Showdown: Mahler vs. Mahler

The Contestants:

Gustav Mahler

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

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 Rep:

Four, count 'em four, voices!

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.

The showdown:

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. Continue reading

My friend, Gustav

Gustav Mahler


My friend died 100 years ago, on May 18, 1911, but we’re still friends. I don’t mean that we’re close personal friends like Lucy & Ethel, Joey & Chandler, or the Golden Girls. But I do mean that we’re at least Facebook-caliber friends, which is the standard by which friendships are now judged. He’s been there for me through good times and bad, offering support when I needed it, overwhelming me with a flood of emotion when I didn’t always expect it, and generally making life more worth living. I’ve met some great people because of him, and I’ve had some great experiences because of his work. At this point I feel like I’m writing something for a leaflet that Christians include in bills to their eye doctor because they’re supposed to spread God’s word, so I’ll cut that off right now and say that I’m talking about Gustav Mahler.
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Something to listen to: Mahler Symphony no. 3 with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony

Gustav Mahler

What the radness tells me...

According to the statistics that the folks at WordPress maintain in regards to site traffic, the most popular single post on this blog outside of a Detroit Symphony rant is the uploaded performance of Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2.  I don’t know if the popularity (bear in mind when I use the word “popularity,” I mean it with a heavy dose of the word “relative” in front of it) of that performance is because of Mahler, or because of the performers (or both), but I’m glad people have heard it, because it’s a really fine performance.

The Pittsburgh Symphony and Maestro Honeck appear to in the midst of recording a Mahler cycle based off of their live concert performances.  Exton has already recorded and released the 1st and 4th, both receiving plenty of acclaim (I have yet to hear the 4th aside from the broadcast, but the 1st is arguably the best Mahler 1 out there).  I can only assume (hope?) the rest are forthcoming. Continue reading

It’s my prerogative. Wait. Is it my prerogative?

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner circa The Fantastic Moustache Epoch

How much can, or should, a personal choice influence a conductor’s decisions? These kinds of questions are often asked about tempi, dynamics, balances, etc., but what about in the broader context of something like a performing version? How does one, for example, choose to do the Cooke completion of Mahler 10 vs. the Carpenter vs. the Wheeler vs. the Mazzetti? All the research in the world is likely to lead you to the same place: get some guts and pick something already.

This question came into my head recently while being engrossed in Bruckner’s Third Symphony. The murky history of Bruckner’s various performing versions needs little explanation; it’s like trying to decide which Oprah to use based on weight. Short of playing pin-the-tail-on-the-performing-version, conductors are left with mountains of research, counter-research, anecdotes, hearsay, and innuendo to make their calls. Surely, at some point, “I like this one” becomes an acceptable answer. Continue reading

Is Gustav Mahler the ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ to Hans Rott’s ‘Under Pressure’?

Paavo Jarvi, the reigning Prince of Turtlenecks, has recently been in the process of performing and recording the Hans Rott Symphony in E major, a work that has generated mild interest in the past, but has picked up steam in recent years.

Jarvi, though, is kicking it into overdrive…based on these fairly strong accusations against none other than Gustav Mahler.

I listened to the Rott Symphony again today because of all this ruckus (the premiere recording with the great Gerhard Samuel and the CCM gang)…

There are a few small details here and there that certainly caught my ear as being familiar from Mahler. For example, there is a spot in the first movement of Rott that sounds very similar to the spot in the finale of Mahler 7 after the first section ends and the woodwinds are holding that chord as a transition into the next section of the movement…

And yes, the first two bars of Rott’s Scherzo and the Scherzo from Mahler 2 are essentially identical, though not in orchestration…

And I, for one, feel like I can hear the whole “they’re inhabiting the same sound world” thing…

But you know who else inhabited roughly the same sound world? Terence Trent D’Arby and Michael Jackson.

Bill Parcells once said, “you are what your record says you are.”  Dandy Don Meredith once said, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, wouldn’t it be a Merry Christmas?”  My composition teacher in high school once said, “plagiarize, don’t hide your eyes.”  They were all right.  All we can go on is what we know.  And what we know is that Mahler made his legacy, Rott did not.  Was it his fault?  Who knows?  But even IF you wish to think like Maestro Jarvi and think that Mahler owes a posthumous apology to Rott, you have to first acknowledge that whatever material you may think was lifted by Mahler was handled with the skill of one of the greatest composers who ever walked the Earth, not one of the all-time musical question marks whose style, as we know it, is a raw, jumbled mix that shows great, but completely unfulfilled, promise.

In all seriousness, plagiarism is a serious allegation to levy.

Phil & Paavo

Phil Collins & Paavo Jarvi

For example, if I were to say that Paavo Jarvi seems to have plagiarized Phil Collins’ entire fashion aesthetic in an attempt to look like a more alcoholic but also more cultured version of the famed singer of “In the Air Tonight,” I would risk being criticized heavily for making such disparaging remarks about one of the 15 most famous currently living Estonians in the world.

So I won’t.  I’ll simply re-post in its entirety a thing I had written a while back about Hans Rott and the potential he took to his grave, and assume Paavo Jarvi was high as shit on peyote when he made those comments.

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