My Prejudice Against Mahler

I find myself consistently unable to like Mahler’s music. It’s not that I dislike it — I just feel ambivalent, and ever so slightly suspicious. I certainly want to like it, and I believe those who speak so highly of his music. I’m not yet ready to join the small but noisy Mahler backlash, those fed up with how frequently his symphonies are performed.

My feelings about Mahler are not particularly reasoned. It is a musical prejudice of sorts (and not my only one). Most listeners have such prejudices, and I’ve encountered many far more severe than my own. People who only really like Baroque music. People who listen to no music before Mozart (with the exception of Bach). People who have almost totally avoided 20th and 21st century music. People who much prefer symphonies. People who much prefer chamber music. People who can’t stand certain instruments.

One of my musical prejudices is for moderation and brevity. I prefer smaller and shorter music. Musical forms seem to metastasise: orchestras get bigger, symphonies get longer, scores become more prescriptive, techniques become more challenging, the music becomes more complex. It’s quite possible I’ve gained this prejudice as a guitarist. The instrument is a quiet one which, though quite capable of polyphony, is far more limited than the piano. We can pluck four notes simultaneously and strum six. The pianist can play ten simultaneously, and with greater range and far greater liberty. With the exception of the organ, I can think of no instrument more powerful than the piano. It provides the player with more possibilities than any other instrument. For many this is wondrous. For me it’s frightening. I see music as more the product of limitations than possibilities.

All that said, this prejudice does not stop me liking many things that are big and splendid. I adore the symphonies of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Pettersson, Tchaikovsky, Aho and many others (as well as the smaller Classical symphonies of course). I like Shostakovich’s symphonies, but tellingly I prefer his string quartets. Beethoven’s symphonies are perhaps bombastic but he achieves this great effect with the most meagre musical material — triads, the simplest of motifs. I also enjoy going to the opera. But operas are made up of a lot of short, often small things with some show-stoppers thrown in. The overture is a short symphony, the arias are seldom too long (do any exceed ten minutes?). I’m tempted to say that my favourite opera is Dido and Aeneas, intimate and a mere hour long, though it could easily be exchanged for, say, Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly.

Confucius’s favourite follower, the one he thought the most virtuous, was the one who almost never spoke. Indeed I loathe ostentatiousness (though can be guilty of it myself) and the quality I most admire in others is humility and quiet. So it is with music too. Music that goes on and on, the type that seek to excavate every musical inch, bores me greatly. Mahler’s symphonies are that kind of music. Moreover, they are manipulative, pushing me explicitly in a particular emotional direction, teasing me, holding me in suspense for an inordinate amount of time, presenting like a peacock, boastful and grand. They can be annoyingly predictable — that inevitable, elongated swell leading to a loud drum hit and cymbal crash, rather like being hit over the head in slow motion. I prefer music that gets to the point rather than labouring unnecessarily and, perhaps, artificially.

I went to a Mahler concert this week, his Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’. It ended splendidly, I’ll admit, and prompted rapturous applause within a semiquaver of the last note. Indeed I enjoyed the concert as I do any. The concert hall — even those as flawed as the Barican and Southbank Centre — is a magical place, especially if, like me, you go somewhat infrequently and have to journey a fair way to get there. Almost never has that spell been broken for me, so even when unsure of the music I am still transfixed by it. The Mahler also benefited from its pairing with Berntein’s Symphony No. 1. It was a theatrical symphony, brash, big, shimmering and forgettable. Bernstein was a remarkable educator and conductor but, it would seem, a negligible composer. The Mahler, coming in the second half, was a sort of relief, but far overstayed its welcome. I almost find the Mahler symphonies rude in a way.

I want to end this post with something quite different: a small and delightful rondeau by Machaut, ‘Ce qui soustient moy’. The musicologist and blogger Elizabeth Eva Leach has an excellent post analysing another Machaut rondeau, in which she begins by saying:

Most of the two-part Machaut pieces are rather neglected: you can’t make a dance out of them like you can with the monophonic virelais, and by the time you’ve assembled singers to perform Machaut, you might as well do the pieces closer to a modern four-part texture. As two-part songs are neglected by performers, they’re also neglected by musicologists, who tend to prefer the three- and four-part pieces as if these show evidence of greater artistry in some teleological narrative of contrapuntal progress. *sigh* Ok, off the early music soap box now and down to business!


6 thoughts on “My Prejudice Against Mahler

  1. I am rather in agreement with you on Mahler. Twenty or thirty years ago I enjoyed his symphonies, but I find I can no longer listen to them. They always seem to me neutrotic and over-heated. And yes, much too long. Give me Sibelius over Mahler anytime!


  2. I have the same reaction you do to Mahler and his symphonies. I have tried to get into them. Admittedly, I did this the cheap way: buying a box of the whole 10 yards (the set includes Cooke’s completion of the 10th) by Chailly and the RCO. I was interested to read a related blog post (link below) that suggested the over-supply of Mahler is a function of the demand of modern audiences for loud, bombastic, excessive music.


    1. Thanks for link, hadn’t seen that. I agree with him (partly) about big orchestral arrangements of pre-19th century music. For a while I thought Haydn boring because when I first heard a symphony by him in a large concert hall it sounded so feeble. However, I would be wary of change. Would it lead to a sort of loudness war between orchestras and ensembles? Even Mahler symphonies are quiet-ish much of the time — do we amplify just those loud exhilarating moments or do we amplify everything? The other thing is that dynamics are also a musical texture. It’s not like turning up the volume control on your speakers. More instruments means a different texture and a different balance. Could louder sound in some ways worse? (I do actually sympathise with his blog post, but being pessimistic in nature…)


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