“…I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability for psychological understanding of this man of genius…”
They only had one session, less than a year before Mahler died. But Mahler had already delved deeply into his tortured psyche and had demonstrated considerable analytical technique in the music. Is this why we respond the way we do? Is this why the symphonies provide emotional centerpieces for so many orchestral seasons? Is this why music written at the beginning of the twentieth century seems to be making such trenchant commentary on the now?
Well, it’s not just the ravishing melodies, although a chance encounter with the Adagietto (in the 5th) has drawn many a listener into the vortex. It’s not just the spectacle, not just the charming depictions of a natural world increasingly impinged upon by the forces of foolishness. It’s impossible to say for sure, but it might simply be that Mahler achieved his artistic goal of depicting the world in its entirety.
We have needed that, and we do, and we will.
One hesitates to order the symphonies based on personal preference, but if a listener is starting to build a set, here is one of many ways to go about it:
Symphony No. 4
Take your coffee and your New York Times with this “Sunday” Symphony. Skip church, since the whole order of worship is here. Note especially the scordatura, an altered tuning for the lead fiddle in the second movement. If possible, listen to a couple different performances before choosing the one you invite to join the family. They are your Sundays, after all, and you’ll want for the orchestra to be righteous and for the soprano in the last movement to express a childlike wonder.
*It should be noted, before proceeding, that recordings, even the best ones, are means, not ends. They should serve primarily as homework, and without live performances you won’t pass the course. So, for example, if you live in Texas, put the sites for the orchestras of at least Dallas, Houston and San Antonio on your computer calendar with the little reminder thingy. Any of the Mahler symphonies, performed by these bands, are worth a drive.
Symphonies No. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 (the 8th is only essential if you dig the sound of the human voice multiplied a thousand times) and 10, which Gus left incomplete; maybe I felt like I had heard a world’s worth by then, but to me, a valid way to end your introduction to the dude is with the 9th, as noted below. Just be sure and really attend the damn thing.
After the Fourth, chronology can guide us. In his early ventures onto the hallowed ground of Beethoven and Brahms, Mahler clearly understands the stakes and refuses to pander to the audience or the critics. Indeed, he overcame crushing disappointment when Hans Von Bulow greeted the piano version of the 2nd with incomprehension. But there is probably no composer whose imaginative vision resulted in a greater advancement of performance practice. Not only are chorus and soloists used in the second and the third, exotic instruments are employed (like a big-ass hammer in the 6th) and very explicit instructions tell players what to do, what not to do, even where to stand and how to hold their instruments. In this, Mahler was anticipating the functions of recording technology, finding ways to make the sounds that he alone heard in a 15 square meter composing cabin in the mountains when he was on vaycay.
Symphony No. 9
Forget what was said earlier about ranking—this is the Big Daddy and IMHO there ought to be a constellation named after it. Mahler thought it was to be his last composition. In fact, he documents his irregular heartbeat throughout and seems to resist putting his pen down at the end. Start to finish, the mighty 9th provides a summation of the wondrous symphonic world that has come before. Crank it up enough to shake your liver a little and then honor it with die Stille nach dem Sturm.