In May 1911, Gustav Mahler, the most famous conductor in the world and an important but controversial composer, was dying of a bacterial infection of the heart. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was heard to murmur “Mozartl”—an affectionate diminutive of the composer’s name—and “Who’ll take care of Schoenberg now?”
The words encapsulate Mahler’s Janus-like position, perched at the turn of the last century. His essential sound is unmistakably nineteenth-century and places him at the end of the great line of Viennese symphonists—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner. At the same time, his sensibility and his determination to push the symphonic form to its breaking point make him a kind of proto-modernist. The seminal atonal works of the following Viennese generation—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—sound nothing like Mahler’s, but these composers worshiped him and were deeply influenced by his example. He in turn worked hard to encourage them, in Schoenberg’s case providing significant financial assistance.
Still, in the decades after his death, Mahler’s music was overshadowed by the flourishing of modernism as well as by his much-longer-lived contemporary Richard Strauss. The story of Mahler’s neglect and rediscovery has become an unavoidable part of any discussion of his work. The symphonies were dismissed as Kapellmeistermusik, the kind of music that conductors often produce—deftly orchestrated but lacking a voice of its own. It didn’t help that Mahler was Jewish; an anti-Semitic strain in criticism of his work was already well established in his lifetime and under the Nazis his work became unperformable in Germany and Austria.
But around 1960, things started to change. Conductors championed him, notably Leonard Bernstein, and the advent of the LP record enabled listeners to assimilate these gargantuan pieces through repeated listening. Then, too, in the postwar era, the music came to speak for a vanished Europe. Theodor Adorno even claimed that it was possible to hear that “the Jew Mahler scented Fascism decades ahead.” Adorno’s monograph on Mahler, published in 1960, was vastly influential. Before it, critics could be divided into those who saw Mahler as squarely carrying on the symphonic tradition and those who found his music blemished by trite material, overblown handling, and a neurotic vacillation between irony and sentimentality. Adorno, ingeniously, played the two views…
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