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This Mahler Guy Is Pretty Good

May 15th, 2017 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Until a few years ago, this is what I knew of Gustav Mahler.

He was a famous composer whose work I had never heard.

He was the favorite composer of the eternally snooty television brothers Frasier and Niles Crane, of the long-running show Frasier.

(Whenever the two went out for a night, odds were it was to a concert including some Mahler.)

On the basis of those two facts, I decided to give Mahler a try, 20 years ago. I bought CDs of two of his symphonies and gave them a listen … and then gave up.

His music seemed a bit impenetrable. Or maybe I did not give him a fair hearing; classical music can sometimes require a couple of times through, before appreciation follows.

Twenty years later, I am giving him another shot … and I must concede that he is pretty good.

I particularly like his First Symphony (sometimes known as “Titan”), which I have come to know fairly well from frequent playings.

I prefer this version of the YouTube choices; the little old guy (now dead) directing the orchestra was recognized as an authority on Mahler, and his version seems crisper and sharper than others I have heard. Mahler called for a big orchestra and this one includes not one but two harps and timpani.

Mahler was an interesting guy. Like many of the best-known classical composers, he had a tempestuous career marked by his overcoming obstacles but then being difficult himself.

As a Jew living in the genteel but doddering Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th century, his upward mobility in Vienna was limited by his ethnicity, and he converted (perhaps with limited enthusiasm) to Catholicism, which allowed him to become director of the state opera.

He apparently had numerous affairs of the heart and also was known for a hot temper that included verbal abuse of musicians who annoyed him.

Early in the 20th century he was married and had two children, one of whom died young, and he was diagnosed with a defective heart while still in his 40s. He held back his wife’s attempts to write her own music, and she had an affair with architect Walter Gropius, which led to Mahler seeking analysis, back in Vienna, from Sigmund Freud.

Critics ran hot and cold on Mahler. They tended to like his work as a conductor more than his own music; the length of his symphonies (generally well over an hour) was often remarked upon.

He apparently is seen as one of the links between the German music of the Beethoven era (early 19th century) and what was to come in the 20th.

From 1908 to 1911 he was director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, though he would return home to Austria each summer.

He died in 1911, and his wife, Alma, outlived him by 60 years and did not exactly flatter his memory. Their daughter, a sculptor, lived until 1988 and her last husband, apparently is still living.

So, Mahler’s work comes from another era but through his wife and daughter he seems almost modern a century after he died. At the least, he had a back story as complicated as just about anyone out there. More than one movie has been made about his life (this was the most ambitious), and hers; one or the other of them seemed to have met or been close to most of the major artistic figures of early 20th century Europe.

Perhaps his colorful life whets the appeal for music snobs, fictional (Frasier and Niles) or otherwise.

I like Mahler’s First Symphony, which has not always been praised, and I am coming to grips with the Second, and I’m thinking I will push right on through to the Ninth.

It is fun, often, to discover a new old composer. New to me, anyway.

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