Mahler: music from the volcano

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Today one of the most recorded and performed composers is Gustav Mahler. Born to a poor Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he died 100 years ago in imperial Vienna as one of the richest and most famous musicians in Europe. How can his music speak to us today?

During his lifetime he was mainly famous as a conductor. His style was based on the idea that the printed musical score is not a holy text to be obeyed. Instead music is a living art that changes at every performance as every concert hall, every audience, every social context is different. This understanding of how changes in social circumstances affect the listener and performer also explains the changes in the popularity of Mahler's music.

His works reflected the society in which he lived and the neuroses that plague modernity. His "religious" works - the Second and Eighth Symphonies - are not glorifications of god, but expressions of the ambiguities of belief, the tortuous road to spirituality in a brutal and secular age. His Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies and The Song of the Earth all plumb the depths of our fear of death. Death is heightened by close juxtapositions with the sounds of life lived to the full. The pairing in close proximity, sometimes in the same moment, of diametrically opposed moods is a distinctive aspect of Mahler's music. In the third movement of the First Symphony, the children's song "Frére Jacques" is played as a funeral march, then abruptly interrupted by an exaggeratedly rustic brass band jig. The climatic movement of his Sixth Symphony, over almost half an hour, veers from heroic triumph to annihilating despair.

Audiences of his day, used to the grand classical tradition, found this difficult to take. Yet his music did speak to many; tragedy and angst were defining features of Mahler's Vienna. It was a society "dancing on a volcano" ending in the devastation of the First World War and the collapse of the empire. This decay led to some nasty ideas. Shortly before he took the job as director of the Vienna State Opera, the city elected the anti-Semite Karl Lueger as mayor, a prime inspirer of the Nazis. Mahler was forced to resign in 1907 after an anti-Semitic campaign. The genius of his music is that he was able to communicate his experience of alienation and angst in a way that resonated with others. The personal and the social are always closely intertwined in Mahler's music.

His music became a victim of Nazism. During the 1920s his works gained a reputation across Europe. But his Jewish background and the unsettling anticipation of modernism meant his works were banned where he had been most popular, in Germany in 1933, Austria in 1938 and Holland in 1940. Even after the war his music was rarely performed. Many of the musicians who championed him were dead or exiled. Finally, the 1950s and 1960s saw classical music split in two directions that both excluded him.

In Mahler's time a new generation of composers recognised that the old classical tradition, like society, was running out of steam. Mahler's driving of classical harmony to its extremes opened the door for Arnold Schoenberg's revolution in tonality. Mahler found these radical works difficult, but he recognised their worth and championed them when few did. Many other 20th century composers were influenced by Mahler's music - Richard Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze and others. No other composer had as much influence on 20th century music as Mahler.

The radical avant-gardists wanted a complete break from the Germanic tradition, which they saw as irrelevant after the horrors of fascism and war. The mainstream turned itself into a museum obsessed with safe regurgitations of the great tradition. Mahler's combination of traditional classical forms with odd juxtapositions of broken melodies, clashing tonalities, children's songs, bucolic imaginings and funeral dirges did not fit. In an age of rising prosperity and relative social peace, his evocation of a world being torn apart by its own contradictions failed to resonate.

It was when Boulez and others tried to uncover the musical roots of their hero Schoenberg that they rediscovered Mahler. Audiences too, as the long post-war boom gave way to social rebellion and economic crisis from the late 1960s onwards, found in Mahler a musical voice with which they identified. The macabre world of Mahler's music where the banalities of high-brow elitism and popular culture accompany an ever more violent and decaying society speaks to us perhaps now more than ever.