Taking issue with the popularity of Mahler’s symphonies

Posted on: July 12, 2017

“When I began listening to music seriously, in about 1950, I had read about Mahler but wasn’t able to hear any,” writes Michael Tanner in Saturday’s (7/8) Spectator (U.K.). “Almost none of his works was available on 78s.… When I finally managed to hear [a] recording of the Ninth I was suitably overwhelmed…. Nowadays Mahler is unavoidable—putting on a Mahler symphony is the surest way to fill a concert hall…. Mahler said his time would come; the question now, for me, is when it will go. For the symphonies, up until the last, are all flawed, in different ways, but primarily because they peddle sentimentality as courage, heroism, defiance and piety.… It is largely because of the ramshackle, anything-might-happen-next quality of many of his works that they generate such enthusiasm—they don’t need comprehending because they can’t be comprehended. What is the Adagietto of the Fifth doing except providing a little aural relief, admittedly of an emetic kind, between the nihilistic energy of the neighbouring movements? If the greatest Dionysian art is order on the very verge of chaos, then one might say that Mahler’s is the negation of that: chaos on the verge of order.”

Posted July 12, 2017