My daughter's Famous Five collection - she absolutely insists on ordering it alphabetically by title rather than by volume number ...
My daughter’s Famous Five collection – she absolutely insists on ordering it alphabetically by title rather than by volume number …

It took some years for this concept to click with me as a child, but I finally worked out one day that if I ate the vegetables on the plate and then the meat, it would always mean that the ending of the meal was more enjoyable than the beginning. (Maybe it was one too many evenings stuck at the table half an hour later with nothing but peas on my plate.)

So, in the interests of saving the best for last, I’m attacking the Mahler symphonies in our guided tour out of order. This may not require any further justification than that, but those who know me know that I’m normally quite into numbers and sequences (e.g. I love reading an author’s works in chronological order, I can’t cope with coming in halfway through a movie trilogy and don’t even expect me to join you for Season 3 of a TV show) – so why break with the plan now?

With some symphonies, if I was going to listen to all of them, I would start with the composer’s first symphony and work my way up. It really pays off in the nine Beethoven symphonies, for instance. You can hear how each symphony got a little bit more elaborate than the last, watch how the composer was growing in his powers.

But I very quickly ditched that approach for Mahler symphonies. I think it’s because I still remember listening to them for the first time (when I worked through the Georg Solti box set in chronological order). However, I found that the first three symphonies (especially 2 and 3) were so spectacular, that I had a hard time listening to the rest from No. 4 onwards, because I’d always be comparing them (unfavourably) with his earlier symphonies.

Which is actually probably not all that surprising. I think Mahler knew, when he composed those earlier symphonies, that he was reaching heights of grandeur and spectacle that broke new ground in terms of what symphonies could do. Also, the earlier symphonies had some sort of program (in other words, they are music about something, like the idea of resurrection). So they’re slightly easier to understand, because when you know what the symphonies are about, they’re pretty enjoyable. In fact, they become rather like an early precursor to film music, and who doesn’t love a good movie soundtrack?

But something like Symphony No. 5 or Symphony No. 7, for instance, is far more difficult to pin down and work out what it’s about. It’s pure music. So I personally find the later Mahler symphonies tougher to listen to.

And look, maybe it’s a personal thing and depends on the answer to this question: what type of music do you like? Maybe it says something about me, but I love the grand, the spectacular, the spiritual and the emotional. And so, for me, I find that the Mahler 2 and 3 are pretty much top of my list.

The fascinating thing is that as I have spoken to various Mahler fans over the years, there is not a clearly defined favourite. Everyone has a different favourite and would rank them differently. There are definitely a lot of people who have had the same experience that I had with the Mahler 2, but then again, there are plenty of people who vote the Symphony No 5 as their favourite. Conductors have been known to rave about Das Lied von der Erde. (I believe it was the conductor Jascha Horenstein who is attributed as saying, shortly before he died, “one of the saddest things about leaving this world is not hearing Das Lied von der Erde ever again”. That story is courtesy of Deryk Barker’s lengthy article where he picks his favourite Mahler recordings.)

I also had a work colleague who thought the second movement of Symphony No. 1 was the most awesome thing he’d ever heard. (He was a violinist, that might have had something to do with it.)

But this is my list and so, to end with my favourite, I’m saving the Mahler 2 for last. And I’ve picked the Mahler 5 to begin with because I find it’s the perfect in-between symphony of Mahler. It leans backwards to the epicness of the first four, but it also leans forward to the new world of orchestral adventures that he was going to compose in the future. In other words, if you like the Mahler 5, you’ll probably like all of Mahler’s symphonies to some degree. But it’s not necessarily the case that people who like the later ones like the earlier one and vice versa.

But I guess we’ll soon find out, won’t we? We’ll begin with Movement I of the Mahler 5 next week, and I’ll look forward to you joining me.

Quick word of thanks in advance. While the descriptions of the Mahler symphonies that I’ll be posting are my own take on what I hear, nonetheless, it is always helpful to have other people point out what Mahler was trying to achieve or why he structured his music a certain way. To that end, I must credit two very helpful books, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies by Constantin Floros, a fairly dense and technical book (at least for this layperson) that was nonetheless helpful in explaining what Mahler was trying to do. And I would recommend to most people the awesomely-titled The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual by David Hurwitz, which is a rare book that manages to get in-depth into explaining classical music, while not assuming that the reader is a fully-educated music student. In fact, as long as you’re willing to expand your horizons, you can read it as a total newcomer to the genre, which is pretty awesome.

6 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Why Out Of Order?

  1. I am really looking forward to this journey Matt. But I would hate the job of trying to select an order, as you have done, moving from the more challenging to the favourites. My indecision would be crippling.

    I find the Mahler Symphonies, probably more than any other symphonic work other than perhaps Beethoven, to be an incredible bringing together of the intensely personal and the hugely universal. In that sense, I find myself connecting with all of his symphonies in very different ways and yet also, especially when I listen to them chronologically, feeling that I am following the deepest, most intimate biography of Mahler’s life – his struggles, his pain, his beliefs in the big things and in the small things, his hopes, his fears and, ultimately, his resolutions. I have read a few biographies of Mahler over the years, but none have ever told his life to me as his symphonies have done.

    It’ll be an incredible thing, sharing impressions and thoughts about these works – in whatever order you choose to bring them to us. Thanks so much for doing this!

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