The 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler‘s death (1860-1911) on May 18 seems to be bigger news than the 150th anniversary of his birth last July. In his case, that seems completely appropriate.
Music That Testifies To An Anxiety About Death
In his own lifetime, Mahler shared the public’s preoccupation with his death. Even as a young man, he dreaded his own demise. His music is constantly testifying to this anxiety.
Almost all of Mahler’s nine symphonies have at least one vivid depiction of a funeral march, and many of them even begin in this morose style (the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th symphonies come to mind as examples.) His song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) was tragically prescient — he wrote it four years before the unexpected death of his own daughter.
His darkest music is certainly the Sixth Symphony, which has since been subtitled “Tragic”. The final movement is punctuated by enormous hammer blows (yes, a real hammer) that the composer purportedly said were mighty blows of fate.
A Macabre Composer’s Full Life
Mahler was a celebrated conductor in his lifetime. He led the Vienna State Opera, and even eventually came to America to direct the New York Philharmonic.
Only in the last half-century, however, has his music seen wide acclaim. Conductor Leonard Bernstein is often credited with bringing Mahler’s work to the concert hall. Now, it is common for major symphonies to program several Mahler symphonies each season.
Mahler is remembered for his intensely personal music. He wrote symphonies for giant orchestras and choruses that still feel somehow intimate. Although the topic of death does lurk somewhere deep in his music, the overriding stories there are usually of struggle and life. Mahler’s embattled heroes do manage, sometimes, to overcome fate. Those glorious, shining moments of victory are as hopeful as the funeral marches are tragic.