Daily Bow: Century of Epic Music


Today we celebrate a century’s worth of incredible music from the composer Gustav Mahler, who died on this very day 100 years ago.

“Big” defines Mahler, who died a century ago this month, on May 18, 1911, in Vienna. His symphonies — there are nine, plus an unfinished tenth — are worlds unto themselves, he once said. They can be overwhelming, spilling over with angst, loss and joy, at once heaven-bound and earthbound, steeped in the sounds he heard as a boy in eastern Bohemia: marching band music, klezmer music, high church music, Bohemian dances and the sounds of nature.

Diagnosed with a heart condition, Mahler barely made it into his fifties before passing away. Yet, his music has endured twice the number of years and continues to live on. Much like his predecessor Richard Wagner, Mahler’s work captures a sound that is uniquely his.

The very first note of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony signals that you’re in for something on a whole new scale. It’s a single note, an A, in the strings, quiet and sustained, evoking the humid tang of sulfur in the air and the pregnant hush before rain. But that single note extends over seven octaves — that is, it’s being played from the lowest to the highest ranges in the orchestra. It’s at once tiny and huge and intensely personal. This is why Mahler, who died 100 years ago this week, remains one of today’s most popular symphonists: It’s this personal quality to his music, the sense that, at bottom, it’s really about you.

Mahler’s power is such that even the economic crisis must bow to him.

A COURAGEOUS decision several years ago to program the complete Mahler symphonic cycle despite the global financial crisis has paid off handsomely for the Sydney Symphony, with record classical ticket sales in 2010 and a return to profitability likely this financial year.

Today we pay our respects and honor the Viennese-New Yorker and the impact he has had on the world of classical music.

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