Pacific Symphony is capping its 2018-19 season with a suitably ambitious work: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, often called the “Titan,” will be performed Thursday through Sunday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It’s the kind of big, emotional barnburner that music director Carl St.Clair really likes to sink his teeth into.
More than a century after his death, the great Austrian composer is one of the symphonic world’s cornerstones. Australia’s ABC Classic FM does an annual voter survey of the world’s most popular classical orchestral works. Three of Mahler’s 10 symphonies made the top 25: his first, second and fifth. No serious orchestra these days dares not to program a major Mahler piece every season or two, and there are many to choose from; although he left only 24 major completed scores, most are for large orchestral forces.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, this giant of the orchestral world was considered a mediocre talent. For decades after his death in 1911, Mahler was seldom programmed by major orchestras and dismissed by some of the world’s greatest composers as little more than a ham-handed semi-amateur.
“The consensus among professionals of the immediate postwar era was that, although Mahler had been one of the great conductors of all time, he was a second-rate composer whose symphonies were overlong, turgid, banal, too excessively neurotic for general enjoyment,” writes former Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein.
The dominant composers in the decades after Mahler’s death thought little of his music, for the most part. Ralph Vaughan Williams damned him with faint praise: “A very tolerable imitation of a composer.”
So how did Mahler’s reputation turn around so dramatically? We asked Alan Chapman, prominent local music scholar and KUSC-FM radio host, who will be giving the pre-concert talk before every Pacific Symphony performance this week. He offered several fascinating theories to explain the composer’s remarkable transformation from charlatan to champion.
“I would draw a parallel to Bach,” Chapman said. “The fact is that (Bach and Mahler) came at the culmination of a period, just before things changed. Bach comes at the culmination of the Baroque and Mahler comes at the end of the Romantic period.” In both eras, younger composers writing in completely different styles were making a splash, and what came immediately before was considered old fashioned and out of touch, Chapman explained.
Bach died in 1750, which is the year where most historians place the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods in music. When Mahler died, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and other young composers had already turned their back on tonality and what they considered the excesses of Mahler’s style, late Romanticism.
“Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ premiered just two years after Mahler died,” Chapman pointed out. The outright rejection of Romanticism continued strongly after World War I and pervaded most European and American classical music, Chapman pointed out. “In France, Poulenc and Milhaud are advancing a new sound. Meanwhile in Vienna, Schoenberg and his disciples are preaching a new style, which is austere and very un-Romantic.”
78s Weren’t Kind to Mahler
Bach’s resurrection took almost a century. Although certain in-the-know composers appreciated his intellect and genius – Mozart was among his Classical-era admirers – it wasn’t until the 1830s that another compositional genius with Bach-like facility, Felix Mendelssohn, sparked a long and slowly building appreciation for the master’s work.
Fortunately, Mahler’s music didn’t have to molder away for quite that long.
Certain near-contemporaries such as composer Frederick Delius predicted that Mahler would someday be a regular in the world’s concert halls. Conductor Bruno Walter was also a Mahler fan who programmed his music in the first few decades after his death.
But it took another prominent conductor-composer, Leonard Bernstein, to recognize and champion Mahler’s achievements. When he led the New York Philharmonic (Mahler’s last job) in the 1960s, Bernstein began a concerted effort to program and record his music, imbuing it with a passion, verve and solemnity that perhaps had been missing from most previous interpretations. Other conductors were part of the Mahler resurrection movement, too, notably Pierre Boulez.
Chapman isn’t surprised that Bernstein and Boulez were Mahler champions. “They’re both conductor-composers. That’s a very rare breed, especially at their level. You can understand the affinity they would have for him.”
As both conductor and composer, Mahler was a stickler for detail. His scores are full of precise information about how the music should be performed, which conductors especially appreciate, Chapman said.
“He was a brilliant and very meticulous conductor, and that played a part in how he annotated his scores. He provides information that only a conductor would think of.”
Chapman also thinks the development of recorded music played a natural part in Mahler’s popularization. His long, involved works – even single movements of his symphonies can take 15 minutes or more to perform – weren’t well suited to early 78 rpm records. But the advent of the LP was beneficial to Mahler, allowing his creations to play relatively uninterrupted on one side of a 33-1/3 rpm record.
Chapman dismisses the notion that Mahler’s symphonies are any more difficult to play than most other composers’. “There’s nothing particular to this work that isn’t particular to others. There are just as many challenges to performing a Mozart symphony as one like this. It’s all about paying attention to detail, and with any good music that attention pays off, whether it’s Mozart or Mahler.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].