Classical Chat: Mahler's entire world of music

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler
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Mahler once said that a symphony must be like the world, embracing everything, and there is indeed something incredibly encyclopaedic about his music.

Getting Mahler to his central place in the classical tradition has been a struggle lasting decades, and getting the most out of his drainingly long works for massive forces still requires a fair bit of effort.

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It’s worth persevering, though, because Mahler’s epic compositions sweep from extraordinary beauty to devastating despair via enormous and deafening outpourings of noise and joy.

He didn’t actually write much compared to many other musicians, as composing was a summer activity when he wasn’t conducting orchestras and operas, but there’s still plenty to get your teeth into.

Here are a few places to dive into Mahler’s rich, seething musical world.

Songs Of A Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrendes Gesellen): These four songs accompanied by orchestra are one of the best places to start with Mahler: containing a lot of attractive folk-influenced music and a shattering poem about grief.

Symphony No.1: And once you’ve listened to that you will recognise a couple of the main tunes in this. A stunning depiction of nature, a funeral for a hunter and a storm lead to the finale of this one.

Symphony No.4: Another comparatively restrained work with a beautiful set of variations for the slow movement and a soprano singing of a child’s view of heaven.

Symphony No.5: This is a massive climb from dark to light, starting with a powerful funeral march full of incredible brass writing and progressing through the darkness and happiness of life. The Adagietto was famously used in the film Death in Venice.

Symphony No.7: Mahler’s later works are less pastoral and harder work. This is probably the place to start, with a superbly dark opening as if the music emerges from the mist.