In Defense of Mahler

Dear WhatzUp:

When I read Jason Hoffman's Classical Gas column, "Gustav Mahler: No Barrel of Laughs", I could not help but rise to the defense of one of the most misrepresented figures in the history of the arts.

Let me immediately mention that I know Mr. Hoffman is out to write a column that entertains at least as much as it informs, and that some of his stretching of the facts about Mahler was meant purely to amuse... but still, I can't help it. Let's set the record straight on a couple of things.

Where does this idea of Mahler as a weak, neurotic, irrational manchild come from? A reading of even the slimmest biography of Mahler will reveal that he was an athletic, disciplined, hardworking, intimidating man (with a sardonic sense of humor), far from popular notions of a tortured maniac. He was known during his lifetime mostly as a notoriously demanding conductor, sitting on top of the world for 10 years at the Vienna State Opera, where he steamrolled everyone around him with his insistent demands for quality. What is astounding about Mahler is that all of his work -- 10 towering symphonies and several song cycles -- were written during two- or three-month summer holidays. He was doing work for the ages and, luckily for us, he knew it.

Mahler's music had a massive increase in popularity beginning in the 1960s (correctly predicted by him before his death), led by college students, who were hungry for the explosive passion which is in these symphonies. In three minutes, Mahler can swing from a depression beyond the dreams of Kurt Cobain to the most ethereal, atmospheric peace. This, and the fact that his music is like 3-D compared to all other composers, is why Mahler is so magnetic to GenXers, if they get hooked. And getting hooked takes more than the one listening Mr. Hoffman seems to have made before turning in his opinion of the Second Symphony.

Let me ask him: did he completely assimilate the White Album, Peter Gabriel's Security, or hell, a new Ben Folds Five album on one hearing? If so, he is the greatest music genius I know of. And if he feels Mahler's music is full of "self-loathing", isn't Nirvana's? Never mind that Mahler always balances passages of despair with the most radiant affirmations of hope... a bit more listening (try a few spins of the heroic first movement of Symphony No. 6) and you will be addicted.

I don't really know what "heavy" music is. There is still room in our sound-bite lives for music which unfolds at its own pace, and many of the greatest works of art don't give up all of their secrets on first encounter. You can't judge a piece by Mahler or any great composer on one hearing, and that is what keeps us coming back.

Also, you can't compare the experience of putting on a CD of one of these symphonies at home (maybe while chopping veggies for dinner or something) to the impact of hearing Mahler Two at the Embassy with all the immediacy and focus of a live performance. That is why those of us in the classical music business got in, and stay in.

David Borsvold
Assistant Conductor
Fort Wayne Philharmonic

A response from the editors of WhatzUp:

Dear Maestro:
The only Mahler I own is Symphony No. 5, sent to me by one of those classical music mags that include CDs with each issue. I'm sorry, but I found it to be blustery, plodding, pretentious and derivative - more similar to Jason Hoffman's description than yours, even more so now that you've shamed me into listening to it a second time.

Come to think of it, I've got a ton of CDs that have been listening to once, maybe twice, and will do no more than collect dust 'til the end of time. Victoria Williams comes immediately to mind (Now there's a loon).

But part of the beauty of music is that Gustav (and Victoria) have their devotees, despite what Jason and I might think (Actually, I have no idea where he stands on V.W. He's rather hard to get ahold of; otherwise we would have let him write this response.)

Since your understanding and appreciation of music no doubt exceeds that of Jason and myself, your contribution to the great Mahler debate is appreciated. Hopefully, readers will give the old coot a listen (or two) and decide for themselves.

Mr. WhatzUp