Love at First Listen: Gustav Mahler's Tragedy and Transcendence

The next time you're in the mood for some swanky culture, give Mahler a try.

By , Columnist

Have you ever heard a piece of music that instantly felt familiar to you, even though you knew you'd never heard it before? And no, I don't mean in the "'Born This Way' sounds an awful lot like 'Express Yourself'" sense. I mean the kind of feeling you get when you make a new friend and immediately feel like you've known them all your life.

It's a magical experience, and it's one of the things that keeps me permanently in love with music. (I find it is most likely to happen at a live performance, which is why I say, "Go out and hear something!") And I've felt this way on more than one occasion when hearing the music of Gustav Mahler, who died 100 years ago yesterday. I'm agnostic about the concept of reincarnation, but there's something about his music, both pastoral and grandiose, darkly brooding and soaringly triumphant, that makes me wonder if I led a past life as a slightly delusional Austrian shepherdess. It's endlessly fun to speculate!

Mahler More Cowbell.jpgMahler was an Austrian-Bohemian conductor and composer of song cycles and large-scale symphonies. He pushed the boundaries of late German romanticism, as well as the boundaries of how many musicians could fit on one stage - his Eighth Symphony, scored for a very large orchestra, multiple choirs and sololists, is nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand," and that's only a slight exaggeration.

Continuing a celebration that began last year with the 150th anniversary of his birth, classical record label Deutsche Grammophon is hosting a website where you can stream Mahler's complete works for free, giving everyone a chance to channel their inner late 19th/early 20th century emo Bohemian!

I first heard Mahler as a college student. One of my music professors liked to play random recordings in class for us without any introductory explanation, just to see how we'd react (fortunately for us, he had excellent taste), and one day he put on Mahler's beautiful yet tragic song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) - yeah, I know it's dark, but stay with me; it's ultimately quite transcendent and life-affirming! I didn't know enough German to understand the words being sung (thus undermining the reincarnation angle), but I cried anyway. Then I went to a live performance, read a translation of the text, and cried some more. But in a good way! Like Elton John says, "Sad songs say so much!"

Mahler's music isn't all tragic. His Fifth Symphony is quite heroic, and even better, one of its movements, the much-loved Adagietto for strings and harp, is killer make-out music. For those of you with twisted sensibilities, Mahler uses the children's tune "Frère Jacques," only in a minor key, in the third movement of his First Symphony. His Sixth Symphony brought on the original fever that could only be cured by more cowbell. And the last movement of the Fourth Symphony features a sung text that lists many yummy fruits and vegetables. There's something here for everyone!

My husband, McDoc, happens to share my love for Mahler, which is convenient. In fact, on our first real date, we entertained ourselves after dinner by singing through a couple of Mahler song cycles he happened to have the music to, while I played the piano. Hey, I take this music nerd thing seriously, people!

So the next time you're in the mood for some swanky culture, give Mahler a try; just keep your shepherd's crook and hanky handy!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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