Because classical music depends mostly on the work of dead composers, but still feels the need (like every other form of entertainment) to have some kind of current hook to draw people in, centenaries and anniversaries — basically, any round number of years since something happened — are the life’s blood of the business. And because Gustav Mahler was born in 1860 and died in 1911, he gets two, two, two anniversaries in one. This year was the 150th anniversary of his birth, and we’re moving into the 100th anniversary of his death. Orchestras perform and record a lot of Mahler anyway, but this gives them an excuse.
Come to think of it, Mahler’s explosion in popularity in the ’60s, after a few decades when his music had been a tough sell in most concert halls, may have had something to do with his centenary in 1960, though I don’t get the impression that it really spilled over into 1961 and the 50th anniversary of his death. Celebrating a composer’s death, a paradoxical idea if there ever was one, may really have caught on in 1991 with the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death.
So we’re getting two solid years of Mahler cycles; and in an era when the only good news for the classical recording industry is that the pop music industry will soon be doing almost as badly, Mahler recordings still pour into the shops. Most of Mahler’s symphonies were not frequently recorded until the ’60s; now they’re probably the most frequently recorded pieces out there. When an orchestra starts its own label (something that’s necessary if it wants to keep recording) it often does so with a Mahler symphony. The San Francisco Symphony’s label has released nothing except Mahler symphony recordings. And the veteran period-instrument conductor Philippe Herreweghe, who left his longtime Harmonia Mundi label because they wanted to cut back the number of recordings he made, just started his own label; his first release is a Mahler symphony on period instruments. (No, there’s no real point to playing works from 1900 on period instruments, but yes, they do sound pretty good that way.) It’s a Mahler world out there, to an extent I wouldn’t have thought possible even in the ’90s when I started getting interested in music.
I certainly liked Mahler, particularly once I caught onto the Jewish strain in his music — like the famous movement below, with the minor-key arrangement of Frère Jacques interrupted by a klezmer-style interlude. I just didn’t think of him as part of the mainstream repertoire, but he certainly is now.
I wrote about some of the reasons for the Mahler boom for the magazine earlier this year. I will add one other thing: Mahler’s popularity has increased with the amount of space offered by recorded formats. Most of Mahler’s symphonies are around 80 minutes in length, which made them very poor propositions for the old 78 RPM records. When LP came in, suddenly it was possible to fit a whole Mahler symphony on only two records, and the shortest symphonies — 1 and 4 — on only one. This allowed much more Mahler to be recorded. When compact disc came in, with its 80 minute maximum playing time, it was possible to listen to some Mahler symphonies at home, straight through, without a break. (Though most conductors take the symphonies a little more slowly than they were probably taken in Mahler’s era, pushing them to over 80 minutes. Mahler didn’t live to make recordings, his disciples tended to take the famous “Adagietto” quite fast, while many modern conductors take it very slowly.) And now, with digital music, there is no need to change sides in any music, no matter how long it is.
Speaking of breaks and time limits, here is a complete Mahler performance that someone has uploaded with all four movements — even the ones lasting over 20 minutes — unbroken. It’s the sixth symphony, which is described at length in Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise because it’s a key work in “twentieth century music,” whatever you take that term to mean. It was the first Mahler symphony not to incorporate any of his songs (symphonies 2-4 all have vocal movements, and 1 and 5 use instrumental versions of songs that Mahler had previously written), and is the closest of his works to so-called “absolute” music; it even nods to an older classical tradition by ordering an exposition repeat in the first movement. Its also his darkest, without the usual uplift or resignation at the end, and the grinding, militaristic sound of a lot of it (with lyrical interludes) was a major influence on a lot of music.
It’s also an example of the fact that, as I mentioned, Mahler’s symphonies are appealing to conductors because they put the conductor in the forefront. Mahler changed his mind about a couple of things in the piece, including whether there should be two or three “hammer blows” in the finale and, especially, the order of the movements: he originally had the slow movement third, and published it that way, but at the last minute he decided to switch the order and put the slow movement second. Conductors who perform the piece get to decide whether to include the third hammer stroke and which order to play the movements in, and that gives a more creative aspect to the conductor’s job than usual. Since Mahler was a world-famous conductor, it makes sense that he wrote music that gives the conductor a certain amount of leeway.
This performance features the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Russian who conducts seemingly everywhere and releases about a zillion recordings a year; it was made before he started conducting (literally) with a toothpick. He puts the slow movement second. His cycle of Mahler audio recordings, mad at these same live concerts, has been uneven — he plays Mahler the way he plays almost everything, fast, loud and aggressive. It works for this symphony, though.