I Am Finally Writing About Gustav Mahler

It’s about time.

Image: Jeremy Sutcliffe via Flickr

There are some things we all thought we’d never do. For some, it’s risky shit: it’s bungee jumping or skydiving or whatever. For others, it’s eating bugs. For me, it’s writing about Gustav Mahler. In fact, when I started this column, I nearly wrote into my author blurb, “Fran Hoepfner will never write about Mahler, don’t ask her to.” What is the reasoning here? None other than the annoying, petty belief that Mahler’s music was too boisterous, too loud, too masculine for my tastes, a belief based on years of trumpet players––some of whom I’ve dated, don’t worry about it, it doesn’t matter––telling me Mahler is the be all, end all. Yeah fucking right! However, we live in strange, dark times and lo and behold, I have tickets to see Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 this Thursday. Might as well educate myself, finally.

So: who the hell is Gustav Mahler? Born in 1860, Mahler was a Bohemian, Jewish composer and conductor whose works were largely inspired by Beethoven and Bruckner and Berlioz. What did he take from these big Bs? A proclivity for the dramatic and the bombastic. And this Fifth Symphony is no doubt evidence of that. It’s all here on the page. Perhaps this is what intimidated me so much as a teenager (although, frankly, I should have been all about this shit). Everything about Mahler is here for you. You don’t have to meet him halfway. He brings the symphony right to your doorstep and walks you through every emotion, every explosion. And it’s long too. Symphony No. 5 is about 75 minutes, so please buckle in this week as we dive into—who else—Leonard Bernstein’s recording.

First thing you may notice if you are unfamiliar with this symphony is that it has five movements, and if that doesn’t feel confusing enough, I ought to tell you that in Mahler’s head, it was most easily grouped into three parts. This doesn’t exactly work neatly with the sonata movement we’ve grown accustomed to in this column, but like I said, strange days. Its opening movement, “Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt” translates to “Funeral March. At a measured pace. Strict. Like a funeral procession.” Even with this notation, its introductory seconds are marked by a horn solo as triumphant as any. It’s actually a sample from his Fourth Symphony; the starting point is a continuation after all. After a point, it does start to weigh itself down with its seriousness, around the 2:10 mark. Mahler grew up in small commercial town of Bohemia known as Iglau where the most prominent music was popular folk music and military marches. There’s an idyllic blend of these two styles around the 4:09 mark, as a quiet snare drum backs a lilting string and woodwind melody.

The second movement, “Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (“Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence”) ought to be thought of a continuation of the funeral procession that precedes it. Not without its optimistic sections (the 7:30 mark in particular), this is a relatively dour and angsty movement. Though not outwardly programmatic in nature, like some of Mahler’s early work, it’s important to note that this symphony was written during the summer. The first two movements represent the past self. The, uh, January, if you will. And in turn, its powerful and joyful finale can be seen as the springtime (or how I feel when I step outside my apartment in mid-January and it’s 50 degrees!).

The second official “part” of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony begins with the “Scherzo” (you know this one, so I’m not translating it) which is by far the highlight of the symphony. It’s summertime, baby! What follows is a 20-minute exercise in jolility and playfulness. I would be lying to you if I told you I listened to any other movement of this symphony as much as I listened to this one. It’s so wild and free and overwhelming. I can see why a teenage version of me would be put off by it. It’s like, if I couldn’t handle every single emotion I was dealing with back in 2008, how the hell was I supposed to understand Mahler? This takes a certain maturity, I really believe it, to feel it on an internal level rather than just, “hey, this is loud and fun.” I mean, it is still both of those things, but it is also the same sensation as waking up without your seasonal affectiveness disorder sometime in mid-May.

The beginning of the Fifth Symphony’s finale starts with the “Adagietto” (“Very slow”) which despite its seriousness was dedicated to Mahler’s wife, Alma. It only features the strings and the harp, and it has a deep soulfulness to it. This is the movement most often extracted from this symphony, often used for ballets. Amidst the relentless joy and brass of the former movements, the “Adagietto” stands out in a wistful and quiet way. There is such tremendous depth to the music here. What could feel minimalist is anything but. There’s a bit of an unresolved cliffhanger heading into the “Rondo,” a spritely 15-minute dance. I mean, listen to those CELLOS at the 1:27 mark! Here’s where I truly believe Mahler’s instrumentation comes to shine.

What do I mean, though, when I say instrumentation? It’s a weird word: obviously all composers are using instruments. But some write symphonies for melodies, some for story. Mahler, to me, is really experimenting with the relationship between the instruments in an orchestra. What feels modern about it is the fullness. This is a universe, if you will. Mahler, not unlike Bruckner, has built a world. It’s a world that still mystifies me, no doubt, I feel like I’m feeling my way through the symphony as I write about it. Maybe it’ll start to connect more when I’ve seen it live. But I had to write about it, even though I didn’t initially want to, or I wasn’t ready, or some combination of the two. But so much of this column was about taking risks––artistically, intellectually, emotionally––and without Mahler, and his willingness to do the same with his music, I’m not sure I could be here writing this now.