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July 7, 2010

How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer's 150th birthday

I know I do too many posts on this blog about notable musical dates, but you'll just have to forgive another, 'cause this one means more to me than all the other important anniversaries put together. And I know the title of this post is a wee bit melodramatic, but you'll have to indulge me on that, too. It's really not too much of an exaggeration anyway, since my life would probably be completely different had I not discovered the music of Gustav Mahler, who was born 150 years ago -- July 7, 1860.

I'm still as hooked on Mahler as ever. I never "outgrew" my passion for his symphonies, my fascination with his all-too-short life (next year marks the centennial of his death). I had a basic appreciation for classical music before I first heard a note of Mahler's, but I had no thought of making it a substantial part of my life. I was more into pop and jazz. And any thoughts of a career were of the political variety (I was sure I would run for some sort of office one day -- and be fabulous at it, of course).

But then I happened to see "Death in Venice," the film by Luchino Visconti based on the Thomas Mann novella. I frequently bore people by describing the extraordinary sensation I felt as the movie opened. There was no discernable image on the screen at first, only the sound of harp and strings playing the Adagietto (as I subsequently learned) from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Gradually, the sight of gentle waves appeared and, as the music swelled, I felt myself drawn as forcibly into that sound-world as into the gorgeous film.

When I read Mahler’s name in the credits, I set out to learn more about him. I found a recording of that Adagietto, then decided I had to hear all of the Fifth Symphony. I was blown away. I did not know music could do that, could go where Mahler took it, could hit me in some deep emotional place that hadn’t been awakened before.

I had barely begun to digest that symphony when, by coincidence, I tuned to a classical music station in DC on my car radio one evening on the way home and heard a wildly dramatic bit of music that I sensed must be by Mahler. When I got home, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the car, lest I miss a note, so I stayed outside listening (and wearing down the battery) for more than an hour, until the shattering conclusion of what I found out was the Sixth Symphony. That did it.

I soon had to buy all the Mahler symphonies, then all his other works. And in this process of getting Mahlerized, I realized that

classical music really meant something to me, so I forgot about the political science courses I had planned to take in college and kept adding electives in music until that became my major. And that’s how I got into the critic racket – a couple of my teachers encouraged me to think about reviewing music for a living. So, you see, Mahler really did save my life, or at least redirect it.

The 150th anniversary of the composer's birth makes me want to pause and acknowledge my debt. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said about Mahler’s works. I can only repeat that they move me, involve me, transform me. Lots of other music does, too – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Poulenc, Shostakovich, lots of the usual suspects. But, to this day, Mahler simply touches me in a different way. I feel as if he’s talking to me, living my life, not just his. I feel like I can see what he sees, the darkest and brightest elements of this life, the glimmers and shadows and promises of the next one.

I’m hardly alone in this, of course. Mahler fans inevitably react along these lines. If you’re one, too, I’d love flor you to share your feelings about the man and his music.

It’s impossible for me to settle on what my favorite Mahler work is. Naturally, I still hold the Fifth and Sixth in great regard, since they pushed me into Mahlerian fever. The Second, Third and Eighth put me in an exalted space. The Ninth and “Das Lied von der Erde” shatter me. I love the colorful journeys of the First, Fourth and Seventh, and the drama of the much-neglected “Das Klagende Lied.” And then the songs – how rich they are, too.

I decided that I should settle on only one musical clip to end this post, and I was surprised at how quickly I made a choice. It’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – “I am Lost to the World” -- from the “Ruckert Lieder.” If these were the only six or seven minutes of Mahler I could ever hear again, I’d still be content, for they capture everything I love about his art. (This song has the added appeal to me of being a kind of companion piece to the Adagietto, with a very similar sound and melodic arc.)

Here’s the text:

I am lost to the world, where I used to waste so much time. It has heard nothing from me for so long that it may very well believe that I am dead. That is of no consequence to me ... for I really am dead to the world, dead to the world’s tumult. I rest in a quiet realm. I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song.

This performance with mezzo Magdalena Kozena and conductor Claudio Abbado beautifully communicates the subtle power of the words and music:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:45 AM | | Comments (42)


Thanks for your story, I too know how you feel. For me, I was Mahlerized while sitting in a dorm room while studying voice at Peabody playing madden football 96' (for playstation) when I exclaimed that Mahler sucked. at that point in time I had never heard a note and was an overly opinionated freshman. the guy I was playing with hit my arm left the room and brought back a recording of Mahler 2. We continued playing Madden while listening to Mahler 2. I was blown away and hooked for life. If I have a choice as to what heaven will be I hope Mahler is one of the people I get to meet and thank.

Hey, thanks for sharing. There's something extra cool about the image of a Mahler symphony becoming the soundtrack to a Playstation game. Thanks again. TIM

Wonderful tribute and a beautiful piece. Thanks for posting.

And thank you for taking the time to post a comment. TIM

Much Mahler at Peabody during the coming season. The Peabody Symphony Orchestra will play the Adagietto on Oct. 23 and Mahler's Fifth on Feb. 1. On Feb. 11, Sylvia Green competition winner Kristina Lewis, contralto, will sing the Ruckert Lieder with the Peabody Concert Orchestra.

Excellent news for us hopeless addicts. Thanks. TIM

Enjoyed your article a lot. I had such similar experience with Mahler and feel the same way. I "discovered" him on a Tanglewood Festival radio broadcast of the 9th Symphony--what was this strange, slow beautiful music? I bought the Horenstein LSO First Sym and I was hooked for life (that was in 1969)

Did you know that Mahler is Composer of the Week on BBC3 radio? Go to their website and listen to the special series, very well done with intelligent discussion.

Thanks for writing, and for the tip about the BBC. I'd bet the Ninth has hooked other unsuspecting folks over the years; what an incredibly haunting power it has. TIM

Thank you so much for this article! Your story in many ways is similar to my own. I'm 22 years old now, and I came to discover Mahler when I was 16. It was also through the fifth symphony that I was introduced to Mahler. I had always liked classical music (I played piano, sang in choirs, and played in my high school band), but its role in my life had always been in the background. However, after that massive chord that follows the trumpet solo that opens the work, I knew I was listening to something totally different. The music changed me. I started buying up recordings one by one of all of Mahler's works. However, my obsession didn't stop there. I also had to get the scores to the symphonies I loved so much and study them. Now, after only a few years of knowing Mahler, I've graduated from college with a major in music, and I'm about to start a masters degree in music history this fall. His music really does change you. Thank you for sharing your story. It's always nice to hear from other Mahler fanatics out there!

Thanks so much for commenting. Boy, I sure know what you mean about that first, whomping chord in the Fifth. Because I only knew the Adagietto before buying a complete recording of the symphony, I had no idea at all what to expect. I was surprised and affected by every measure. Great to hear that you kept up with music and made it your focus. And, hey, if you find any great jobs out there for people with M.A.'s in music history, please let me know (after you secure one, of course). The way newspapers are going, I may be in need of other options. Cheers. TIM

What a lovely testimonial to a remarkable composer. As for me, I sang with the Baltimore Choral Arts and the BSO in the Mahler 2nd, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. I have to admit that in the early rehearsals, with just piano accompaniment, I didn't get it. The music had no effect on me whatsoever. But.......once all the forces were combined, and that glorious finale Aufersteh'n rang out, I got goose bumps that never went away. The 2nd is a very long symphony for a chorus to sit onstage through until the final movement, but I never minded a bit, performance after performance. I had the best seat in the house.

I envy you that perspective from inside the Second. What an amazing moment that choral entrance is. And I loved the way Temirkanov had the choristers stand one or two at a time during those performances as the music progressed, a powerful visual metaphor that personalized the music in a remarkably affecting way. Thanks for writing. TIM

The first time I examined the score to the second, it seemed like sacrilege such sounds could be represented by such mundane little black symbols on a page.

And don't even get me started about the eighth . . . .

Let me put in a plug for what is usually considered a difficult piece - Mahler's 7th. In spite of what one reads about this work, I find it well-balanced & a "whole world" in itself. The references to Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" music (I've forgotten in which movement) always make me smile. Thanks for reminding us of Mahler's 150th.

Thanks for mentioning the Seventh's charms. I don't know why it doesn't enjoy more popularity. Maybe it's time will come. TIM

My introduction to classical music was through Beethoven, but I still remember vividly discovering Mahler a short time later. I was actually introduced to Mahler by my brother who is a tuba player, so he was really into Berlioz, Bruckner, and Mahler. He was blasting the 6th symphony and I was mesmerized. I became obsessed and listened to all of this remarkable man's music and read every book I could get my hands on. I felt that I knew him personally, and that his music spoke directly to my soul. I became so entranced studying the man and his music along with other great composers, that I am pursuing a degree to teach music history.

Wow, another fantastic experience. Thanks for sharing. It's so cool for me to hear about others who ended up, as I did, going for music degrees largely because of Mahler. I share your enthusiasm about the composer's life and getting every new bio. It's amazing to me how much Mahler seems to come alive when you read about him or pour over the small, but vivid, quantity of photos that have come down to us. Sometimes I regret that he didn't live long enough to conduct on recordings (the piano rolls he made provide only a tantalizing hint), but then I think it's better that way -- we get to fill use our imaginations. He probably would prefer it that way. Thanks again for the comments. TIM

Thanks for the wonderful article.I didnt discover Mahler until I was 40,when a classical TV station (classic arts) performed the adagietto from the 5th and then the finale from the 4th. Ive been hooked ever since. My favorite work is the 6th,(I dont mind the argument about the order of the inner movements, cause its great both ways,) but the shattering climax after that literal kaleidescope of marches crisscrossing each other in the finale always leaves me speechless time after time. Thanks for your forum for us Mahler geeks to praise a GREAT composer on his 150th birthday. "My time will come", he said, and we are SO glad. Wolfgang

And thank you for your comments. I'm likewise very much in awe of the Sixth, especially as conducted by Barbirolli, with his daringly slow tempo for the first movement. No matter who conducts it, every time the "Alma theme" appears in that opening movement I get a wonderful chill. Hey, how do you feel about the number of hammer blows in the finale? Thanks again for writing. TIM

I remember, when I first became acquainted with the Mahler 2nd symphony ("Resurrection), I wondered if he really knew what death and bereavement were like, and whether or not the symphony would be dismissed as some mere artifact by someone who had "been through it". I got my answer all too soon. While I was "going through it", Mahler's music was one of my guiding lights. This isn't just entertainment, it's a life-changing experience.

Thanks very much for writing. I think Mahler had an unusually keen sense of life and death, making him able to express what many of us feel (or fear), but can't communicate very well. TIM

I first heard Mahler through, I think, the fifth, way back in either junior high or intermediate school.

Many years later, I have all his symphonies, usually more than one recording of each. It's also hard to pick my favorite piece of his. The final movement of Das Lied von de Erde is just the most hauntingly beautiful 30 minutes of music ever, I think. But is it my favorite or is it the exuberant life-affirming ends to the 5th or the 8th?

Have you heard Ben Zander's commentary bonus discs on his Telarc recordings of the Mahler symphony? I find his discussion of the theme of the andante of the sixth fascinating.

Thanks for joining the Mahler celebration, and for reminding me to dig out the Zander recording. I think he's a terrific Mahler conductor. I confess that I don't always listen to commentary discs, and I have a feeling I overlooked that one. That Andante is among my desert-island Mahler choices, but I'm with you on the profound finale of "Das Lied," too. TIM

Fantastic post. Ironically, I actually listened to the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony on a whim during my commute to work this morning on the Washington Metro. It wasn't until I stumbled upon this blog that I realized it happened to be Mahler's birthday today (something I should know off the top of my head but simply forgot).

Like most of the comments by people so far, I too discovered Mahler quite early on in my life. I can remember vividly in high school being told by a friend that I should check out Mahler and I did so by purchasing a Sony box set of Bernstein's first Mahler cycle with the New York Philharmonic. I remember listening and not knowing how to react-- everything was so complex and yet I really wanted to make an effort to like it. I can remember my senior year of high school sitting down with headphones with the goal of going through the cycle completely focused over a course of several days. I was then hooked for life. I purchased Bernstein's filmed Mahler cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic (personally I believe his best Mahler cycle) and then his last Mahler cycle. It was then I realized that no other music could move me in the same way that Mahler did.

Indeed, having just completed undergraduate in May (I'm to turn 22 at the end of the month), Mahler holds a very special place in my heart. Although I have always been a huge fan of much of classical music in opera (specifically 20th century), as you mentioned, " this day, Mahler simply touches me in a different way." Only one other composer comes close to that personally for me-- Richard Wagner (specifically the opera Tristan und Isolde).

I remain a huge Mahler fan and due to a lot of luck and hard work, I will be completing my master's degree in the UK starting this fall, which will allow me to attend many of the concerts planned for the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death next year in London as well as other major cities in Europe (at least that is the plan for now). I have already applied for tickets for the Salzburg Easter Festival, in which the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle will be performing Mahler Symphony No 5. As my favorite Mahler symphony (and the one I credit that got me into the composer), it will be a dream come true to hear the Berliners play one of the most complex and rewarding pieces in all of Western music.

As for favorites, the 5th (as I just mentioned), along with the 6th, and the 9th (had the opportunity to see the this in performance with Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim at the Philharmonie-- incredible). I also have great fondness for the 3rd Symphony (what an incredibly gorgeous last movement) as well as the 2nd, 4th and 1st.

Thank you for this post which allows us to connect our mutual passion for Mahler's music! A wonderful idea.
Ich liebe Gustav Mahler!

Thanks so much for writing. Looking back, I wish I had been as fortunate as you to learn about Mahler in high school. (It was freshman year at college for me.) I share your enthusiasm for Bernstein's Mahler, especially with the Viennese. I think he channeled the composer somehow when he was on the podium. Unforgettable. And I'm with you on 'Tristan'; no wonder it was one of Mahler's own favorites. Good luck with Salzburg and the other concerts next year. TIM

Your experiences and thoughts are very similar to mine. I can very honestly say that HE is my favorite composer!! My personal favorite is the THIRD SYMPHONY. The final (adagio) movement moves me to tears. Thanks to B. Walter, L. Bernstein, and other great conductors : HIS TIME HAS COME!

Amen. Thanks for writing. TIM


Thanks for your article on Mahler. I, too, am a great Mahler fan. As he said, "My day will come". Having lived in Austria for a year, I can be transported there immediately when I hear his works. Das Lied von der Erde and the other songs are something else again!

Also, I SO WISH you were the music critic for the Washington Post where NOTHING ever gets printed anymore!


I shall always love his music!

In 1990-91 I was bass soloist in the Duke Chapel Choir, a thundering musical force 150 voices strong. In that era, Easter Sunday at Duke Chapel began with the finale of the Mahler 2. Yes, the Mahler 2. This was my first Mahler 'experience', and words still fail me when I try to describe it...

Man, that had to be a very cool Easter service. Thanks for writing. TIM

Bruno Walter's Indian summer with Columbia Records in the early 60s produced a gorgeous Mahler's 9th. This, along with his recording of Bruckner's 9th, could be heard as Walter's own preparation for his impending passing.

Sorry for the late posting but I'm on the west coast. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to join the celebration because Mahler and hs music changed my life (and all the testimonials here are so heartfelt and sincere that I wanted to add mine to the list).

Like you, it was Visconti who introduced me to the wondrous and strange soundscapes of Mahler's musical universe. I had seen Visconti's "The Damned" when I was a senior in high school (in the hinterlands of northwest Missouri, no less) - a life changing experience in itself (the film, not northwest MIssouri) - and, having read the novella, I was eager to see his rendition of "Death In Venice".

And then . . . that mysterious, mystical music rising out of the mist; the sumptuous, langourous exquisiteness of it all - I was seduced. (At the tender age of nineteen!)

I was already heading down the music major path and at U.C. Berkeley an assignment in theory class was to analyze the first movement of Mahler's 9th symphony.

Studying this movement, listening to it again and again, discovering it's secrets, was the coup de coeur, the beginning of my lifelong devotion to this extraordinary man's music. To this day, the 9th remains my absolute favorite (although I completely agree with those who find the finale of the 3rd an epiphany in sound - especially on LSD) (and let's hear it for George Szell's luminous 4th). All of Mahler's music is confessional, autobiographical, and universal.

Thank you for initiating this forum on this very special day. The video clip you chose is voluptuous. And for what it's worth, astrologically speaking, Mahler is a cancer monkey.

To death [in Venice] and life!

Great to meet another Visconti-to-Mahler soul. And I love the image of 'The Damned' being screened in the Missouri hinterlands! Thanks for adding to this little cyber celebration. TIM

I had taken classical piano lessons from age five and listened to my father's small collection of orchestral records as a child. But as I got into my teenage years I became more interested in pop / rock music. A friend who was a music ed. major at college lent me a recording of the Bernstein / NY Phil performance of Mahler's 2nd symphony. I had never heard anything like this before and couldn't believe that an orchestra could really sound this good live. Mind you, I had never been to a concert by a professional orchestra in my life. Then the next day I opened the NY Times and by coincidence saw an ad for a special gala performance of Mahler's 2nd symphony by Bernstein and the NY Phil - It was Bernstein's 1000th performance with the Phil. Lenny pulled out all the stops that night and from the first string tremolo that opens the symphony, I went into a trance. I was so shaken and drained by the power, volume and emotional intensity of the finale, that I couldn't hold back my tears or get out of my seat to leave. I was unaware that music could have that kind of effect on someone. That one concert had a profound and beneficial impact on
my life in many ways. When I retire I plan on visiting Mahler's grave in Vienna and leaving flowers to thank him for enriching my life.

What a fabulous intro to Mahler, Bernstein and a great orchestra in concert. Thanks for providing that vivid recollection. I hope you make it to the grave site. It has been a long time since I was there, but the effect of seeing it, standing at once simply and nobly amid all the overdone tombstones, sticks with me to this day. TIM

My first experience with Mahler was quite similar to yours. It was 1971 and I went to see Luchino Visconti's DEATH IN VENICE at The Charles Theater; of course, it was just one screen back then. Visconti's use of the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in concert with his extraordinary use of the 70mm format was both transcendental and haunting. I tracked down the symphony--the LP cover had a still from the film of the great Dirk Bogarde wearing that curlycue mustache--and became a Mahler fan for life. Imagine, then, my bliss when Ken Russell--next to Sam Peckinpah, my favorite deranged film director genius of that early 70s period--released his Mahler biopic in 1974! Many thanks for the article, Tim!

It's great meeting yet another Venetian/Mahlerian. Thanks for writing. I wish the Russell film had been better, especially since the actor was so convincing phsyically as Mahler (I was old-fashioned enough to want a more straightforward biopic), but it sure had its moments. Thanks again. TIM

Thanks to Google, I was able to read your story about Gustav Mahler on his birthday.

I was a student of Jazz composition with professor Hank Levy at Towson State in the 1970's. A Jazzer for my early years, I was never much into symphonic music. When I became a sound engineer in Los Angeles in the 1980's, another sound mixer advised that I should attend the symphony regularly as this "natural" music was important for "ear calibration". My second concert at the LA Phil was Mahler's Fifth. And like you, I was instantly a "Mahlerite".

As my work has always taken me around the globe, I've been fortunate to have heard Mahler symphonies performed by orchestras around the world. I've argued with Haitink about the order of movements in the Sixth. I've sat in a 15th century church in Ghent to hear the Fourth. I've bought untold DVD's of the "explanation" of the Third for friends, colleagues, and even strangers. I've posed with the Rodin-created Mahler bust at Lincoln Center, and own a reproduction of the same that I have in my home.

And while resisting the Tenth for years, abhorring the idea that this unfinished work could possibly be legitimate, after studying the facts I realized that the tenth is not only legitimately Mahler, it's also the Romantic era "link" to the Modern era, especially Schoenberg. In the tenth, Mahler is only two tones short of twelve. Another year or two. . . .

Gustav Mahler speaks to me.

Thanks very much for writing. I was just listening to the finale of the Tenth yesterday (the Cooke edition) and realizing how much meat is on those bones. I hope that symphony, in one completion or another, eventually becomes more widely accepted. It adds so much to an appreciation of the composer and the forward path he was taking. TIM

Hi, Tim. Thank you very much for this wonderful and personal article about the music of Gustav Mahler. In the 30 years I lived in Berlin, it became the mainstay of my spiritual and emotional life. I'll never forget the atmosphere during those concerts. And in the subway going home with the concertgoers. If you want to read an utterly amazing (yet believable) account of what the music of Mahler can do, just take a look at at this, from the British Guardian: I heard this anniversary performance last year in London, and that flute solo by Gareth Davies was unforgettable. When the last movement finished, the director left the podium, rushed back to Davies, and gave him a tremendous bear hug, like Joseph and the angel. It took a long time for the audience, still in thrall to the music, to react to all of this, but then the ovatations never wanted to stop. Thanks for your article!

Thanks very much for writing, and for the link to that blog post, which I just read (and now I have to explain to my colleagues at the paper why I'm suddenly gone teary-eyed). TIM

I completely understand how you feel. I discovered Mahler as a teenager in the 1960's, and there was no turning back. Other composers have written great works, but "Uncle Gustav", as I call him, is always the center of my musical universe.

Thanks for writing. It's interesting to me how many of us Mahler nuts got hooked in our teens or early 20s. Maybe the intense emotions we all go through in those years makes us more susceptible to emotional music. When I wrote that I never outgrew Mahler, I was thinking of musical intellectual types I've come across who have suggested that one should gradually leave all such over-expressive stuff behind and gravitate to the more classical well-behaved repertoire. Ain't gonna happen. Thanks again for your comments. TIM

Keep checking for news of Mahler's BIG day and got into this. A very nice article along with so many responses which reminds me of the Mahler Virtual Shrine. It was one of my favorite websites, with hundreds of comments from Mahlarians in years paying tribute to the great man and talked about how they encountered Mahler's music. It's a pity that the site suddenly disappeared -- but alive again here!

I don't know how to play any musical instrument but I like classical music, started listening from high school. First introduced by a friend to buy Klemperer's M2 in 1990 when I was in my 20s, which began a journey of no return. For the past three years I ONLY listen to Mahler, which left my other two hundred classical CDs behind. Now I listen to Mahler in MP3 when I walk on the streets, in the subway, on the plane. Years ago I like to line up my Mahler favorites, starting the order from 6, 5, 2, 4 and 1. Now I feel all 11 symphonies can be listened as one. I got this feeling by playing Mahler MP3 non-stop. I can't tell which symphony I like most anymore. I just love all the musical journeys reflecting the vision and the deep inside of the great man. I have learnt more about life (and death) from Mahler's music than any philosopher. Thank you very much Gustav. Thank you.

And thanks for adding your voice here. TIM

Hi, Tim, yesterday tou commented on the 6th symphony with the third hammerblow performed. Do you know wher I can get a copy of such a performance? Thanks again for great article! Wolfgang

A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to hear a performance with the three blows conducted by Leaonrd Slatkin with the National Symphony. It sounded totally convincing to me. I believe Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Orchestra recorded the three-strikes version on Chandos years ago, but I don't know if it's available anywhere. Maybe others will chime in with more useful info. TIM

I was fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, just a hop, skip and jump from New York City. My husband and I were lucky to hear some of the finest orchestras in the world at Carnegie Hall. What a venue!

It was there I first heard Mahler. I don't remember which work.

I have found that, with Mahler, you either love him or abhor him. I love him. I recently heard his Symphony of a thousand played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. We sat in the cheap seats near the organ and I almost felt the organ playing through my body. I was actually vibrating!

It was one of the best concerts I've ever heard. Half the population of Philly appeared to be on the stage, along with most of the musical instruments ever invented. Huge, huge, huge!

Words fail me.

Thanks very much for that rousing memory. TIM

I'm a bit late to the Mahler birthday celebration, but I wanted to be the next one here to say thank you for your post for our favorite composer's birthday. Reading it was like reading my exact feelings about Mahler. I discovered his music from classical radio (in the shower!) and have been obsessed with him since.

Like many, I find it impossible to name a favorite work by Mahler, but the last movement of the Third Symphony always stops time for me.

Have you read any of Henry-Louis de La Grange's volumes on Mahler? If so, would you recommend them? I heard him speak at Carnegie last season and was riveted to hear about Mahler's life. I think I'd love reading them, but the size and price of those tomes are intimidating.

Thanks for commenting. Never too late to hear from another Mahler fan. And, yes, I'd heartily recommend the de la Grange series. No one gets so close to Mahler; you essentially re-live the man's whole life. I won't pretend to have read every word (the sheer heft is, as you say, intimidating), but I love digging them out and just plunging into any chapter for a great experience. It's worth checking around various online sites or really good new or used bookstores to see if there are bargains. I recently found the last volume -- new copy, not used -- at a very decent discount through Edward R. Hamilton. TIM

Thank you so much for writing about your very personal experience and feelings for Mahler's music. This is what classical music is all about.
I was raised on classical piano from the age of 6 and was not exposed to much symphony music. The first time I heard a Mahler symphony was at the Meyerhoff when Temirkanov was conducting. It was beyond anything I ever experienced in a symphony performance. I later heard Simon Rattle conduct Mahler and was mezmerized.

And thanks for your comments. I admire Rattle, too, in the Mahler repertoire. TIM

Thanks, Tim for your wonderful article. I am not a professional musician, but I "know" every Mahler symphony. I know which one it is after hearing just a few bars.

The only one that leaves me cold is the 8th, however. I wonder why?

To tell the truth, I had a little trouble with the 8th myself the first few times I heard it. I loved the Part 1, but then couldn't wait for the last 15 minutes or so of Part 2. Gradually, though, I found myself riveted to every measure. One of my favorite recent performances was a couple of years ago -- Maazel's last night as m. d. of the NY Phil. He made the long orchestral opening of Part 2 incredibly intense; I had never enjoyed that passage so much before. I should confess that the Goethe text stil gives me pause at times (I guess I ain't a deep thinker), but I really do love the whole darn symphony. TIM

I discovered Mahler’s music 45 years ago, and it still says new things to me, as if something I had encountered at one stage or another had continued to have a life of its own.

I happened to listen to a couple of versions of “Ich bin der Welt” only last night. I was struck even more this time by how much the piece is about annihilating boundaries—whether in the text, the orchestration, or in how the song begins and ends by suggesting near-silence—not so much the absence of noise as the immensity from which the sound emerges and in which it transpires.

We can also sense the break-down of boundaries in the way that phrases pass seamlessly from vocalist to instrumentalist, as if this were the after-life of a phrase, corresponding to Rückert’s figurative or near-literal death. This is not music of grief, separation, or even escapism. It more like serenity, some sweet spot between desire and indifference that I wouldn’t spoil by calling nirvana.

Mahler would find this serenity again—musically—in “Der Abschied.” What I have in mind especially is the passage about the brook (to the words “Der Bach singt voller Wohllaut durch das Dunkel.”). This is not so much a body of water as the sound of the water, and the unlimited space of its transmigration (the "Wohllaut"). After all the preceding songs in which liquid (water, wine, or autumn mist) is the medium of illusion—the “floating world”—there is this ultimate transparency.

Maybe this helps explain why I got hooked on Mahler when I heard the opening of the 1st Symphony. For many, this music sounds like (or, better yet, evokes) near-absolute silence, but also some great but indefinable outdoors (what Rilke would have called “diese ganze Weite”). Hence Mahler’s indication here in the score: "wie ein Naturlaut."

When singers perform “Ich bin der Welt,” I find they sometimes impose too much gravitas. Or they try to become lost to the world by surmounting it. In my ideal version of this song, performed by Christa Ludwig (, there is also a lightness. As an amateur musician for almost twenty years, I got used to accompanying singers and thinking of them musically as the center of the universe. In this performance, the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere, or at least very elusive. Yes, it sounds as if it’s hard to tell where the singer breaks off and the listener begins. Once you realize this, you are, as Rückert and Mahler would have it, one with the music.

By the way, there's also a wonderful repurposing of this song in Jim Jarmusch's film "Coffee and Cigarettes," in the final segment (

Thanks for sharing your remarkably comprehensive analysis and deep feelings about this ever-stirring music. TIM

Great writing, Tim. I am going to steal this when I try to explain how I feel about Mahler to newbies! ;)

My story is this: I owned M5, M6, and M7 for years on CD, occasionally listened to them, but largely rejected Mahler. Truth be told, the romantic era was never my thing - I was always very much into 20th century much more. Anyway, a few years back on a hot summer night, I gave M5 another try with headphones (Lenny/WPO/DG) and well, it clicked! I got it. I can't say why to this day, but I was digging it - finally!

I followed suit the next night with M6 - same thing - loved it (Boulez/DG). The same the following night with M7 (which is now a favorite of mine). I did major research online after that, reading reviews, etc. and I ended up buying about 5 or so versions of M5.

Today I now own a fairly huge catalog of Mahler ( I have upwards of 13 or 14 versions of M2!!!) and I cannot stop listening to this incredible music. Simply put, Mahler was a major genius, and these works are beyond symphonies to me - they are like some magical gifts from another time and place.

To this day, Mahler is my favorite composer, alongside Ives, Stravinsky, and Zappa. I saw Boulez conduct M6 last year at Carnegie and it changed my life.

Thanks very much for sharing your Mahler-istic journey. I'd bet Mahler would think it very cool that he ranks with Ives, Stravinsky and Zappa among your favorites. TIM

that was looking great. Its good time spend to read above posr. thanks for sharing.

GM''s 7th is my favorite music of all time. I cannot listen to the first movement without getting goosebumps. His 1st is another favorite, but there are two kinds of music: Mahler's 7th and everything else.

Thanks for sharing youe enthusiasm. TIM

I am 67 yrs old and first heard Mahler over a year ago for the first time, I was sitting in the car listening to the radio, just day dreaming when Mahaler came on Synphony no 5, I just went wow, then when I got home read all I could on the internet about him.

Thanks for writing. It's amazing how quickly Mahler can grab you. TIM

Reading some of the comments on your piece made me remember my most salient Mahler experience which was during the end of a performance of Mahler 3. During the last orchestral section I drifted into what I can only call a transcendental state. I have never felt anything like it before or since. I have written more here

I was lucky to hear Mahler for the first time conducted by Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. After that there was no doubt in my mind that this was music that I had to explore. I have spent the next thirty years doing just that as well as catching up with Bruckner and Wagner!

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. I sure recognize that reaction to the finale of the Third -- I didn't believe my ears the first time I heard it. TIM

Mahler is one of the composers with whom I most identify. His work forces the listeners to break through the barriers of their own limited individual, small, petty and selfish, and expand their perception of the whole, inevitably under an experience as dramatic, intense and mysterious as death. Mahler kills us slowly, and raises us with a renewed consciousness. Mahler's music is inextricably tied to the process of changing consciousness of what our society lacks today, from a materialistic view to a cosmic vision.

Thanks very much for your beautifully expressed view of this amazing composer. TIM

Meet me in friend....

As a latecomer to classical singing three years ago at age 20, an English major trying to chart a new course, I was a little behind on my general music history when I started singing Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and later the Rückert Lieder, which I was preparing for my senior recital. I loved them. I felt like each song was a world I could inhabit and explore. My voice teacher lent me a biography on Mahler, by Kurt and Herta Blaukopf. "Read it before your senior recital," she said. Running around between Russian coachings for my Mussorgsky song cycle, finishing my senior essay on Nabokov, and applying for jobs for the next year, I barely glanced at the book until spring break, three weeks before my recital. It is an interesting biography concept, really more of a collection of contemporary writings, letters, and recollections of people connected to the man. The man who emerged from the pages had such integrity and honesty in the way he approached his own music and that of others, but enchantingly human. He was a person whose mother wrote to remind him not to forget to pack his underwear as he moved from place to place, because, "I know you Gustav." A person who would get on a train to go conduct a choral rehearsal, immerse himself in the score, and look up two hours later expecting to be in the town, only to realize he was sitting in a disconnected carriage in the same place he started. A person vulnerable to confusion and entanglement in relationships, but earnest in all of them. I read the book in two days, and then I read it again. My senior recital was a thousand times richer for having fallen in love with Gustav Mahler. I felt I had been lost to the world. It's been like that ever since. A year later, I am reading the biography once more in German, a language I applied myself to largely because I had fallen in love with Gustav Mahler. One might even say I moved to Germany because of Gustav Mahler. I have not finished listening to all the symphonies, but am relishing my journey through them. When I think about my spirituality, Mahler is always a strong presence in my mind. I love him.

One note, though: I usually admire Kozena, but find this performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen less than ideal. The orchestra is wonderful under Abbado, but she is so brash and busy. She sounds resentful that she is lost to the world, when the song is about stillness and peace and contentment living in one's own artistic world. She also brazenly ignores the dynamic markings in the score. I know I'm late to this post, but I would suggest visitors to this page look at the versions sung by Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, and the absolute best in my opinion sung by the divine Kathleen Ferrier, all available on youtube as well. Just my opinion about one of my favorite pieces!

Thanks for the wonderful comments. As for the clip I posted, I confess I was mainly drawn to Abbado, who gets more and more profoundly connected to Mahler every year. I enjoyed hearing about your reading of bios. For this anniversary season, I've been plowing through the last volume of the de la Grange set, which brings the man and the era to life in so many amazing ways. Thanks again. TIM

I just came across this article thanks to the Mahler group on Facebook: The article and all the comments are nothing short of beautiful. Tears in my eyes, chills down my spine. My intro to the Big M happened at around age 16 when a friend took me to a concert featuring Beethoven's 5th. As I remember the event, the warmup piece was none other than Mahler's 1st! Having grown up with classical music constantly in the air - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, sometimes Wagner, etc - I had never heard a note of Mahler until then. And the first notes of the 1st were all it took. Haydn is way too light-hearted for me, Mozart's just a little better, Beethoven too pedantic, Wagner would be great without all that singing - and then there was Mahler. All those "A"s up and down the scale starting off the 1st of the 1st. Then waking up with the bird calls, gently morphing into that first recognizable melody...eventually into the minor-key Frere Jacque (sp?) in the 3rd mvmt...the crash of the cymbal kicking off the 4th mvmt...and the massive D major finale...OMG, that's it. I'm hooked. As a high schooler, when all my friends were chasing skirts or playing football, I was at the Great Neck Public Library listening intently to every Mahler record (remember them?) they had on their turntables and headphones. Long story short, even to this day I can't get enough. Just recently I hopped a morning flight from Portland OR to SFO to enjoy the wonderful San Fransisco Symphony's performance of Mahler 2 (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting), then flew home that evening. I'd do anything and go anywhere for good Mahler. Thank you Tim and all the commenters for sharing your feelings about the greatest composer who ever lived.

Wow. Thanks so much for sharing your love of this amazing composer. Nice to know my year-old post is still being read. Your words remind me that I wish I could get out to San Francisco again -- I imagine MTT's Mahler 3 would be well worth the trip in September. TIM

I began my exploration of the world of classical music with the First Viennese School. By the time I first heard Mahler, I was familiar with the music of Beethoven and Brahms, Mozart and Haydn. I had recordings of Mahler 4 and Mahler 5 in my iTunes library, but from the first couple of listens, I had deemed Mahler's music "strange," and "unnerving," not able to appreciate the dissonances long enough to hear the resolutions.

My senior year of high school rolled around, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's Music Director, Andreas Delfs, was celebrating his last year with the ensemble. As I had come to love the music that seemed to magically emanate from the orchestra under Delfs' baton, I *had* to be at his last concert. His penultimate program with the orchestra was Mozart 41 and Brahms 1. At the time, I was so irritated that he didn't make that his last concert - the music I was in love with at the time.

When I found out what Delfs would be performing as his last concerts as Music Director of the MSO (Mahler 8 - what could be more fitting?), I had to familiarize myself with the massive symphony rather quickly, for I was going to be at the concert, and I was going to cherish this farewell concert. I referenced my Omnibus Guide to Classical CDs, for recommendations of recordings of the 8th, and downloaded Solti/CSO. I started with the first track, the thundering "Veni Creator Spiritus," with organ and voices, and wasn't thrilled at the prospect of Mahler 8 being Delfs' last concert. "Why couldn't he have ended with Brahms?" I kept asking myself.

The concert date was fast approaching, and I needed to familiarize myself with this massive symphony, quickly. I wanted to at least enjoy the ending of the concert (and know when the music would be over - because there's nothing worse than not knowing when to clap), so I found a clip of the last 7.5 minutes of the Tennstedt/LSO recording on YouTube.

Maybe it was the emotion in Tennstedt's face; maybe it was the music; as with you, Tim, "I was blown away. I did not know music could do that, could go where Mahler took it, could hit me in some deep emotional place that hadn’t been awakened before." I don't know how else to put it. That was the first time I had ever been moved to tears by a piece of music. It is the moment that made music an integral part of my identity. I honestly cannot remember who I was before Mahler came into my life.

There are approximately 12 years of my life completely unaccounted for, in terms of having a purpose. I don't know what my purpose was for those first years. After those twelve years, I was introduced to classical music, and eventually the Beethoven symphonies - which were greatly entertaining, but still didn't resonate within me quite so fully as the music of Mahler did. Since the 2008-09 MSO season, I am a changed person. I took on the identity of music - whatever that is.

Currently, I am a rising junior at Macalester College, very interested in studying the philosophy of music, trying to understand what about the ordering of tones moves a person, emotionally, in such a powerful manner. I hope to work for an orchestra or arts foundation some day, to spread the love of music to others; to spread something that can make everyone happy. If only we could all let music be our source of happiness... oh, how great our world would then be.

Thanks so much for sharing that remarkable story. It's great to know that someone from your generation embraces Mahler so strongly and also wants to help the cause of music. You are bound to make a big difference in the world. Best of luck. TIM

What comes to mind right now is something Shostakovich once said about Mahlers' genius in music. When talking about the symphonies he remarked something near to......There is the First and then the 2nd & 3rd and then the 4th and of course the 5th 6th & 7th and then 8&9. I probably have really goofed his words here but never the less Shostakovich was amazed at Mahler's genius. I myself have always marveled as to how Mahler used music to communicated the most age old questions so poignantly. I have over 300 Mahler cds in my collection. I always love to talk Mahler.


Thanks so much for adding your voice to this little corner of Mahler love. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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