A Message From Our Music Director: Thoughts On Mahler

My deep love, respect, and connection with Gustav Mahler, the man, his spirit, and his music come via two of my most important mentors: Walter Ducloux and Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s resurrection of Mahler’s music in the 20th century, both in Vienna and New York, initiated the worldwide love we all now share of Mahler’s music. Ducloux, like Bernstein, was personal friends with Bruno Walter, Mahler’s dear friend. So this means that with three handshakes I have a personal connection with this great composer, hence, his music.

Mahler bemoaned that he was “thrice homeless.” “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.” Even as a composer, he had one foot firmly planted in the traditions set by German and Austrian romantic composers Wagner, Bruckner, and others. On the other hand, he was a composer living in the 20th century, living among the likes of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. He and his music straddled these two very different musical worlds.

No music reflects this chasm better than Mahler’s grand Ninth Symphony. It is the ultimate “good-bye.” A farewell to all those musical traditions born of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, even Bach, and an omen of things to come. It was composed at a time when Mahler’s life was filled with sadness, disappointment, and tragedy. His young daughter, Maria, died as an infant. He lost his post as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera. His wife Alma was having an affair, and he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. All of this unfolds in his final completed symphony: love, tragedy, loss, passion, struggle, strife, realization, reflection, resignation, acceptance, and ultimately, peace.

It’s impossible to talk about this incredible musical voyage in a few words. I would prefer to offer you a single word which becomes important to me when conducting this symphony. The first movement is all about “realization.” Mahler knew that his life would be shortened and that he was suffering deeply from all the ills that he had recently experienced. The second movement seems that Mahler is “reflecting” on the sounds and musical delights of his early years. The “Ländler-like” lilt, the sounds and musical spirit of peasants, and the bucolic, pastoral flow of gentle melodies. Movement Three is one of “rejoicing.” Titled Burleske, it is a musical parody mixing Baroque counterpoint with the dissonance and struggle which had entered his life. The humor of this music turns manic, even violent, definitely forcefully defiant. The Final and ultimate movement is clearly a “resignation.” The “realization” of the first movement has now become an impending journey that Mahler would rather not traverse. From the first note to the last, one feels with each step the reluctance and struggle of this voyage. Oh, the pain it is causing our dear Mahler seems unbearable. The silences in their austere relationship with faint sounds are paralyzing. Each one step closer to submission, letting go, and finally peace.

Come, take this important musical voyage with us. It is a climb well worth it. The reward will be untold. Joining together will bring us closer to Mahler, to one another, and to music. We’ll commune in the realm of the eternal.

Music Director Carl St. Clair
A Message From Our Music Director: Thoughts On Mahler
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2 thoughts on “A Message From Our Music Director: Thoughts On Mahler

  • December 21, 2022 at 7:13 pm

    Thank you, Carl, for this wonderful reflection on Mahler and his Ninth Symphony. I have always thought that Mahler’s music sounds the most like what it means to be human. I’m sure the performance you lead will be inspired and inspiring. I wish we could have performed it with you here in Ann Arbor. Best wishes always, Linda Etter.

  • December 22, 2022 at 10:54 pm

    Can’t wait for this performance!!


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