Food for Thought-Why Mahler Matters


1. Mahler doesn’t take “no” for an answer. He wants his music to go places sound has never gone before. Mahler is determined to use the tools of tonality, the secrets of sound, and all the creative skill he possesses to move us away from comparing his work with anything we’ve heard before.

2. Mahler wants to use every instrument he can get his hands on. He has so many tools available and at his fingertips; why not have each one of them come alive? In Mahler’s 5th symphony, he writes five different horn parts. Five! Yet, there are times when only two will play; different horns alternating with each to ensure no duplication of a part. Everyone is playing something a part which augments the sound coming from their colleagues. How effective are we at using the instruments and resources at our disposal? Are there instruments in our orchestral arsenal that lie in touched or sitting bored in the back of a room? Do we try to insure that everyone around us has a distinct and complimentary role to play?

3. Mahler, as a person, represents civilization trying to move toward a better version of itself. His music is the soundtrack to great societal change. He saw the 20th century begin, dying only three years before the beginning of World War I. Even the Nazis could not silence Mahler some thirty years later. His life and career intersect with Ernst Mach, Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The culture of pre-war Vienna gave birth to some of the most important and exciting cultural and scientific discoveries in modern history. Science, society, medicine, philosophy, and world history all collide on the pages of his symphonies. We hear history when he we listen to Mahler. Are we listening to the world around us?

4. Mahler knew when to change venues. If Vienna wasn’t working, if the traditional Austro-Hungarian power couples weren’t into his work, try conducting or performing in other locations, like Graz or Budapest. In the outlying cities of the empire, audiences weren’t as tied to the strictures of tradition and musical form. There were people, in this revolutionary era, willing to embrace innovation (even musical) on all levels. Where will our best ideas work? Are we imposing our creative vision or sharing a new reality? The tension, for Mahler (and us) lies in the relationship between imposing and sharing.

5. Mahler is wrestling with the big issues. Not only is he confronting social change, he also explores the depths of the human spirit and psyche. In his Second Symphony, he explores the idea of life after death and the meaning of resurrection in a Jewish context. Mahler isn’t just describing the afterlife in the symphony, he’s wants to come terms with it in such a way that the people who hear the work will have an opportunity to embrace their grief and begin to heal.  Are we afraid to ask the bigger questions?