ensued.
Over the past 30 years, Mahler's works have become standard repertoire for German orchestras. With the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2010 and the centennial of his death in 2011, Mahler is sure to grace concert programs for some time.
Music for the concert hall
Mahler on CD just isn't the same, says Blunier
Blunier performed a Mahler cycle with his orchestra this past season, which opened with the Eighth Symphony, in honor of yet another anniversary: The work premiered in Munich in the summer of 1910.
"The Eighth [Symphony] is an event," said Blunier. "Even for an audience that’s not accustomed to classical music, it's impressive when a 200-member orchestra and 500-member choir really cut loose."
While 700 musicians is a bit of an exaggeration, the work - truly a musical landmark - was composed for a massive ensemble, combining both instrumentalists and vocalists.
Mahler's popularity in Germany is reflected in the number of recordings available of his music. But, for Blunier, nothing tops experiencing Mahler live.
"If you've ever heard the end of Mahler's Eighth Symphony performed live, when the music gets more and more intense, you know you can't replicate that with the very best stereo system at home," said the conductor.
Author: Klaus Gehrke (kjb)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen