Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler; drawing by David Levine

How long it took for Mahler to emerge, not from the shadows but from purgatory. A tenacious purgatory, which for a thousand reasons would not let go of him. He was too much of a conductor and not enough of a composer; moreover, even as a composer Mahler could not disengage himself from his role as conductor: he had too much dexterity and not enough mastery. What is more, he mixed it all up. While his work shows no direct traces of the operas he directed with such passion, he nonetheless abused the noble symphonic domain by casting on it bad theatrical seed: sentimentality, vulgarity, and an insolent and unbearable disorder intrude noisily and heavily into this well-guarded territory.

Nevertheless, a handful of devotees have kept watch during Mahler’s posthumous exile and they can be easily divided into two camps: progressives and conservatives. The latter pride themselves on being the real defenders of Mahler’s work, which, they believe, the progressives have betrayed.

Mahler had the misfortune to be a Jew in a period of intense nationalism. Totally silenced in his own country, this outcast faded from memory and almost disappeared. Further, there is the myth in which Mahler and Bruckner appear as the Castor and Pollux of the symphony. It was thought impossible, after Beethoven, to go beyond Nine: the symphonic dynasty would be cursed by destiny should it attempt to advance beyond that fateful number. (In the meantime, however, some less gifted composers have accomplished this feat.) What could possibly be left after all this?

What is left is the memory, for one thing, of a conductor who was both wonderful and difficult, exact and eccentric. Some of Mahler’s scores—the shorter ones—which are easy to grasp and to accept. For a long time these had to suffice, while the traditional symphonic appetite was satisfied by other less complex and less demanding pieces. Since performances of Mahler’s works were rare, it was almost impossible for them to create much of a following. Many went so far as to doubt not only the intrinsic value but even the sincerity of Mahler’s project. For their part, the moderns felt they had gone beyond Mahler, and relegated him to an outmoded romanticism, altogether lacking in contemporary interest, which they viewed with a certain pity.

The excessive, abundant quality of this fin de siècle music went against the grain of modern composers who were more and more interested in economy. The reckless extension of time, the surplus of instruments, the supercharged feelings and gestures…form had to break down under these excesses! What could be the value of music in which the relation of idea to form is lost in the swamps of expressivity? We seem to confront the end of a world which sickens through its wealth, chokes on its abundance. Both the best and the worst that can befall it is infatuation, a sentimental apoplexy. Goodbye to this obese and degenerate romanticism!


If the works insist on surviving, they cannot be banished. You dismiss them? Abruptly? They nevertheless remain.

Now that the period of cleansing is over we see that it has left some skeletons behind. After a period of inattention that which is authentic emerges once more, forces us to reconsider our views, and insistently questions our negligence. Were we guilty or were we superficial? Can we justify ourselves? This work was preserved by pious but fanatically greedy hands (I mean hands without the generosity that paves the way to the future by means of the past), monopolized by fidelity (at what point does loyalty become treason?). Presented in this manner, Mahler’s work could inspire great distrust, a distrust that even made us suspect that the composers of the Vienna school had succumbed to a sentimental, provincial attachment in admiring Mahler. At first glance the link between them and Mahler was not obvious while the antinomies were flagrantly clear.

But the moderns turned from asceticism to exuberance. Armed with this new perspective, they began to explore the past. They were informed by their recent experience which made them vigilant and careful. Tired of crude sensations, one-dimensional meanings, they dreamed of ambiguities—of a world where the categories were not so simple.

Order? Who needs this constraining notion?

All right. Let’s forget about all such restrictive ideas as order, the homogeneousness of ideas and style, and the clarity of musical structures. But is it so simple? Certainly not. Especially if one does not want to be influenced by external circumstances. How difficult it is, in the case of Mahler, to steer free of the legend which stubbornly mingles his life and his work—the melodrama and the agony. Let us give the enthusiastic exegesis of his work its due and go on to confront directly the uneven monuments he left behind.


Mahler’s work makes us uneasy, in part because it seems to waver between sentimentality and irony, nostalgia and criticism. There is no real contradiction here: it is rather like the swing of a pendulum, a sudden change of light in which certain musical ideas that might otherwise be considered banal and superfluous become, under this exacting prism, indispensable revelations. Does Mahler still seem so banal (a view which was carried to the point of seeing his work as lacking in imagination) or is this banality not based on a sense of Mahler’s popular appeal? At first Mahler’s music would seem to depend on comfortable clichés, mawkish repetitions, and an entire landscape and a past that are remembered in vignettes. Some are delighted by this, while others find it irritating, but neither group can get beyond their first impression of Mahler’s work. This is merely an antechamber…

Yes, this “banal” material exists in Mahler’s work. Sometimes it may seem limited and excessively predictable: the source hardly changes from one work to the next. Once we have cited the march and all the military or funereal music that derives from it, the dances in 3/4 time (Ländler, waltzes, or minuets), the whole provincial repertory of folklore, we have just about covered all of Mahler’s “borrowed” and easily identified thematic sources. From his first work to his last, there is one constant: the clichés Mahler inherited from either “elevated” or “low brow” musical history.

In contrast to this reservoir of clichés, we find an array of grand theatrical gestures—a heroic and sublime music of the spheres and of infinity. The worst that can be said of this element of Mahler’s work is that some of its intensity has faded. But how can one account for the fact that gestures which seem dead in the work of other composers retain their power to move us in Mahler’s work? Could it be that, despite their triumphal appearance, these gestures cover an enormous insecurity? How far we are, when we listen to Mahler, from self-assured romanticism—proud and heroic. And how far we are from the naïveté of romanticism’s first approaches to folklore. No one can fail to hear the nostalgia in the world of Mahler; but in his music, for better or worse, nostalgia is modified by criticism, even sarcasm. Sarcasm? Isn’t that the ultimate example of an unmusical characteristic? We know that music likes undisguised meanings and lends itself badly to the interplay of irony and sincerity. One can never tell: Is this true, is that a caricature? If there is a libretto, one can orient oneself without too much difficulty. But what about pieces of “pure” music?

Ambiguity or banter can only really be understood against the background of a text based on well-recognized conventions. Mahler often needs to do little else than distort these conventions (through exaggerated or misplaced emphases, condensed or stretched-out tempos or unusual, prismatic, or fragmented instrumentation) to play his game of see-saw. The aggressive humor of such music envelops everything in an unreal, ghostly color, as if the subject had been X-rayed and now appeared to us as a sooty jumble of boughs and branches which both alarms and defeats us: a world of fleshless, rattling bones, realistically evoked by the bizarre, even grotesque combinations of sounds; a world born of a nightmare and ready at any time to return to it; a world of shadows—colorless, without substance, of ashes. How sharply and rigorously this world is captured, this spectral universe where the memory falls apart.

Are we drawn to Mahler’s music only because he knew how to convey accurately certain sentimental, bizarre reflections on a damned world? Would that be enough to retain and enthrall us? The reason for the current fascination with Mahler surely lies in the hypnotic force of a vision which passionately embraced the end of an age—an age that had to die so that another could arise from its ashes. Mahler’s music describes the myth of the Phoenix almost too literally.

But, beyond this vision of dusk, a more surprising upheaval in symphonic music is brought about by Mahler’s work. With determination, sometimes even with savagery, he attacked the hierarchy of forms which had been fluid before his time but which were now congealed in rigid and decorative conventions. Was it the theater that drove him toward this dramatic destruction of constricting forms? Just as Wagner overthrew the artificial form of the opera in order to create a drama of demiurgical proportions, so too Mahler revolutionized the symphony, devastated that all too orderly terrain, and imbued that most logical of forms with his demons. Isn’t one in fact reminded of Beethoven—the barbarian who in his time sowed disorder and chaos, and who, for the first time, pushed the musical forms in which he was trained beyond their “reasonable” possibilities.


Can we speak of an extra-musical dimension to Mahler’s work? Some have done so and here the “programs” Mahler wrote for his music—and which he later repudiated—have led to much misunderstanding about the descriptive intentions of his work. For such intentions would have been neither an innovation of Mahler’s nor something peculiar to him. On the contrary they were typical of an era which (following Berlioz and Liszt) hoped to excite the musical imagination through images which were mainly borrowed from literature but were also derived from the visual arts, from an unequal competition with painting.

Mahler’s extra-musical dimension abandoned these borderline pursuits and affected the very substance of music, its organization, its structure, and its power. His vision and his technique possess the epic dimension of narrative, and Mahler is like a novelist in his methods and his use of material. He still called his pieces symphonies; he retained the nomenclature of the movements (scherzo, slow movement, finale) though their number and order vary from work to work. The occasional intrusion of vocal elements at various points in the symphony, the use of such theatrical effects as placing instruments off-stage, were two of Mahler’s innovations which ate away at the notion of distinct musical genres. Only the novelist works in a form elastic enough to permit him to play such games with his material. Released from the visual theater (his professional obsession), Mahler surrendered himself almost frenetically to this freedom to mix the genres. He refused to distinguish between materials of differing quality and mixed all the basic material at his disposal in a carefully controlled construction that was nonetheless detached from irrelevant formal limitations. Homogeneity, hierarchy—absurd notions in his case—are disregarded; he transmits his vision to us with all the elements of nobility, triviality, tension, and relaxation that it entails. He makes no choices, for to choose would be treason: he would betray his fundamental plan.

To listen to Mahler is to perceive the musical flow differently. A first hearing gives the impression that the purely musical forms in Mahler’s work are unable to support the vast accumulation of facts, and that the narration—I insist that it is a musical narration—pointlessly meanders; the weight of the elements destroys the structure, the form dissolves in a multiplicity of layers, the direction of the piece gets lost under the welter of episodes, and these overflowing movements buckle beneath the superabundance of the material and of its rhetorical excesses.

A purely “musical” hearing of Mahler’s work would tend to support these arguments. But then how is one supposed to listen to his work? How is one supposed to perceive it? Should one be borne along by the narration alone and let oneself drift along with its psychological fluctuations? Is one only meant to pay attention to the music’s epic dimension and the élan it confers on the imagination, and refrain from considering the details of the pieces? One can listen to Mahler that way. His music is powerful enough to accommodate a passive listener; but is that the most enriching way to listen to Mahler? Ideally, one would be able to follow exactly the density of the narrative.

What hasn’t been said about the length of Mahler’s pieces? When referring to Schubert we speak of “heavenly lengths,” but how can one describe the formidable periods of time of certain movements of Mahler’s symphonies? Nothing could be more exhausting and tedious than to hear a bad performance of these extended movements (and if this is a problem for the listener, it is an even greater one for a conductor: the only difference is the degree of intensity and preparation). A comparison to classical architecture with its familiar reference points is futile; one has to accept the density of musical events in Mahler’s work—the density of musical time which, according to the dramatic situation, is either relaxed or tense. The elasticity of musical time is the basis of all music, although normally it is not the most impressive phenomenon we perceive when we hear music. But in Mahler there is always a tendency for it to be the most important element; it frequently controls all the other parts, it guides us and helps us to distinguish what we can listen to without much effort from what must be approached with almost analytical acuteness. The elasticity of musical time in Mahler allows us to perceive his narrative scheme and immediately helps us set in order proliferating sounds.

We have to adapt our hearing to the internal organization of the movements, especially the huge epic movements; but each of the movements within the symphony itself demands a different kind of listening because the aesthetic point of view of each movement is different and because the value, or rather the density, of each movement does not by any means carry the same weight in the symphony’s over-all organization. Mahler’s musical universe is not a homogeneous one; it takes the risk of using incongruous elements like citations and parody, and finds their use legitimate. Mahler’s music teaches us to listen in ways that are more varied, ambiguous, richer.

Mahler’s work is one of curious extremes: his excessively short lieder are followed by his excessively long symphonies. There are no works of average length. It is astonishing… One might even prefer the immediately gripping perfection—without problems—and the clearly transcribed texts that characterize his short songs. One might argue that Mahler’s essential ideas are expressed in his lieder and that there is hence no reason to stretch, lengthen, and enlarge the pieces beyond all expectation. But however perfect the songs are, Mahler’s real strength lies in his immoderately long movements which often present problems; his difficult struggle with pieces of epic dimensions is a more fascinating undertaking than his successes with a form whose boundaries are clearly established.

Mahler probably would be less attractive if he were free of his occasional difficulties. His “hyper-dimensional” approach has very little in common with those bombastic, egomaniacal musical tendencies of the fin de siécle composers who seem to represent the satisfactions of abundance in its moment of paroxysm. In Mahler’s work one senses a profound anxiety as if he had agonized over the decision on stir up a world grown beyond all rational control. Mahler took upon himself the dizzying task of creating a body of work in which agreement and contradiction appear in equal measure. Dissatisfied with the known dimensions of the musical experience, Mahler sought an order that was less clearly arranged than is customary and would be enjoyed less complacently. An ideal work would defy the established categories, indeed would reject them as such while participating in all of them. When viewed as the intersection of the theater, the novel, and the poem, the symphony becomes an ideal meeting ground. Musical expression lays claim to everything that is usually denied it, and stands ready to assume all the possibilities of existence. It truly becomes philosophy while escaping the restrictions of purely verbal communication.

But is the ambitiousness of such a project compatible with an economy of means? Would such a conception leave room for what might be called an ascetic use of sound? We know, of course, that discipline and a restricted use of the available material have often yielded wonderful results. As the spirit delves further into the depths of creation, it often needs fewer of the external appurtenances at its disposal. The inventive spirit eschews apparent riches in order to achieve the deepest creation. At that time, the method of transmitting the work is of little importance. Perfectly mastered sounds are not merely consigned to a humble station, but also are endowed with the most unusual attribute of all: absence. This is true of music used during meditation: it is a song of oneself communicated beyond the reality of sound. It is certainly true of Bach, and is almost true of Beethoven, who couldn’t stand the violin. Even as Wagner rejoiced in creating a profusion of sounds and in using innumerable instruments, his work also contains this economy of means—this asceticism—which is the subliminal essence of his work. One must not forget the example of Wagner. Within musical thinking, he represents a fusion, an amalgam, of the concept and the means.

But is there too much emphasis on the means and not enough on the concept in Mahler’s work? If indeed this is so, then one might say that Mahler misused his ability and that his work is little more than a seductive but fruitless exercise of virtuosity or eccentricity; while no one doubted his dexterity and skill, Mahler’s contemporaries accused him of covering up a lack of content, of trying to distract the attention of the listener with tricks, and of trying to turn musical perception toward superficial and wholly unnecessary procedures. Didn’t Mahler, who was after all a conductor, have that defect which all interpreters are said to share: a lack of conceptual originality or, at best, uncertainty about such conceptions? Didn’t Mahler try to cover up this inadequacy through the kinds of manipulation in which he was well versed because of his profession? Many people have a grudge against the hybrid race of composer-conductors whom they frequently accuse of cheating, of treachery, or, at best, of knowing how to maneuver too well.

Indeed, there is virtuosity in Mahler’s work; it is obvious though not showy. When Mahler is conventional, he still usually knows how to be brilliantly inventive with sound. His virtuosity can be located in a well-defined historical perspective and does not, strictly speaking, explore any really unknown territory. It accepts—even if only to transgress—those romantic forms of instrumentation which, little by little, became conventions, norms of nineteenth-century music. Mahler’s preference for the horn would alone confirm this if there weren’t many other indications that clearly show the connection. His facility in using the different instruments is so great one might be tempted to call it nonchalance, were it not for Mahler’s painstakingly exact scores which are complete to the last detail.

Not without reason, Mahler was obsessed with the accuracy of his scores. As a conductor, he had ample occasion to observe how “freely” notations were read and rendered by instrumentalists and how frequently—whether from laziness or from not paying attention—they were ignored. In his notation, Mahler struggles as best he can both against inertia and against the acquired habits (mechanically “natural” reactions) which he so distrusted. As if he knew—and he must have known—that his musical material was sometimes ambiguous and moved uncertainly between irony and sentimentality, his scores abound with warnings and calls to order.

One cannot miss Mahler’s irrepressibly personal voice in the many positive as well as negative instructions; he exhorts and restrains, urges on and applies the brakes, impels and rouses the critical sense. What one must do, first of all, is to know what to do—the expected quality is achieved primarily by avoiding mistakes. Actually, Mahler went further than any composer before him in providing an explicit interpretative structure for his work. He incorporated the requirements of the interpreter into the very fabric of his invention, not because he was tyrannized by them, but because Mahler had such a masterful grasp of interpretation that he could not be satisfied with what existed and anticipated what might be possible by extension and extrapolation. That, and not some empty virtuosity, is the mark of the professional interpreter—a man who was in daily contact both with the masterworks of a stirring vocation and also with the precise tasks and obligations of a constraining technique.

But it would be wrong to infer from this that the demands of a score must lead to a rigid interpretation of all the markings, that living authority becomes posthumous constraint, that exactitude and correctness suffice to do justice to a mind like Mahler’s which was nothing if not mobile, that objective observance of the instructions could supplant a great subjective re-creation. This unimaginative and servile view is not the way to interpret Mahler. While he warned his interpreters about certain things, he did not mean to inhibit them; from all we know about him, he was no supporter of inhibited interpretations. But Mahler knew better than to mistake sloppiness for “interpretation.” He knew that the most demanding kind of freedom actually requires the strictest discipline; otherwise it becomes a caricature and an approximation—a travesty, often a gross one, of an otherwise profound and honorable truth. For the more one succumbs to the frenzies of the moment, the more the original intention is betrayed. Such tendencies destroy the essential ambiguity of Mahler’s music and, in doing so, trivialize it and empty it of profound content. Moreover, such license destroys the subliminal structure which balances the various developments in the work and creates instead an unbalanced, chaotic interpretation. Mahler’s magnetic fields are infinitely subtler than a crude experiment with iron filings.

What makes understanding Mahler difficult is undoubtedly the split between gesture and material; the gesture tends to become ever more “grandiose,” while the material risks becoming more and more “vulgar.” Mahier’s incoherence derives both from this fundamental contradiction as well as from the impossibility of joining together the multiple aspects of his state of mind in the composition itself. As a result, Mahler’s musical ideas seem grouped around several essential polarities. The more deeply one examines Mahler’s work, the denser it becomes. The work acquires this density not by getting thicker but by a multiplicity of lines: polyphony develops through constant and continuous criss-crossing during which the elements attach themselves more and more to a determined theme. It is no easy task to reconcile a meticulous attention to detail with the broad scope of the project itself, but it is precisely this accomplishment that restored an unstable balance to the forces that Mahler needed for his work. The difficulty in getting a firm hold on these contradictory dimensions of composition and of making them congruent posed the same problems for Mahler as it does for us when we listen to his work—problems which reveal the deepest and most personal aspect of his creation.

It does not seem unjust now that Mahler’s work needed some time before it became convincing to listeners. Our era is more attracted by the exuberance and lushness rejected by previous generations as superfluous and impure. But this idea of a simple reaction does not, by itself, explain the increasing attraction of a work that was once rejected as too ambiguous, and now is esteemed precisely for its ambiguity. To link Mahler’s work with a progressive movement, which quickly and easily leads us to the Vienna school, would be to violate the facts as we know them. There is too much nostalgia at work in his music, too much rewriting of the past, to permit us in good faith to construct a revolutionary Mahler who unleashed an irreversible process of radical innovation.

Mahler’s first followers were guilty of a kind of nostalgic thinking: they saw the sentimental and rejected the critical aspect of his work which made them uneasy. On the other hand there has been a stubborn effort to circumvent the categories of the past, to force them to say things which originally lay outside their province. These limits have been so stretched out as to make it impossible to claim that Mahler is the last representative of a particular tradition. In a very special way he is also part of the future. This is clearer now than it once was since many of the stylistic ideas of Mahler’s own time have been reconsidered and purified, and since we are now prepared to imagine a more “constructed” language, a more complex expressiveness, and a more open synthesis.

The sources of Mahler’s inspiration—even the geography of those sources—may still seem limited to us, may seem to be too connected to a world which was incapable of renewing itself and which was obsessively concerned with certain forms of expression that reflected a disappearing social order. But since, for all practical purposes, these sources no longer exist, we can view them more serenely, as valuable testimonies about things we cannot know directly. In consequence, this material assumes the value of a document—a source—which we should not reject but rather look at as the first step of future inventions. In this way, we can give most of our attention to its transformation and transmutation. Throughout Mahler’s entire work we may perceive the evolution of expression from certain identical basic elements which then become our essential points of reference. The breadth and complexity of Mahler’s gestures as well as the variety and intensity of the steps in his invention—these are what bring Mahler close to us; they make him essential for today’s thinking about the future of music.

(Published in the US in 1976 by Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York, © 1976 by Verlag, Stuttgart.)

This Issue

October 28, 1976