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The Operatic Punch in Mahler's Symphonies

Composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) believed he could capture the entire world within a symphony.
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Composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) believed he could capture the entire world within a symphony.

Gustav Mahler died 97 years ago today — May 18, 1911. Today, he's known primarily as a composer, but in his time, Mahler was revered as one of the great conductors, especially of opera. Mahler worked his way up from provincial summer opera theaters in Bohemia to become the music director of two of the greatest opera companies in the world: the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

For all his expertise as a composer and an opera conductor, it's surprising that Mahler never wrote an opera of his own. Classical-music commentator Robert Greenberg says that, depending on how you look at it, Mahler did write operas.

The Symphony as Opera

"I think for Mahler," Greenberg says, "his symphonies were his operas, his all-inclusive artworks."

Greenberg says that Mahler thought his massive symphonies had as much dramatic punch as anyone's opera. They tell wonderful stories from beginning to end, and many of them use solo singers and choruses. Mahler was an accomplished composer of songs, and some of the melodies from those songs ended up as instrumental passages in his nine numbered symphonies.

A good example is "Ging heut' morgens übers Feld," from a cycle of songs about a lover's rejection called Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). Greenberg explains that a few years after Mahler wrote the song, the melody (without the words) ended up as the opening theme of his first symphony.

"In Mahler's own ear, the same moods of natural beauty, tinged by the bitter pain of rejection, existed in the first symphony, as well. Without the words, it's still the same music, and it represents the same mood."

Number Nine, Number Nine ...

The number nine, for the superstitious Mahler, was a number to be feared when it came to writing symphonies. Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak and Schubert all died after composing their ninth symphonies. Greenberg says Mahler cooked up his own plan.

"He wrote eight numbered symphonies, and then he wrote this piece that was called, initially, Symphony No. 9 — a song cycle for two singers and a full orchestra. However, he decided not to call it the ninth symphony, and not bring the curse down upon his head. So he called it Das Lied von der Erde instead. Then he composed his ninth symphony and he thought he had cheated God. He started writing his tenth and died."

Mahler was only 50 when he died. Those who admire his writing for voice wonder whether, had he lived longer, he might have finally been tempted to compose an opera. Greenberg says he doesn't think so.

"I don't think he felt the compelling need to write an opera. He made this very famous statement at one point: 'The symphony is the world; it must contain everything.' Having said that, it contains opera, as well as the symphony, for him. So no — I feel his symphonies really were his all-inclusive artworks."

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