Mahler’s Critics, Then and Now
Critics of the past are easy targets for today’s music fans—perhaps too easy when they pan the music that we have come to love. But in the case of Gustav Mahler, reading contemporary assessments of his compositions is fascinating. In the century-plus since his death Mahler has come to be celebrated as perhaps the greatest symphonist since Beethoven, but the recognition was long in coming; during his lifetime Mahler had greater success as a conductor than as a composer, and even that was mitigated by problems in Vienna and New York City, where he became principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 and also led the New York Philharmonic.
Though Mahler’s performances earned tremendous acclaim, his conflicts with the trustees of both organizations broke his spirit and damaged his health, and in 1911 he returned to Vienna, where he died of pneumonia that same year. The magisterial eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911, was known to provide authoritative explanations of anything worth explaining; its compilers did not see fit to include an article on Mahler. The highly respected New York paper the Herald Tribune, in noting Mahler’s passing, was respectful of his achievements as a conductor, but noted “We cannot see how any of his music can long survive him.” Today Mahler’s failure to find success in the U.S. is deemed a tragedy for American music as well as for the composer himself.
While the critics didn’t always recognize Mahler’s greatness, many illustrious Mahler interpreters certainly did and they wrote movingly about the profundity composer’s music, particularly Mahler’s Ninth.
- “I have once more played through Mahler’s Ninth. The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature. The longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.”—Alban Berg
- “It is music coming from another world, it is coming from eternity.”—Herbert von Karajan
- The final movement “is terrifying and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate. We hold onto them, hovering between hope and submission. And one by one, these spidery strands connecting us to life melt away, vanish from our fingers, even as we hold them. We cling to them as they dematerialize. We are holding two…then one…and suddenly none. In ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.”—Leonard Bernstein
- “Mahler’s Ninth is most strange. In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer. It almost seems as though this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as his mouthpiece.”—Arnold Schoenberg