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Why I Love Mahler

Posted by Gregory Marsh on

"If it is true that Mahler's music is worthless, as I believe to be the case, then the question is what I think he ought to have done with his talent.  For quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music."

If you have ever felt the way that Ludwig Wittgenstein felt about Mahler, you're not alone.  When I first heard Symphony No. 8,*  I unwillingly admired it.  Unwillingly, because: 

  • it was way too long, and 
  • it was outlandish and bewildering (I had the English text in front of me, and couldn't understand a word of it),
  • but I was knocked over and sucked in by the vastness of what I heard.

I've spent the last 14 years discovering not just Mahler, but many other composers.  The more I learn about music, the more I respect Mahler.  For a long time now, I have wanted to go back to Symphony 8: to enjoy the power and beauty of the music (which I felt before), but then to add to it the patience and comprehension that I have picked up in a decade and a half of concert-going.  Next month, I get to experience it live again, when the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform it in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on February 19-20.

So, in anticipation of next month's performance, here are some reasons that I love Mahler: 

Demanding Texts

Every one of Mahler's texts is strange.  Foggy.  Difficult to sort out.  I spend months rolling his texts over in my mind, slowly piecing together what he is saying with them.  Symphony 8, for example: half of it is a 9th-century Christian hymn of praise and supplication to the "Creator Spirit."  The other half is the final scene of a 19th-century German play about the power of a woman's love for a man.  Mahler offers no bridge, transition, or explanation--just leaves you on your own to figure out what he is thinking in placing two wildly different texts together.  I love what he's made me think of over the past few months.

Beautiful Ideas

If it exists, Mahler insists in his Second Symphony, It must pass away.  And if it has passed away, it must be resurrected.  From the Eighth Symphony: "Everything that can pass away is only a likeness" of what comes in eternity.  This image, painted across symphonies, is a beautiful idea to me: a resurrection or restoration so thorough and so spectacular that everyone I know here, now, is merely an imagination of what he or she can eventually become.  Ideas like that make me love Mahler.

Swelling Themes

When I listen to Beethoven or Brahms weave themes throughout their symphonies, I get a sense that the entire symphony is supposed to grow and learn and have a life of its own. Listening to Mahler's themes showing up again and again, hidden and disguised in different forms throughout his symphonies, I almost feel like I'm watching a child grow.


My favorite part of an orchestra is its fortissimo.  Mahler orchestras know how to do loud.  Put a Mahler choir (or 2 or 3 of them) with a Mahler orchestra, and you get power.  Symphony No. 8 takes this power as far as it will go.  When you read articles about it, instead of hearing about "orchestration" or "instrumentation," you see headings like "Instrumental and Vocal Forces."  The kind of forces that send chills up my spine.  

And the kind of chills that make me love Mahler.

*That was in 2002, with the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in an O.C. Tanner Gift of Music concert.

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