Getting to know Gustav Mahler

Gustav is not an old friend of mine as other composers are, my having seldom listened to his music. I have but two recorded pieces by him: Das Lied von Der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) and his Symphony No. 5, the adagietto, the fourth of the five movements, being of most interest to me (see title page of the score, below).

Dear friends of Eva and me from Uppsala invited us to accompany them to a concert of Mahler’s ninth symphony at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, in the heart of the “Embassy Row.” I did not hesitate to thank them and accept; I always enjoy the concerts at Berwaldhallen, the musicians of the Sveriges Radio Symfoniorkester being consistently excellent and the hall having acoustical properties that allow my poor hearing (corrected by hearing-aids) to have no obstacles in my enjoyment of the music. It is a great treat to listen to, and to discuss, classical music with friends who enjoy it as much as I.

The concert was on Saturday afternoon, October 27. We had seats in the second row, facing the left side of the orchestra, the musicians seated on the stage around two meters above us. We were closest to the two harps and the back part of the violin section. We had a clear view of the conductor’s left side (Valery Gergiev).

This was the first time I had listened to Mahler performed live, so I gave the performance my concentrated attention. It was the only piece on the program, it being 90 minutes long with no intermission during the four movements.

Here are comments, expanded from notes I jotted during the concert:

  • First Movement
  • Not absolute music such as Bach’s and most of Beethoven’s, for example. Mahler is telling a story (program music), only I don’t know what the story is.
  • Reminds me of the music of Richard Strauss and Hector Berlioz: flowing, wandering, complex.
  • Very engaging melody in the beginning, but I lost it through the musical drama that ensues. Found it again at the very end of this movement.
  • Second Movement
  • Third Movement
  • Free-form poetry to my ears; I don’t perceive the structure that undoubtedly is there.
  • The melody or theme is quite brief and simple, more like a motif.
  • Very dramatic and abrupt ending.
  • Fourth Movement
  • I wonder if Shostakovich used some of Mahler’s idioms in his own music, as in The Golden Age, mentioned above, and in the simultaneous use of violins and bass viols in this movement that radiates a feeling of mystery and portentousness.
  • The ending drifts, very slowly to an extremely quiet ending featuring the violins.


My friends enjoyed the music. I enjoyed being there and listening, and in being with my friends, including at dinner afterward where Eva joined us.

My general conclusion regarding Mahler is that he must have been an emotion-driven man, needing to express these emotions through his music. This, perforce, makes the music very personal. If one identifies with the emotions expressed, then one likes Mahler. Unfortunately for Mahler, he doesn’t rock my boat.

I am reminded of comments by a critic regarding a piece by Leoš Jánaček, his second string quartet: “…Intimacy is a quality that connoisseurs of chamber music like to find, particularly in string quartets, but perhaps not the embarrassing intimacy that Jánaček confesses: embarrassing because it is so evidently private, and evidently private because there is so much in the music that must appear merely odd unless one supposes a personal significance”.

Finally, in looking through various comments available on the Internet, I offer this:

“… (W)hile (Mahler’s) place in musical history and in the repertoire seems secure, sober assessment of his specific legacy is inhibited by several factors. For example, little common ground can be found between those who revere Mahler for his ’emotional frankness’ and ‘spiritual honesty’, and his equally vociferous detractors for whom the same music displays ‘mawkishness’, ‘tastelessness’ and ‘sentimentality’ (Franz Schmidt clearly spoke for the latter camp when he described Mahler’s symphonies as “cheap novels”). A similar divide separates those who appreciate and analyze the symphonies as conscientiously orchestrated and rigorously organised large-scale forms, and those who see merely the lavish, sprawling outpourings of a ‘self-indulgent egotist’.” (From Wikipedia).

de gustibus non est diputandum

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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