How I discovered Mahler
After decades of near-neglect and sometimes ridicule, the music of Gustav Mahler caught on in a big way in the 1960s -- and I thank goodness that I was aware enough then to experience it.
Most Mahler nuts, we’re told, find their ways to this composer through one of the less time-demanding symphonies like the First or Fourth -- or maybe the poignant Adagietto movement from the Fifth. My entryway, oddly enough, was through the clangorous finale from the Seventh Symphony on a free Columbia Masterworks LP sampler that my dad brought home in 1966. (I might add that from this one slab of vinyl, I also heard Bruckner, Ives, Nielsen and neoclassical Stravinsky for the first time, igniting lifelong passions for all.) No one ever told me that the Seventh was the tough one that you’re not supposed to get right away. The last minutes sounded like a riotous, even desperate celebration -- maybe the cracking apart of 19th century Romantic traditions, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, or something bigger and more current.
That was the start of it, but the year that really pounded Mahler into my consciousness was 1968, in which time seemed to crawl since so many dramatic world-altering events were jammed together one after another. I was 14, all caught up in the political turmoil, and I recall listening to the Sixth and Ninth symphonies on the radio for the first time in the newly issued Bernstein recordings. Imagine hearing the Sixth -- with its sky-high hopes cut down by three hammer blows -- just after the hammer-blow assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War still in the news. And then there was the Ninth, whose yearning opening movement seemed like a world-weary goodbye to idealism, and whose urban, angry, agitated Rondo Burleske found its resonance in the cops beating demonstrators in the streets of Chicago.
Eventually, I got to hear the rest of the symphonies and song cycles, accumulated hundreds of Mahler recordings and almost all of the printed scores, and realized that the message and breadth of these amazing works transcended current events. But yes, even to this day, Mahler’s music can still absorb and radiate energy and meaning from the news. It couldn’t be a coincidence that two of the most powerful Mahler performances of recent years -- Michael Tilson Thomas’s Sixth and Rudolf Barshai’s remarkably convincing reconstruction of the Tenth -- were both recorded on Sept. 12, 2001.
For my article on how appreciation of the composer has grown over the years, click here.
-- Richard S. Ginell