Move over, Mozart!

Once a musical pariah, composer-conductor Gustav Mahler is now, 150 years after his birth, box-office gold
Getty Images/ Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

In Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, a character sings about the pretentious things that alcoholic Manhattan snobs enjoy, including the cryptic plays of Harold Pinter and “perhaps a piece of Mahler’s.” That was the way many music fans saw Gustav Mahler, the Austrian composer-conductor who died in 1911: as a creator of bloated 80-minute symphonies that were mostly popular with poseurs. Forty years after Company, as the musical world celebrates the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth (and, next year, the centenary of his death), he is almost as popular as Mozart. The veteran British music critic Michael Kennedy wrote in The Spectator that in 60 years of music criticism, one of the three biggest changes he witnessed was “the emergence of Mahler as a popular composer worldwide.” Nor are musicians shy about placing him with the greatest of musical geniuses. Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, told Maclean’s that only Beethoven can compare to Mahler’s “unfailing ability to articulate the human condition, the glory of being alive,” while Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, says modern audiences consider Mahler’s music “the ultimate tour de force of orchestral writing.” Those are big statements to make about a composer who wrote an entire symphonic movement based on the tune of Frère Jacques.

No one looking at an orchestra’s schedule today would believe that Mahler was once considered, in the words of his friend Richard Strauss, “not a great composer, just a very great conductor.” For many decades after he died, most of his music went unrecorded. Conductors could get blackballed for performing him, not just in Nazi-occupied countries—where, as a Jewish composer, he was banned—but in America. According to author Joseph Horowitz, the conductor Otto Klemperer claimed that the New York Philharmonic’s manager dropped him for daring to perform a large-scale symphony by the “unpopular” Mahler. Even by the time of Company, Mahler performances were special occasions in most countries.

Today, however, a conductor might ruin his career by not performing Mahler; Richard Ginell noted in the Los Angeles Times that “when young conductors make their first big splash these days, they often do so with one of Mahler’s massive, all-embracing 10 symphonies.” As an example, Ginell pointed to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s young superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who chose a Mahler symphony for his first concert as music director. When the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev took over the London Symphony Orchestra, he chose to spend his first full season performing a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. Some people have had enough of his symphonies taking up 75 per cent of concert after concert; reviewing yet another Mahler performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Globe and Mail’s Ken Winters wrote that he found “life too short to accommodate with pleasure” most of Mahler’s “hyperbolic rhetoric.” But it’s too late for a backlash. Few orchestras can avoid having at least some Mahler in their repertoire.

Mahler is also one of the few composers supporting the creaky classical recording industry. Though many of his pieces took years to be commercially recorded, several top orchestras are now in the process of recording his complete symphonies, and Thomas’s San Francisco Symphony, which used to record all kinds of music, has spent the last decade recording nothing except Mahler. That’s because his music sells in every country, from America to Europe to Asia; the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda told Maclean’s that in “the last 10 to 15 years,” Mahler has “become more popular every single year” in Italy, where audiences used to ignore his massive Teutonic symphonies. And though almost everything Mahler wrote was for a large orchestra, including an expanded orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, even smaller groups feel compelled to take him up. In June, Ottawa’s chamber-sized National Arts Centre Orchestra will team with Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which Tovey performed in Vancouver earlier this year), called “Symphony of a Thousand” because it requires as many players and singers as a city can possibly find. Mahler once said “My time will come,” meaning that he’d be popular one day. He probably never dreamed that he would be a better box-office proposition than most of the people whose music he conducted.
Listening to a Mahler symphony today, it’s easy to understand why he was considered a bizarre cult figure: his nine completed symphonies (and a 10th, finished by others after his death) are a weird mix of a lush late-romantic sound, German popular music, and nods to his Jewish roots. The third movement of his first symphony, with the famous Frère Jacques sequence, also has an interlude that sounds exactly like what would later be called a klezmer band. His Fifth Symphony starts with the same trumpet call that opens Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March, and before the finale, it incorporates a hummable slow interlude (made famous in the movie Death in Venice) that many of his contemporaries considered kitschy and unworthy of the rest of the piece. And his epic two-hour Third Symphony incorporates a song about a dead cuckoo, a parody of Brahms, an aria to words by Nietzsche, and a children’s chorus singing the words “bim bam, bim bam.” Mahler believed that a symphony should be “all-embracing,” and that meant the audience should never have any idea what crazy thing the composer might do next.

This approach was often offensive to listeners who believed that classical music is supposed to be high art. Mahler created symphonies and orchestral songs that are sprawling, uncertain in tone, and sometimes even silly. Thomas says that the music is “referential to a very high degree,” with much of the material imitating “military music, cabaret music, or folk music.” Because of that, many listeners found they couldn’t take Mahler seriously, and some found him unlistenable. In the ’60s, John Culshaw, the top classical record producer in England, started to produce a Mahler cycle and gave up after two symphonies, writing that “his music makes me feel sick—not metaphorically but physically sick. I find his strainings and heavings, juxtaposed with what always sounds like faux-naïf music of the most calculated type, downright repulsive.”

But over the years, this kind of juxtaposition has become one of the most valuable commodities in music. Mahler may have been the father of the musical movement known as eclecticism, and of composers who don’t care about unity of style. That’s certainly the way he was seen by composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who helped make Mahler popular in America and whose music (like West Side Story) was influenced by Mahler’s mix of popular and serious elements.

The stereotype of classical music is that it’s self-important, excluding anything that ordinary people like. Mahler is exhibit A for people who want to prove that stereotype wrong. He was willing to include any type of music under the umbrella of the classical style, the way modern pop and jazz groups incorporate all kinds of musical influences; Tovey thinks this makes his music understandable “to a generation brought up on the Rolling Stones.” And because Mahler’s music is always digressing into new styles, he keeps the listener’s attention because, Tovey says, “there are always tributaries from the main narrative that can be enjoyed.” He wrote long symphonies that are perfect for the modern era of short attention spans.

Mahler offers something else: a modern sensibility without the harsh sounds of modern music. He was a major influence on Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of atonal music, but as Tovey points out, he was “not always an admirer” of Schoenberg, and never crossed over into atonality or other avant-garde techniques. Even his late symphonies, which stretch traditional harmony to the breaking point, are usually in recognizable keys and offer simple, hummable themes to break up the more advanced moments; Tovey agrees with those who call him “both a late romantic and a modern visionary.” Michael Gielen, a veteran German conductor who has made acclaimed recordings of all the Mahler symphonies, told an interviewer that Mahler is as complex as the modernistic composers who followed him, but tried similar experiments in “an idiom which makes the audience believe they can understand it.” When conductors want music to say something harsh, they can use Mahler to make their statements without driving listeners away.

That may be the biggest explanation for Mahler’s new popularity: conductors really like to perform his pieces. They’re so big and diffuse, they’re the ultimate test of a conductor’s art; Thomas explains they allow an orchestra and conductor “to explore a very wide range of the possibilities of performance. The music encourages you to be as singing, as tender, as aggressive, as brutal as it is possible to be.” Noseda, who is conducting many of the symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra as part of a two-year festival, says that “if the structure is not clear in the head of the conductor,” and if he doesn’t find the right “emotional temperature,” then the symphony falls apart: “It looks like a sequence of many moments, which makes a Mahler symphony seem very long, because there is no connecting line.” And Mahler’s pieces have so many special musical effects that the conductor has many things to keep track of, from offstage instruments in the Second Symphony to the cowbells that unexpectedly pop up in the Sixth. Some pieces are showpieces for the orchestra; Mahler, as befits a star conductor, wrote pieces that make conductors look good.

Still, Mahler probably never intended his long, expensively produced symphonies to be routine listening experiences for concert-goers, and some performers worry that the Mahler glut is making them just that: “You see his music coming into the mainstream,” Noseda worries, “and that is dangerous, because that means people take it for granted.” Other dangerous, disturbing composers, from Mozart to Beethoven to Strauss, have become easy-listening experiences for older audiences, and Noseda hopes the same thing won’t happen to Mahler. “What I hope for him is not to become a sort of fashionable composer. He should be the kind of composer you can approach, but you can discover all the mysteries he tries to hide in himself.” After all, if Mahler becomes just another pleasant experience for the ladies who lunch, whose music will conductors use to show off?