A Mahlerite’s Starter Kit

A Personal View


I have written this (way back in 2001) to help the newcomer to Mahler’s music to find his/her way through so many choices of literature and recordings related to Gustav Mahler. As you will notice shortly, no choices have been offered for each individual work since it is assumed that a ‘newcomer’ by definition will not be able to know how to choose between the works (no offense) and also so that the newcomer will not be confused. The suggestions here have been carefully considered and I am quite confident that the newcomer will not be too far wrong if these suggestions are followed. There will surely be some enthusiasts who would not be agreeable to this selection and I would like to emphasize that this is a personal view and therefore to be taken with a grain of salt for people who are confident to trust this selection.

It is my desire that you explore Mahler at your own pace, enjoying every moment of your new discovery and find your moment in Mahler’s music. Collect all of these at your own pace too because as experience had taught me, one can easily go bankrupt (both financially and mentally) trying to accumulate all these at one go! If you have trouble locating any of these materials, please just send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do for you (try to source it for you or just to lend you my copy etc.)

It occurs to me that you might have a problem knowing with which work you should start. It is likely that you have heard Mahler’s music, in a concert hall or in some of those CD compilations. Let me try (I said ‘try’) to help you by attempting to categorise roughly Mahler’s work to suit your particular taste.

Listeners can generally be divided into 2 categories as far as Mahler’s works are concerned, the first being those who like vocal music and the second being those who like orchestral music.

For people who likes to listen to vocal music, e.g. fans of Schubert’s lieder , you might like to start with Mahler’s lieder . His songs can generally be categorised into (a) pieces grouped together to reflect a collection of songs with common themes/origins/composed around the same time period and (b) song cycles, i.e. several songs inter-related to each other. Examples of the first type will be the collection of songs in Des knaben Wunderhorn and examples of the second type will be like the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen . You might like to try out these two works first. You might also be interested to know that Mahler did compose a cantata called Das klagende Lied , a work he composed at around the age of 20 but which is already matured with a lot of his Mahlerian styles firmly established. There are also many other excellent and charming lieder that Mahler had composed and if you do not want to start with the works mentioned above, you might like to try his earlier compositions now compiled under Lieder und Gesänge . A particularly good recording is the one on Hyperion with Dame Janet Baker as mezzo soprano and Geoffrey Parsons on the piano. The ultimate Mahler ‘lied’ is of course his Das Lied von der Erde , where he fused symphony and song into a Song-Symphony, an exhilarating and rejuvenating experience for the listener.

Touching on Song-Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde is not the first work in which Mahler used voices in his symphony. In fact, he used voices in his 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th symphonies, so if you like this style, you might like to venture from a lied fan to a Song-Symphony fan.

Now, for listeners who like to listen to symphonic works. Let me very casually try to categorise Mahler’s symphonies. Of all the 11 symphonies (10 numbered symphonies with the 10th unfinished and Das Lied von der Erde ), the 1st and the 4th are the lightest. So if you like light symphonies, you might like to start here. Be fore-warned that Mahler’s symphonies are never ‘light’ as in pure, meaningless music with easy to listen melodies but the word ‘light’ here is used relative to his other works. If you like music a la the second Viennese school, you might want to start with his 7th symphony which displays very interesting musical experimentation and innovations, besides a very well-balanced structure (his 10th is also in this league). Interesting musical innovations can also be found in his 5th (with a lovely adagietto movement) and 6th (called ‘Tragic’, a dramatic and heavy work which uses a large hammer in the percussion section!) symphonies, especially his experiments with counterpoint and polyphony. As I said above, if you like grand voices within a symphony, you might like to try his 2nd and 8th symphonies. The second is nick-named ‘Resurrection’, with very powerful and yet subtle music and part II of the 8th is set on Goethe’s Faust . Both are very heavenly, grand and very positive works, as powerful, if not more powerful than Beethoven’s 9th. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde , his 9th and 10th symphonies are very ‘spiritual’ works, if I may use that word. They are full of introspection and its music inspires a level of ‘enlightenment’ not found in his earlier works. I would like to call it ‘Zen-like’, for simplicity’s sake. If you like deep, spiritual, introspective music, you might like to start with these 3 works.

A word of caution though. Mahler’s works are very tightly related to each other and what I have done, i.e. dissecting/categorising his works in this manner is really not right. So, while I try to help you categorise the works to suit your taste, please bear this in mind. One can never fully appreciate Mahler if all his works (save some juvenile/lost works) are not heard because unlike many other composers, each one of his work is significant and has something to say.

Mahler’s music can generally be categorised into 3 distinct periods (I know some of you will not agree). The first is his Wunderhorn period, characterised by his greater use of the materials from the poem collections called Des knaben Wunderhorn where he set a lot of the text to music as in the recommendations noted earlier in the preceding paragraphs. The first 4 symphonies can be said to belong to this period, therefore easier to listen to. The second period is where he broke with his established style (not completely though) and experimented more daringly with music. His 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies can be said to belong here. His 8th symphony can be seen as the culmination of his success and all his work so far. The 3rd and final period started when his life begin to fall apart, with three tragic incidences affecting his whole life. He became more introspective, more ‘spiritual’. His Das Lied von der Erde , 9th and 10th symphonies can be said to belong to this category.

Well, that’s all I can say now. I will be sure to revise this some time soon to correct errors (if any) or to add more insights once I have them but meanwhile, I hope it is useful to you. And finally, I hope that you will enjoy listening to Mahler’s music, finding in them something special that you will hold dear many years to come. I envy you because you can explore Mahler’s music in all its freshness and excitement. I hope you will feel as excited and elevated as I was when I was once at your position.

The rest is up to you.

To Read

Gustav Mahler : The Symphonies by Constantin Floros, Vernon Wicker (Translator), Jutta Wicker (Translator)

Comments: “Constantin Floros undertakes a precise and detailed exploration of each of the symphonic works [including the 10th], bringing to light their programmatic and personal aspects, as well as Mahler’s musical techniques. [He] also examines the history and autobiographical origins of each work and discusses the personal events that profoundly influenced the composer’s writing”

Mahler : A Biography by Jonathan Carr

Comments: A highly readable and informative biography, examining and challenging pre-established views on Mahler and offering an alternative point of view.

To Listen

Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Lieder / Rafael Kubelik, Fischer-Dieskau

Conductor: Rafael Kubelik
Performer: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Uni/Deutsche Grammophon – #449735
Audio CD (May 13, 1997)

Mahler – Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’

Conductor: Simon Rattle, Arleen Auger
Performer: Janet Baker, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Emd/Emi Classics – #47962
Audio CD (November 6, 1987)
Number of Discs: 2

Mahler: Symphony No.3

Conductor: Jascha Horenstein
Performer: Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir, et al.
Unicorn-Kanchana (UK) – #2006
Audio CD (August 16, 1993)
Number of Discs: 2

Mahler: Symphony No.4/Songs Of A Wayfarer

Conductor: Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell
Performer: Judith Raskin, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sony Classics – #46535
Audio CD (August 13, 1991)

Mahler: Symphony No5

Conductor: Sir John Barbirolli
Emd/Emi Classics – #66962
Audio CD (January 12, 1999)

Mahler: Symphony No6

Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Performer: Christa Ludwig
Uni/Deutsche Grammophon – #457716
Audio CD (May 12, 1998)
Number of Discs: 2

Mahler: Symphony No. 7

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Performer: Ian Bousfield
Bmg/Rca Victor – #63510
Audio CD (September 14, 1999)
Number of Discs: 2

Mahler – Symphony No. 8

Performer: Sir Georg Solti, Arleen Auger, et al.
Uni/Decca – #460972
Audio CD (August 10, 1999)

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Conductor: Otto Klemperer
Performer: Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich
Emd/Emi Classics – #66944
Audio CD (January 12, 1999)

Mahler:Symphony No.9

Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Uni/Deutsche Grammophon – #19208
Audio CD (July 7, 1987)
Number of Discs: 2

Mahler – Symphony 10

Conductor: Simon Rattle
Emd/Emi Classics – #56972
Audio CD (June 6, 2000)

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder/Rückertlieder/Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Conductor: Sir John Barbirolli
Performer: Dame Janet Baker
Ensemble: Halle Orchestra
Emd/Emi Classics – #66996
Audio CD (May 4, 1999)

Mahler: Das Klagende Lied

Conductor: Kent Nagano
Performer: Eva Urbanová, Jadwiga Rappé et. al.
Ensemble: Halle Orchestra & Choir
Wea/Atlantic/Erato – #21664
Audio CD (July 14, 1998)

Mahler Lieder: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Rudolf Kempe
Performer: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Emd/Emi Classics – #67557
Audio CD (April 10, 2001)

Mahler’s Songs of Youth

Performer: Dame Janet Baker, Geoffrey Parsons
Hyperion (UK) – #66100
Audio CD (February 28, 1988)

To Watch

Mahler (1974)

Starring: Robert Powell, Georgina Hale, et al.
Director: Ken Russell


Chicago Mahlerites

The Mahler Symphonies

The International Gustav Mahler Society

4 responses to “Mahler

  1. Catherine-Grace

    I am so deeply grateful for all of your marvelous insight on Maestro Mahler. This world is a far poorer place without his being here; albeit, the legacy he left behind is breath-taking. BLESS YOU for YOUR congribution to my search for “all things Mahler”. Your information is incredible and it is deeply appreciated! Should you add anything more to your lovely blog on Maestro Mahler, please notify me! I’ll come running!

    Warmest thanks!

  2. Catherine-Grace

    Sorry ’bout that type-o. Embarrassing! Maybe I’ll figure out what I can do with a new word like “congribution” :o)

  3. DL

    Small question you may be able to help me with. Some 10-15 years ago I saw a movie on TV, I believe it was black&white, and I think it was Japanese (or in any case Asian), without words but with mime, like a silent film .. very expressive faces of actors full of drama .. the whole was fully centered around the music of Mahler’s second symphony .. I remember it had sections of I believe the first movement & the finale. Ever since I’ve been trying to trace this back, but all internet searching (my assumption was it must exist on DVD or youtube) has been invain.
    Does this ring a bell, please? .. could you maybe assist to find back what I saw? Many thanks in advance!
    PS: sorry for posting this here publicly, I wanted to email you directly but didn’t have your mail address

  4. DL

    Sorry can you please delete the previous comment and this one as well .. as a stroke of incredible coincidence the following reference came to me just after I posted my question: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002)

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