Gustav Mahler said that symphonies should be like the world and that they must embrace everything. This is, of course, statistically impossible (unless I’m missing the bits in Mahler about Hillbilly Hand Fishing), but that doesn’t mean that the percentage that actually did make it in couldn’t include a wide range of musical styles. In his attempt to encompass everything under the sun, Mahler crafted symphonies and song cycles that speak to an ever-increasing group of people. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that his symphonies are as popular as Beethoven’s now, and if I would said that 65 years ago, I would have been kicked in the groin by men in pork-pie hats.
Gustav Mahler seems like a bit of a dick. Perhaps it’s easy for me to sit here casting judgment from my 6’1’’ body having recently spoken to my all-still-alive siblings and non-alcoholic father while patently not being one of the greatest musical geniuses of all-time, but Mahler seems to have been enough of an asshole to make us consider renaming the Napoleon complex. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, but I’ve grown weary of the “Alma was a whore and poor Gustav suffered greatly by her infidelity” narrative that seems to be everywhere I turn. Now I’m not saying Alma is a gold digger…but she ain’t messin’ with no broke members of the Viennese cognoscenti circa 1900-1920. But wouldn’t you have blown some architect guy if you spent a prime decade of your life quitting your own music to write manuscript copies for somebody else and then having to put up with their bullshit? I know I would, and I don’t even like buildings and shit. Anyway…
The chorale is a hymn sung in Christian congregations, particularly Protestant denominations. Usually in simple strophic forms or the German Bar (AAB) form commonly found in Bach chorales, they are often harmonized in four or five voices. Over the course of time, it began to include purely instrumental sections of music that maintained the characteristics of the hymns (four voice harmonies, simple tunes, etc.). By way of example, some works with instrumental chorales in them are Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Chausson’s Symphony in Bb.
Mahler employed the chorale frequently in his works, both with voice and without, in spite of his seemingly bewildered sense of agnosticism. There is probably at least one in every symphony he wrote if you look hard enough (or not that hard). But there are two that really stand out for me, so let’s put them to the test.
The case for Mahler 2:
There are several chorales in the Second Symphony, but for the purposes of this showdown, we’re going with the best one: the one in “Urlicht.”
There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said about that. It might be the most beautiful minute in all of music, and it is certainly the best minute of the last several hours of my life. Mahler is a favorite among brass players because he writes parts that give you the opportunity to sound like a bad ass (or an idiot if you’re not careful); he started a symphony with 8 horns playing super loud in unison for crying out loud. And yet it’s obvious that he understands the full range of expression for the whole family of instruments, because this chorale is so delicate and moving and yet entrusted to the same forces that will pulverize us less than 10 minutes from the very spot we’re enraptured by. Incidentally, there aren’t a lot of times when the fate of the musical universe lies in hands of the second trumpet player, but this is one of those times. Everything is in that spot, especially the descending line into the first cadence.
The case for Mahler 6:
There isn’t much that makes you think of God or religion in Mahler 6, but chorales aren’t just for church. Mahler shows us the dark side in the massive finale:
What’s not to love about that? It could easily accompany the best scene from every Indiana Jones movie or be the music that accompanies your slow walk to Hell after God’s like “GET OUT OF MY PLANE!” at the Last Judgment because of that time you kicked a homeless person. This is basically a 45-second demonstration of Mahler’s obscene orchestration abilities; the utter darkness of the scoring is terrifying. Want proof? Analyze it, and you’ll find that the first chord of the third phrase is C major. Yes, THAT C major, the one that’s one of the brightest sounding chords in all of music. Mahler makes it sound absolutely menacing and fraught with unease. And if that’s not enough, it effectively serves as a microcosm of the entire movement, building from the depths of the orchestra, hinting at the possibility of dragging itself out of the pit of despair, growing in confidence in the last phrase, and being trampled by the crushing weight of the symphony’s motto.
As sumptuous and rich as the Urlicht chorale is, if you held a gun to my head and made me talk about Mahler (Lord knows I don’t have any money, so the best you could ask for is probably a strong opinion), I’d probably tell you that the chorale in the finale of Mahler’s Sixth is my favorite bit in his entire output. I think it captures the essence of Mahler as a composer pretty succinctly: dark, hopeful, sinister, adventurous, crafty, powerful, cynical, I mean it’s all in there. Ultimately the takeaway is that the same dude wrote both, and the fact that one man is able to capture the heavenly and worldly in such stark relief is both a gift to mankind and also incredibly unfair to normal humans.
You’re not going to believe this, but…
Gustav Mahler, champion