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With the advent of modern pop music in the last century, the attention span of the average music listener has spiraled dramatically downward. While that is not at all to say that there is no remarkable modern music, it is more so to point to the fact that classical compositions have fallen further and further to the wayside of the public conscience. Outside of classically-trained musicians and performers, or those with the leisure and wealth to access the classical world, it has become all but impossible to take the time to truly appreciate the works of any composer, let alone any one composer’s full body of work. Nonetheless, if there is any composer more than worth dedicating such time to, it is Gustav Mahler. This early 20th century composer created some of the most compelling, emotionally exhausting and musically-fulfilling work of his generation, and continues to leave a profoundly enormous impact on the writing and performance of classical music today. As enjoyable as it would be to detail all of his symphonies, here are five specific movements pulled from various symphonies to help introduce Mahler’s technical and emotional musical brilliance.
Written as a love song to his wife Alma, Mahler cracks into the essence of human love and compassion in an incomparable way with this movement. The strings crash and dive perfectly throughout, every spacious, drawn out note further encasing the listener in the warm, romantic world Mahler has so wonderfully cultivated in this masterpiece. Anyone can write a love song these days, but it takes a true musical mastermind to seamlessly convey such emotions.
One of Mahler’s greatest talents lie in his ability to effortlessly dive from the most pleasant of musical traipses into seriously dark and intimidating waters. A particularly spectacular example of this talent is the third part of his first symphony. The song runs unpredictably through the serene, delightful string and woodwind passages, almost all of which give way to haunting, moody bursts of horns and tympani, keeping the intent listener on their toes throughout its 11 minutes, and proving Mahler’s unparalleled mastery of scales and his willingness to bend them to his own rules instead of the other way around.
Mahler certainly had a gift in writing intense compositions, but his ability to craft more lighthearted work should by no means be understated. Through all of its crescendos and decrescendos, as well as astoundingly intricate technical melodic exercises in the wind section, Mahler conjures almost a Alice In Wonderland-esque, deeply interweaved playful world of melodic curiosity, where a-million-and-one sounds are all happening at once, but none detract from the overall pleasure of the craft.
The second part of his sixth symphony plays in the same subdued vein as much of his fifth, but this movement carries a darker, more bipolar emotional nature than its predecessor. Every section is breathtaking in its composition, yet there never seems to be a moment where there is not at least one instrument hinting at something uglier, more difficult and vicious through all of the melodious euphoria. Mahler’s willingness to directly confront the darkest sides of his own emotions and humanity through his music could not be any more appreciated, but this emotional finesse truly speaks to the staggering intellectual and empathetic heights he achieved in his cruelly short lifetime.
If the strictly instrumental side of Mahler’s work wasn’t impressive enough, his eighth symphony will be sure to turn any opposing opinion around fast. The operatic vocal incorporation to the already larger-than-life, dramatic grandstand of the instrumentation makes this symphony literally and figuratively explode. While the orchestra rattles with the kind of energy reserved for the most intense of musical finales, the choir throws the entire piece over the top and turns it into what could easily be the soundtrack to the creation of the universe. And no, there is no exaggeration in that.
By Josh Rau
Josh is a media studies student at the University of San Francisco. When he’s not working or writing essays, he’s roaming new and unfamiliar streets in his own world between his headphones, listening to as much new music as possible. That, or he’s just playing it himself and scrolling through Tumblr.