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. Continue reading