Mahler, the unlikely optimist?

Tragedy, persecution and emotional upheaval, yet a blank refusal to accept defeat – the hallmarks of Mahler’s life are there for all to hear in his music, says Terry Blain

Gustav Mahler (Credit: Getty)

'Mahler is always seeking redemption. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be redeemed from.’


So said composer Richard Strauss, whose shrewd words continue to resonate today, in an era when Gustav Mahler’s music is popular in a way that even the composer himself could barely have contemplated. Recordings of the symphonies proliferate, orchestras schedule his output serially, and audiences queue to hear it.

And yet Mahler still divides listeners. The conductor Leonard Bernstein said his compositions ‘showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since’, and many agree with him.

Others side with Daniel Barenboim, a belated and partial convert to Mahler’s music, who feels that too often it’s presented as ‘just a generalised form of extroverted excitement’. Where does the truth lie? What is Mahler really telling us?

The answer to these questions depends to an extent on the viewpoint of the individual listener. Those who, to borrow the German poet Rilke’s phrase, ‘are not reliably at home in the interpreted world’ – who feel keenly the vicissitudes and disappointments of everyday living – will find in Mahler’s music a mirror to dwell on. Its existential turmoil is palpable, its victories provisional and quickly supplanted by fresh travails, and occasional catastrophe.

Mahler himself seemed to encourage the view that his music is essentially the music of the outsider, the vagabond and outcast. He famously thought of himself as ‘homeless three times over’ – a Bohemian living among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and Jewish at a time and place when Jewishness attracted opprobrium and persecution.

He was, he said, ‘an interloper everywhere, never welcomed’, and deliberately embedded those experiences of exclusion and isolation in his music. ‘I have written into them, in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured,’ he wrote of his first two symphonies, both of which negotiate convulsive elements of struggle and conflict before securing ultimate triumph.

A similar narrative – from darkness towards light, death to life, introspection to exuberance – underpins the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies too, emphasising the sheer force of will Mahler brought to bear in shaping positive outcomes from unpromising, recalcitrant musical premises. Victory must at all costs, it seems, be snatched from the jaws of defeat; Mahler’s life, and therefore his music, depended on it.

That same indomitability of approach struck many of those who encountered Mahler in person. The French writer Romain Rolland recalled his ‘extraordinarily high-strung’ nature, and the vivid physical impression made by the ‘long, clean-shaven face, hair tousled over a pointed skull and receding from a high forehead, eyes constantly blinking behind his glasses, a strong nose, a large mouth with narrow lips, sunken cheeks, and an ascetic, ironic and desolate air.’

For the composer Hans Pfitzner, Mahler was simply ‘one of the most strong-willed men I have known’. That strength of will was almost certainly inherited from his father Bernhard, a carter who worked his way tenaciously upwards through a variety of jobs, eventually becoming a brewer and innkeeper. The family had a comfortable home in Iglau, where Mahler read voraciously from a well-stocked library and practised on the grand piano. Aged three, he was given an accordion, which he played constantly. These experiences were formative, as were the fairy-tales related to him by a neighbour’s nursemaid, which spawned a lifelong interest in German folk poetry – the Des Knaben Wunderhorn overcome, accommodate or transcend the world of outside circumstances. Often that world seems indifferent, even hostile; Mahler’s music dramatises the struggle of man to make emotional and philosophical sense of it.

It is, though, crucially a world that Mahler also viewed as beautiful. From an early age he was a vigorous individual, who enjoyed walking in the mountains and observing nature, writing it repeatedly into his music – in the cuckoo calls of the First Symphony, the vast panoramas of the Third, the ‘intoxicating, eternal beauty’ of the ‘dear earth’ in Das Lied von der Erde.

The tension between the beauty of the external world, and the struggles of individual human beings to find happiness and assuage their longings in it, is at the heart of Mahler’s music, and is a principal source of its appeal to listeners. That, and Mahler’s refusal to capitulate: it takes a third, brutal hammer blow in the Finale of the Sixth Symphony to fell his ‘hero’, and that is the only symphony which ends in unnegotiable darkness.

In the others, Mahler is the composer who, when knocked down, inevitably gets up again, if only ‘to fail again’, as Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett put it, or ‘fail better’. The Second, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies all begin grimly, and end in blazing triumph. The Eighth is a tidal wave of affirmation from the outset. The Ninth fashions from the angst and ugliness of its third movement a new vision of transcendence, and a serene acceptance of death in its lingeringly valedictory finale.

The desire to look life squarely in the eye, and to include all that he knew about it, both good and evil, in his music, is reflected in the famous comment Mahler made when he met Sibelius in Helsinki. ‘The symphony must be like the world,’ he said. ‘It must embrace everything’. It also drove the innovations Mahler made in orchestration, particularly his expressionistic use of woodwind colour to depict the wailing, shrieking sounds of nature, and the deployment of wide, keening intervals in the string writing to communicate the intense yearnings he experienced.

A similar aversion to compromise and negativity drove Mahler’s career as a conductor. During his ten years at the Vienna Court Opera he pushed standards to unprecedentedly high levels, but made enemies doing it. ‘He treated his musicians like a lion-tamer his animals’, wrote one observer, and that same tenacity, the absolute refusal to take no for an answer, can translate in crude performances of Mahler’s symphonies into the type of clamorous, ranting hyperbole that conductors such as Daniel Barenboim treat warily.

In subtler hands Mahler’s music is among the most moving and inspirational of its era, laceratingly honest about how mawkishly life’s agonies grate against its joys and ecstasies. Critic Alex Ross calls him ‘the most generous of megalomaniacs’, a not unfair formulation. But let Sibelius have the last word: ‘As a man, Mahler was extremely modest and an extraordinarily interesting person. I admired him as a person, his aesthetic greatness as man and artist, even though his conception of art was different from mine.

This article was first published in October 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

Read more:


• Gustav Mahler: Life and works