Maybe you’ve experienced this: you offer your friend a bracing taste of music by Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and your friend turns you down flat, saying “Sorry, bro. Ars longa, vita brevis. Why sit through two-and-a-half hours of ‘Life Sucks and Then You Die’? I’ve already got the t-shirt.”
Or maybe you’re the friend who turned down that offer.
Here’s another way to look at it: Yes, Mahler wrote a few of the longest, saddest pieces in Western music. That’s why some of us love him. He may be telling more of the truth about human existence than everyone wants to hear. Unfortunately, this also limits his appeal to the uninitiated. The best way to introduce a friend to this particular giant of classical music would be via something short and (at least partly) sunny.
Such Mahler does exist. I’m thinking of his songs, which come attractively packaged in collections that alternate sunlight and shadow, joy and grief. You can bite into one or two without making a bigger commitment. Seriously, it can’t ruin more than five minutes of your day.
Start by giving a listen to Mahler’s songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an anthology of German folk poetry from the early 19th century. Mahler was fascinated by these poems, which he refused to read nostalgically, as artifacts of lost innocence. For him they weren’t relics. Rather, their human immediacy—their now-ness—struck a chord. He responded by creating folk-like but original melodies and superb orchestral settings, both of which brought out their authentic depth of feeling. The subject matter ranges from frankly playful to deadly serious:
Once in a deep vale
Cuckoo and nightingale
Decided to make a bet
To sing for the master-prize.
By skill or by luck,
The victor would carry home the palm.
Cuckoo said, “with your permission,
I have chosen the judge.”
And named the donkey right away. . . .
I, poor drummer boy!
They lead me out of the dungeon.
Had I only remained a drummer boy,
I would not lie in prison.
Oh gallows, you high house.
You are such a dreadful sight!
I will not look at you again,
Because I know that I belong there.
These excerpts are from an excellent recent recording of the Wunderhorn songs by soprano Christiane Oelze, baritone Michael Volle, and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz (Oehms Classics OC 657). In Europe, Stenz has become known as a consistently successful Mahler interpreter. It’s time he and his collaborators were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic. (Incidentally, Stenz and his orchestra make live recordings available after concerts to anyone with a ticket and a thumb drive: read about it here.)
If you’re a vinyl fan you might keep your eyes peeled for the classic Forrester-Rehfuss-Prohaska Wunderhorn recording produced in 1963 by Seymour Solomon, who—for those of us less keen on dumpster-diving—supervised a digital remastering in 1991 (Vanguard Classics OVC 4045).
Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink offers a broader, chronologically organized survey of Mahler’s songs for Harmonia Mundi (HMC 902173; 2014), including selections from Songs of a Wayfarer, Kindertotenleider (Songs on the Deaths of Children), and the Rückert-Lieder (poetry of Friedrich Rückert). A further advantage to this set is that it mixes piano and orchestral accompaniments, including the chamber reductions that Arnold Schoenberg made in 1920 for his Private Musical Performances in Vienna. You get a sense of how Mahler conceived settings for these songs, not to mention why it was natural for him to integrate many of them into his symphonic works. Here is a bit of Schoenberg’s arrangement of one of the Wayfarer songs:
This morning I walked over the field,
Dew was still hanging on the grass.
The happy finch called out to me:
“Hey you! Good morning! Hey
You! Isn’t it a lovely world?
And here is Mahler’s own chamber-like orchestration of the first of the Kindertotenlieder:
Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if no calamity had befallen during the night.
The calamity befell me alone;
The sun shines on everyone. . . .
All in all a useful sampling, nicely delivered by Fink and her colleagues. Eventually you will want to explore Mahler’s song repertoire further, but this well-thought-out introduction helps you understand how his creative concerns evolved.
Which takes us from Tall to Grande. Are there Mahler symphonies that don’t last forever, don’t address Major Issues Facing Humanity? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Yes, there are.
Start with Symphony No. 4. Providing the conductor doesn’t dawdle, it clocks in at under an hour, nevertheless acquainting you with the fundamental aspects of Mahler the symphonist. Also, its finale incorporates one of the most charming songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”). In one of his incandescent later performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducted both the Rückert Lieder and this symphony. The latter begins with sleigh bells’ gentle sound:
That Wunderhorn song—about an angelic feast full of earthly delights—commences at 47’30”; Magdalena Kožená sings, and English subtitles are provided. The whole concert is available on Blu-ray video (EuroArts 2057984) and as part of Abbado’s Mahler Symphonies 1–7 set (also EuroArts). For those who’d rather not see the musicians, Iván Fischer’s recording with soprano Miah Persson and the Budapest Festival Orchestra provides an equally rewarding experience (Channel Classics CCS SA 26109; SACD and download).
If Mozart had been born a century past his time, this is music he might have made. It’s just that graceful, human, and profound. It’s also relatively pocket-sized. Or as the Starbucks people might put it: Grande.
(Sorry, bro. Venti next time.)
Lawrence Schenbeck was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. In spite of that, he became a historical musicologist. He is the author of two books, many more scholarly articles, and countless liner notes, music reviews, and “casuals.” He lives in the Atlanta area with his family and too much music, Tchaikovsky being the least of it. Literally.