The BEST: Gustav Mahler: Symphonies 1-6

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The BEST: Gustav Mahler: Symphonies 1-6
by Yaakov Beasley

SUMMARY: The third movement of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (“The Titan”) begins with a familiar tune – the melody from the children’s song “Frère Jacques” (Brȕder Martin in German). It’s a playful moment, until the discerning ear notices that the upbeat tune has been contorted into a morose minor key, and that Mahler is using instruments in the lower register to play the melody – a solo double bass, then a bassoon, then a tuba. The altered music now recalls Chopin’s Funeral March, when suddenly, the melody changes into a raucous bar tune. The music sounds as if a drunken klezmer band is playing, not a symphony orchestra. The total effect, beginning with the misappropriated nursery rhyme subtly transformed into a funeral march and then cheerful jazz, scandalized the original audiences in 1889. Some scholars suggest that the music reflects Mahler’s experiences as a child: He grew up in an apartment above a tavern, in a town that garrisoned Austro-Hungarian soldiers. As a child, he watched his parents bury seven of his siblings; each lost to childhood diseases. Close your eyes, and you can imagine a small pine coffin passing from a nursery through a drunken barroom. In a conversation with the composer Sibelius, Mahler insisted that music “must embrace the entire world,” warts and all. His ability to use music to conjure vivid depictions of the contradictions of daily life transformed Mahler into arguably the most influential composer of the 20th century.

WHY THIS IS THE BEST: Mahler’s placement in the pantheon of composers is unique. Most great composers were acknowledged as such while alive. In his lifetime, Mahler was widely regarded as a great conductor, but his music was considered second-rate, too gaudy, too complex. Only after World War II, did the music world embrace him, and it did so with a vengeance. He is likely the most played composer of our age – unlike others of his time, who viewed music as a world apart, Mahler was willing to embrace life in its totality, including its paradoxes. In no other major composer do we find cow bells sitting comfortably beside a professional string section. Mahler used his music to grapple with questions of nationalism, religion, alienation, ecology – questions that occupy anyone who wrestles with the meaning of life.

Two characteristics stand out when listening to a Mahler symphony. First, each piece is an argument – the musical equivalent of Talmudic “shakla ve-tarya.” Optimistic major musical themes battle with minor melodies throughout; loud battles with quiet, horns against strings. Many times, the music ends without a resolution (see especially his 6th symphony) – a musical teiku. The message is clear. Not every question has an answer, but we must continue to wrestle nonetheless. Listening to Mahler’s music requires effort, but it is worth it. 

Second, as pointed out by Norman Lebrecht, Mahler never left his Jewish roots behind. This comes to the fore not only in his use of Jewish melodies and themes (the klezmer music mentioned above and the horns in his “Resurrection” symphony No. 2 that recall the shofar). More importantly, Lebrecht notes that Mahler, the quintessential outsider (a Jewish-born, Bohemian), adapted the ultimate outsider language, Yiddish, for its ability to converse ironically (with the right inflections, the phrase “he is a great talmid hakham” means “what an idiot”) into music – to say one thing and mean another like a nursery rhyme becoming a funeral march. Mahler often drew from the repertoire of patriotic German songs – yet was he serious? His talent in conveying multiple levels of meaning allows the listener to hear two separate emotions, often simultaneously. After 9/11, it’s not surprising that Mahler’s most famous piece, the soaring and romantic Agadietto from the 5th symphony, became transformed into an expression of grief and mourning.

RECOMMENDED READING: Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht, The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual by David Hurwitz (with accompanying CD)


Yaakov Beasley is the Tanakh Coordinator at Yeshivat Hesder Lev HaTorah, and the author of the recently published Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: Lights in the Valley (Maggid).

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published February 27, 2020]


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