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The Stirring Music of Mahler

We talk about the life and meaning of Mahler. Also, hear some of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Symphony No. 2.

It’s a big time for the Bohemian-born Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

It’s the 150th anniversary this year of his birth, and the 100th anniversary next year of his death, at 50, after a tempestuous life and career that produced, for his fans, some of the most moving music in history.

Mahler bridged the Romantic and Modern eras, as a Jewish-born artist in an anti-Semitic Vienna.

My guest Norman Labrecht says he foretold the 20th century, and changed the world.

-Tom Ashbrook


Norman Lebrecht, cultural critic, radio host and award-winning novelist. He is a lifelong scholar of Mahler and his work, and he has written twelve books about music. His new book is “Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.” You can read an excerpt.

Plus, check out Norman Lebrecht’s album recommendations for Mahler beginners.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Sasha Drugikh

    I love the 2nd Symphony, which sounds to me like a distilled version of Wagner’s harmonic language, but with a Beethoven-like chorus.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    I heard a little bit of the Star Trek opening theme in those first notes of 1st Symphony that was played.

  • Candace Hudgins

    Several years ago I and friends stayed at Mahler’s daughters villa in Spolteto, Italy. I did not know who Mahler was then. I wish I had known then. His daughter, a gifted scupltress, had many of her fathers albums there, pictures, and much more. Knowing what I know of Mahler now, I probably would have spent my entire visit to Italy in the Villa.

  • Bob Falesch

    Prof. Lebrecht make the same mistake that “music appreciation” pedagogy routinely makes. I could care less about what the music might be saying (as if music can present any idea so objectively) about the Jew in 19th C. Europe, or about the fears of the young child in the woods. Like with Beethoven’s Eroica, it is merely Allegro con Brio – it is not Napoleon and the struggle for republicanism. Mahler’s music drives me to tears and to jumping with joy, but that is my reaction based on my own persona experience. If I’m to think about Mahler’s personal history I’d never have grown to love this music so passionately

  • http://shulmandesign.net Alan Shulman

    The late 19th century was a bad time for Jews all over Europe; the Dreyfus affair in France, the pogroms against Jews after the assassination of the Czar in Russia…anti-semitism was everywhere. I suspect Mahler was responding to all that as well as to discrimination against him specifically.

    What bothers me about Mahler’s music is what I see as undisciplined musicianship; that he dilutes his power by lack of organization and structure. At the same time there are parts of it, parts, that I love.

  • http://www.venturacommenter.org F. William Bracy

    Simply because painting had to move into the abstract, there were those who thought that music had to do it too. The Mahlers, Schoenbergs, Brittens and others were the Jackson Pollocks of music in their time. The problem is, Cubism works simply because the eye is a much better interpreter of what it sees in terms of texture and color than is the ear of what it hears. Chagall says genius. Mahler says madness.

  • http://www.vanessacariddi.com vanessa

    As a professional opera singer who sings and LOVES Mahler’s songs, I grieve for the fact that he never wrote full operas. His song cycles are so beautifully (and operatically) written for the voice, full of drama and spirit. How is it that he never wrote an opera?

  • clarinetist

    For me, the thing about Mahler is that his symphonies are so interesting, and demand my attention, and then suddenly some piece is so unbelievably “pretty” (not the right word, but the best I can come up with) that I could just cry.

  • John
  • kelly

    i learned about Mahler while taking care of a young musician after a horrible accident. he would ask me to play the music for him while he drifted off to sleep. He wanted the slow and lonely pieces. I would finish my rounds listening to that sad melody. Later i played the same pieces to help me cope with life’s challenges allowing myself to be swallowed up in the music. what a great gift sharing that music with me…

  • http://s Alan Shulman

    I guess to clarify an earlier comment about undisciplined musicianship…sometimes listening to Mahler is akin to what I imagine listening to a patient in psychotherapy would sound like, sometimes disjointed, episodic, rambling, with occasional moments of coherence and insight. And I suppose it’s in my own temperament to sometimes be a little impatient with that process and to wish the Maestro would just get to the point.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I suppose a good therapist (not one trying to extend the number of billable hours) would halt the rant by actually “hearing” the “music” before it all became disorganized. It takes two to tango. If someone is trying to communicate, they need to zero in on the fact there is a new, better kind of listening.
    As to Mahler, there are some Mahler songs — I agree with the comments above — that are excruciatingly beautiful. I take it those were created in the times when Mahler felt he would be “heard.” I am thinking of Songs of a Wayfarer, for one.
    Consider the example of Wagner for musical excess, though. I guess the entire Third Reich sought to emulate that excess.

  • http://janel_eight@hotmail.com Sara Walker

    I will be sending NPR a doctor’s bill to cover the cost of reattaching my jaw after it’s sudden drop to the floor listening to
    professor Lebrecht’s explanation of why Mahler discouraged his wife from composing. Mahler’s treatment of women could perhaps be explained by the time in which he wrote although I suspect it was ego driven since his dramatic and maudlin music grates on one’s nerves the same way the cry baby grunge music of recent times does. It is safe to assume that even the worst of his wifes music had to be better than his best.Prof. Lebrecht’s sexist and elitest attitude is simply a product of his pompous little world. I’d like to pull him up by his elbow pads, grab the lapels of his tweed jacket and give him of firm shaking for suggesting that in a relationship partners (read female partners) give something up to elevate the status of their spouse (read husband) In On Point’s defense Tom Ashbrook was able to recover himself enough to call him on his comment. It’s regretable, however, that he did so with that shocked chuckle people adapt when put in offensive and uncomfortable situations. Would we have chuckled is Prof. Pompous made a racist or anti-semitic comment. Come on NPR is I wanted to get angry while listening I’d tune into Fox News. At least there I could be offended straight up without a side of pomp!

  • Laurence Glavin

    I love Mahler’s music as much as Mr. Lebrecht and any of the callers to the show and contributors to this board. I don’t quite understand the attempt to diminish Beethoven, however. Tom started off saying “Mahler is a bigger draw than Beethovem”, in a City where several musical organizations have been on a Beethoven binge! I don’t have to recount all the Beethoven the Boston Symphony Orchestra has recently played, but visiting pianists constantly focus on LVB (the NYSE stock symbol for Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc), including Til Felger at the Boston Conservatory of Music October 12th; three performing groups have scheduled all 16 of his string quartets (the Muir SQ at Boston University just finished their traversal); Opera Boston is opening with “Fidelio”; the Boston Chamber Music Society is celebrating Beethoven’s birthday December 16th with concerts devoted to his music; and Emmanuel Music is focussing on many of his lesser-known works. What I’ve described also happens all over this country and the world. I’d venture to say that in tough economic times, impresarios everywhere regard his music as a way to fill seats and fill coffers as no other composer’s music can do (ok, aside from Mozart’s operas).

  • Andrew

    This was one of the most entertaining shows I’ve heard on WBUR in a while…and that is certainly saying something because the station seldom disappoints me. I’ve been a student of music since I was six and have somehow overlooked the works of Mahler. I got chills from almost every clip that was played, in particular Symphony No 1.

    I also have to mention how fascinating and entertaining it was to listen to your guest. I absolutely love listening to people who are so genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about music talk about the life and works of a composer. I could absolutely see why it is he has devoted so much of his life to the study of this great composer.

    It was a wonderful show and I’m so glad I caught it.

  • Jim T

    Years ago someone told me that Beethoven speaks to the intellect, but Mahler touches your soul. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Way to be nuanced, Sarah. What are you arguing? That there is no politics in music? That Mahler had no enemies? That his enemies would never use his wife’s inferior compositions against her more talented husband?

  • Burleigh Hendrickson

    Hi Tom et al. I love your show, and Gustave Mahler. However, I am writing here in hopes of pointing you to a future topic that I hope piques your interest. Since I saw no other forum for suggestions (outside twitter and facebook, which I don’t use), so here it is: please do a piece on SUNY-Albany’s recent dissolution of a NUMBER of language programs (French, Italian, Russian, etc.) as well as theatre. This could be the first large-sweeping attacks on the humanities in American academia. Please remind our public of the importance of languages, history, art and literature in a GLOBAL economy (languages!?!). At least, this merits debate, discussion, and awareness in a public forum to see the direction of professionalism in our economic crisis.

    Cheers. Hope you enjoyed those homebrews from my local beer guy Randy. Bien Cordialement – A hopeful human(ist)

  • Zinovy Vayman

    I was pleased to hear many references to the Jewish origin of Gustave Mahler and antisemitism of the Germanic high society almost 100 years ago.
    This antisemitism repeats itself as anti-israelism now and some new shameful facts of conversion manifest itself as a David Barenboim’s Harvard blurb without mentioning his Israeli and/or Palestinian citizenship and his Jewish blood.

    Haibun for Robert Levin
    Robert Levin is a noted theorist and musicologist and is the author of a number of articles and essays on Mozart. A member of the Akademie fur Mozartforschung, his completions of Mozart fragments are published by Barenreiter, Breitkopf & Hartel, Carus, Peters, and Wiener Urtext Edition, and recorded and performed throughout the world. His completion of the Mozart C-minor mass, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, was premiered there in January 2005 and has since been recorded and widely performed. Robert Levin is President of the International Johann Sebastian Bach competition (Leipzig, Germany), a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.
    This year he is a William Belden Noble lecturer and he delivers his in-depth treatise about Joseph Haydn as Embodiment of the Enlightenment and Spirituality to the all white crowd. I cozy myself at the Harvard Memorial Church, this time out of the glitter of the small cross embossed as a gold leaf in the woodwork of the resplendent prayer hall. I also succeeded to block the sharp light of the cheap Chinese chandelier hanging in the empty hallway leading to the back chambers of the house of worship.

    cathedral pew:
    by the hymn books
    bottles of Sani Gel

    This time there are no ushers collecting Questions for Professor Robert Levin with “Please print legibly” on fine paper. Here is my question: “The music is a harmonized matrix for human thoughts and reflections on life allowed by the Creator; it is NOT about a fabulous legend! You say, “…our SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST”…Are you a Christian? You look Jewish.”
    I come up with this piece to Mr. Levin; he reads it and reacts, “It’s complicated. I married a Buddhist; I worked to complete Mozart’s music setting of the Mass. If you do it…you cannot do it well without [becoming, you know]…”“Ah, I see…* Well, Jesus was a Jew. He died as a Jew.” “Yes I know”, concurs Robert Levin and we become all smiles. Before walking away some GPS kicked in and I blurted out, “Let’s die Jewish!”
    *) I said “I see” but I do not see it this way at all. The early Christians, those Jews, Greeks, Armenians are not the inventors of the Germanic cadence, movements of Brahms and Beethoven. Christian melodies performed on the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan are a far cry from the Rhineland’s tunefulness…And you, Robert, you with your pale, yet Semitic complexion, thin nose and a thoroughly Jewish brain, you stole away from generations, from the battered intentional community which bred you to become a bright mind and an amazing pianist.

    Gregorian chant—
    in the myriads of notes
    we grasp nothingness

    But wait, you hack hokku writer and haibun compiler! Gregorian chant is a derivation from the synagogue cantillations. And they sing Israeli Hanukkah songs at First Parish Church at Harvard Square. And Mozart, Mozart himself was a Free Mason (Cabbalist).

  • sara walker

    Hey there c’mon now I am not trying to be nuanced or argue anything. Don’t get me wrong, Expanded Consiousness I will argue when an arguement is nessesary but in this case one could hardly dispute that fact that the good Professor while well educated in Mahler is a bit puffed up and yes pompous. All I’m saying is that yes we make sacrifices in marriage (just last night I gave up my mushroom pizza since my husband can’t stand them) but giving up one’s career and passion is usually women’s work. Sorry to offend friend.
    ps my name is Sara with no ‘h’

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Well, one must take account of the wider context in interpreting whether Mahler’s reasons were justified or merely a manifestation of sexism.

    Also, please save your marriage, Sara. Most pizza places will do a half mushroom, half plain pizza for you. ;-)

  • Tamara D

    My daughter sang Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder for her Jr. Recital last spring (Jacobs School of Music). She said every time she sings Mahler, she is changed and that with Mahler, one does not really need to interpret, for the music does it on its own. The Kindertotenlieder touches the soul. Beautiful. She was 20 when she sang it and says she had to do it before she has children, for once she does, she will find it impossible.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    You cannot sing after you have children?

  • Ellen Dibble

    EC, you are in a bad mood? Check out those Kindertotenlieder on YouTube (I did earlier this afternoon, because they became part of me when I was also about 20, and I’m thinking I don’t think I’ll re-subject myself to it).
    They are Children (Kinder) Toten (Death) Lieder (Songs), and they are wrenching to listen to. Death of children is the issue, not singing in general.

  • Michael Drew

    I’m not a person of faith in non-natural beings, but I have to say that I found the first call in to the program to be quite extraordinary. I’m glad to know there are such passionate, alive adherents to Mahler’s music in Nashville, America’s musical Vienna.

  • http://uppitywis.org/blog/socrateschildren SocratesChildren

    I wish guests would not interrupt callers. Let the caller make a point that you did not make!

    They discredit themselves who would have all the credit to themselves.

  • Gloria Pryzant

    When will you post the Mahler segment on your podcast list? It has been over 24 hours and it still hasn’t shown up there.

    I want to download it so I can listen while exercising and it isn’t there. Please tell me that it WILL be listed on the “podcasts for download” soon.

    Thank you.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Two points: (I just had a chance to listen to the whole show):
    I hear Wagner was indeed a major inspiration to Mahler. Does anyone find it ironic that the Wagnerian grandiosity (shall we say) was an underpinning of Hitler’s Wehrmacht? I clicked AfroPoli who had posted the following at the site of the snip from Songs of a Wayfarer (written in the 1890s):
    “(posted 2 weeks ago) Terrible. He destroyed the German Lied culture. He sounds like a church tenor singing for grandmothers. Schlusnus was the last real German baritone. And even Prey was much etter than him.”
    That is a critique of Fischer-Dieskau in Paris in 1960. But once I clicked the poster, I got a video of Hitler conducting Beethoven’s 9th, I believe it was, morphing into all the horrible WWII video anybody could dig up.

    Point number two: I consider Mahler from the perspective of having spent a few months creating an index for the scholarly book “Modernism: Body, Memory, Capital,” a collection of essays on culture leading up to the world wars, edited by Michael Thurston and Jani Scandura, 2000. I was steeped in the interweaving of the violence erupting right about the time Mahler died and the culture surrounding that era, from the Armenian genocide and following.
    At that time, the forces unleashed were competing (Stalin, Hitler, Austro-Hungary/France); what seems to be unsettling the world now is less a competing set of strong-arms but a set of rather invisible titans on whose success we can be persuaded we depend, sufficiently to be bailing them out, for instance. So Mahler may be too Wagnerian to put on the brakes where needed. Was and is.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Go down to comments, about three down, at “all comments,” and the first one is AfroPoli. Click that for Hitler conducting.

  • Richard in Newton

    I suspect this episode isn’t available to be downloaded via ITunes due to copyrights issues where ‘BUR had permission to post excerpts of recording on the website but cannot serve as an agent for the distribution of intellectual property. That aside…

    For me there neither was a true beginning nor will can I fathom an ending to my ever evolving relationship with Mahler be it the “Resurrection,” the Third, the Fifth, the Eighth and so on. In this sense, my relationship to Mahler is the same as it is with the Bible, the Upanishads, The Phenomenology, Tractatis Logico, Frost, Auden, Brodsky and so forth. Each new reading or listening reveals something new within the texts, within the music, within myself and within being.


  • Bob Falesch

    This discussion reveals what I’ve concluded from much (sometimes rather frustrating) experience: Some of us routinely separate the art from the artist, others of us cannot. The great works of art exist outside of their creators’ lives (the old cliche is spot on: “They have a life of their own”). Those creations are loved because of their impact on our emotions, not because they reveal something about their creators’ day-to-day intrigues.

    Yes, the radio show’s intro claiming that Mahler is eclipsing Beethoven in today’s concert halls was a joke (but I understand the need to perk up a lay audience with a zinger). Yes, Professor Lebrecht is haughty, at least in the way he comes across when uttering words about peripheral issues. Yes, the notion that Mahler suppressed Alma’s music composition is deeply disturbing from a feminist and importantly from a humanist point of view, but while listening to the former’s 9th Symphony, I’m not thinking of Alma, nor am I lamenting Mahler’s fatal heart condition.

    The tendency toward absolutism (I’m not condemning intellectualism and analysis, per sé) during discussions like this always brings about a deep urge in me to proselytize, to drag listeners back to the real core, to get people to just shut up and listen. Oh, I understand why people go on with words about extra-musical factors: It would seem the only tool we have to exchange views about music, the very ineffability of which is beyond words, is that of words. However, beware; for as T.S.Eliot wrote:

    “So here I am…trying to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion…”

    That from a great poet, no less.

    An example of specious absolutism is the notion of Mahler versus Beethoven on the basis one is of the heart and the other of the intellect. Listen to Beethoven’s late quartets and come back to me reporting the ratio of head versus heart. The music itself intrinsically has neither, but how much head or heart it took to create the music — that monumental task of writing it in the first place — is another story and likely beyond most of us to truly comprehend (I don’t). Fortunately, we don’t need to comprehend that.

    And Mahler influenced by Wagner, as if Wagner was all philosophy; as if he aspired to be the world’s most spectacular anti-semite and as if his music made not a single sound. Friends, Mahler was influenced by the *sound* of Wagner’s music (as were dozens of other composers).

    Lamenting the fact Mahler never wrote opera — I can understand that lamentation, but I do not share it. Operas have to be “about something” and almost always unfurl in some linear way. Mahler’s way of expressing did not, and could not be carried along by a “story.” A story is too constraining for one, like Mahler, whose aesthetic is so directly aligned with and dependent upon sound and for whom a single thought can and should evoke a whole world of emotion. Are the lieder an exception? What about the one great Lied he wrote late in his life, Das Lied von der Erde? No, they were not exceptions. They were created on behalf of the composer’s response to a single idea (you name it: the permanence of nature juxtaposed with man’s brief time on earth to enjoy it, sadness over children being plucked from life, the emptiness in having no real home, etc). Vocalizing in music is not always primarily for the purpose of telling a story or even to convey some meaning. Some composers love the *sound* of the voice and put it on stage as just another orchestral instrument, however gorgeous it may be.

    –from a passionate and ardent lover of Mahler’s (and Beethoven’s, and 100 others’) music.

  • John Temple

    Interesting show, with only modest courting of controversy on the part of Mr. Lebrecht. But for those who don’t know Mahler, there was too much emphasis on irony, mistuned fiddles, etc., and not much of anything on the great slow movements of the third, fourth, ninth and tenth symphonies with their combination of cosmic vistas and tender intimacy. Granted, many people don’t care for long slow movements and therefore give both Bruckner and Mahler a miss. But in so doing, they’re losing out on some of the most richly affecting music in the orchestral repertoire.

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