Gustav Mahler, certified neurotic, was born in 1860 to a Jewish liquor distiller (there's a joke here somewhere, but as I sit here at Columbia Street West watching The Lollipop Factory play, I am unable to find one. Feel free to insert your own and laugh if it is funny) in a small city in some small European country. It doesn't matter where because neither of us would take the time to look it up, even if we could manage to scrounge up an 1860 map of lesser Czechoslovakia! Regardless of where he was born, Mahler was an interesting fellow. Had he been my neighbor, I would have hated the very marrow of his bones. But he was still interesting. Allow me to explain.
The life of Mahler was dominated by tragedy. As a young lad, he was regularly abused by both his father and mother, which of course resulted in him having a number of psychotherapy sessions with the one, the only Sigmund Freud. However, Freud must have been too interesting in analyzing the phallic implications of Mahler's dreams (cigar smoking candied yams dressed in spandex) to be of much help to Mahler. This is not to say that Gustav didn't have a hand in his own mental condition. A story is told late at night be Mahler devotees that when Mahler was a little boy, a kindly passerby asked (in Czech), "And what do you want to be when you grow up, little boy?" To which the young Mahler replied (incidentally, also in Czech), "A martyr." My guess is that this kid would have fit right in with the Adam's family. But his childhood wasn't completely void of joy. At the tender age of 10 he gave a piano recital that caused a sensation in the town of Iglau in Bohemia, but that's not exactly something one can put on a resume'… Years later, after he had just composed a set of songs called (and I kid you not) "Songs on the Death of Children", his daughter died of scarlet fever. I bet Freud had a heyday with this one! I jest not when I say (well, write… whatEVER!!!) that this guy was a real joy at parties. I can hear the devoted reader chomping at the bit (by the way, never a good thing for dental work), asking, "But what about his music?" Fear not, my child. Grandpa Gumbo will illumine you briefly. But first, two more tidbits about this strange man-child named Gustav. Tidbit A is that Mahler was (he died in 1911, by the way) a strict vegetarian. On a good day, he consumed only water, various members of the fruit family, and spinach. He ate the same things on a bad day, though he may have tended to overdue it on the spinach. Tidbit 2 is that while composing, Mahler required, ney, INSISTED on absolute silence. As you may have guessed, he went a little overboard on this. Yessir, whenever the G-man wanted to compose, he would move out to a tiny hut near Steinbach (complete with a red pony), far away from civilization. But this wasn't quiet enough for this prima donna! Mahler insisted that nearby cows be defrocked of their bells, that farmers not do any work within earshot (reported to be very painful) of his hut, and that farm animals in the area were either cooped up or sent away. If you ask me (and you didn't but I'm going to impose my view anyway), based on his vegan-stance, I think he just had it in personally for the farmers.
And now the music. Mahler was, in his words, a very sensitive person. I know… you never would have guessed. Likewise, his music is very autobiographical and intense, either portraying his feelings or pictures of specific events in his life. He was able to do this with an amazing clarity of vision, clearly depicting human emotions and the sounds of nature as well as reflecting his awareness of his impending death. In doing so, his music is full of contrasts: quick alterations of loud and soft, high and low, instruments at the extremes of their ranges, soaring beautifully and then seething with rage. Had it not been for Leonard Bernstein, Mahler may be gone down in history as merely one of history's greatest conductors. But Lenny took a real shining to the music of Mahler, causing others to do likewise (people were always imitating Bernstein, a trick his younger brother employed to the great consternation of Lenny).
Mahler began his second symphony, subtitled "Resurrection", in 1887. Confused as he was, he started it before he wrote his first symphony. He completed the first movement before he realized that it was impolite and rude to write a second symphony before one wrote their first. Either that or his concentration was ruined by a rogue pack of trouble making, bell-laden cows. His concentration having been reduced to that of an igneous rock, Mahler decided to instead compose what became his first symphony, only returning years later to complete, by default, his second symphony, and this only after gaining inspiration from, aptly enough, a resurrection funeral hymn. The finished symphony lasts over an hour and a half, ends with a choral section, and is chock full of rich, complex melodies and colorful orchestral textures. Lightly put, this is a dark and heavy piece not meant for the novice listener. Personally, I wasn't too keen on it, but I'm prone to prefer music that is less self-loathing. There are a number of interesting melodies and intriguing sections but not enough to sustain 90 minutes. Overall, it didn't leave me a Mahler connoisseur.
Read a fiery response to this article from the Assistant Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic!
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman