“A symphony must be like the world….

…It should embrace everything.”

This is what Gustav Mahler said to Jean Sibelius – in 1907 according to the CD notes produced to accompany the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording of Mahler’s 6th symphony in A minor, which is one of only two of his works that I have, the other being the enigmatic 10th symphony, this time recorded by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – more of the enigma later.

Mahler’s ‘day job’ was as a conductor.  This limited the amount of time he had available for compositions.  In addition, family tragedy in the form of illness and an early death for Mahler himself (he was only 51) curtailed an already flourishing career.  As such, his repertoire is perhaps not as extensive as it might otherwise have been.

Nevertheless, we have plenty of music to get our teeth into – mostly large symphonic works, with massively rich scoring and very full orchestras.  He completed nine symphonies and left a good deal of a tenth symphony written, with sketches and notes from which it has been possible for a few clever souls to have a go at finishing it.  This has not been without its controversy.  For those of you interested in such things, the recording I have uses the score ‘realised by Deryck Cooke, published 1976′ and I can confirm that you cannot see the join.

The word which first comes to mind when I think about and am listening to Mahler’s music is ’emotion’.  He should have written ballet music really because his work is so very expressive and story-telling.  Both the 6th and the 10th symphonies sound like they are taking us on journeys – and very dramatic ones at that – and would be fabulous as ballets.  I can just imagine people lost in forests trying to find their lovers; fairies casting spells; villagers worried about impending storms; princes and princesses having adventures; wicked queens trying wreak revenge for past deeds; some things not turning out very well for some characters; but most things turning out just fine for those with good hearts either under the stars, or as a new day dawns.

I would love it if Matthew Bourne or another wonderful modern choreographer happened to be reading this post (hello Matthew – loved your new production of Sleeping Beauty, by the way) – I’d be very happy for them to use my idea in exchange for front row tickets on opening night….

The point is that Mahler’s symphonies are indeed micro versions of the world.  They are also like mirrors.  You can find in them what ever emotion you want to feel, are already feeling, or would like empathy with.  They can be your shoulder to cry on, your slap around the face, or your inspirational coach.  That’s powerful stuff.

The music is beautiful too.  If you thought Mahler was all heavy and Wagnerian, have a little listen to the sublime Andante Moderato from the 6th symphony here.

And another blissful movement comes from the 5th symphony.  I don’t have this on my iPhone, so this is cheating a bit, but I know it well from the film Death In Venice (1971).  This is an adaptation of a Thomas Mann novel about a composer, apparently loosely based around the life of Gustav Mahler.  Part of the soundtrack is taken from the Adagietto.

What a wonderful piece to leave you with this New Year’s Eve.  I wish you all a very happy, prosperous and peaceful 2013.

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