By Zachariah Friesen
As a young aspiring trombone player, exploring the world of Gustav Mahler, I listened to his 5th Symphony at least 20 times before I understood any of it. One night, after returning from an audition in Los Angeles, I listened to his 5th Symphony on repeat all the way back to San Francisco. At about 2am, and the 3rd repeat of the symphony I was finally able to wrap my head around it. The next hour listening to that symphony was truly one of the most enjoyable moments of my life. Here are some things that I’ve learned about Mahler that you may not have known:
- Gustav Mahler’s music didn’t gain the respect and notoriety it has today until Leonard Bernstein “resurrected” Mahler’s symphonies while conducting the New York Philharmonic 50 years after Mahler died.
- Mahler, in his time, was known more as a conductor. He is considered to be one of the most passionate and greatest conductors in music history.
- Mahler’s life was very tragic. 8 of his 14 siblings did not survive into adulthood and died at very young ages. He lost a child, and a troubled marriage among other tragedies plagued his life.
- Mahler met with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, after a series of tragedies plagued Mahler’s already tragic life. Freud’s diagnosis for Mahler was mother-fixation.
- Mahler wrote a song cycle on the death of children called Kindertotenlieder, which enraged his wife Alma Mahler. Sadly, not too long after, one of his two children passed away, leading to a series of terrible tragedies and prompting his meeting with Sigmund Freud.
- Mahler is known for creating the autobiographical symphony. He claimed: “a symphony should be the world, it must embrace everything.” Listening to one of his symphonies is like living an hour (or more) of Mahler’s life.
- Mahler’s first symphony is considered by some to be the greatest 1st Symphony of any composer. At one point, it depicts hundreds of tiny little creatures of the woods collectively carrying a slain hunter’s body out of the forest. The music is a string bass solo playing a funeral march based on Frere Jacques in a minor key.
- Mahler’s 8th Symphony, later dubbed: The Symphony of a Thousand, calls for over 20 brass players, 2 Piccolos, 5 flutes, one mandolin (several mandolins are preferred), harmonium, glockenspiel, 2 choirs, a Children’s Choir and 8 voice soloists. It lasts nearly 85 minutes.
- Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is the longest symphony of the orchestral repertoire, totaling 95 minutes. Among the highlights are a post-horn solo and the most extensive trombone solo in the orchestral repertoire.
- To avoid “The Curse of the 9”, in which composers die after writing their 9th symphony, Mahler wrote a symphony and called it: Das Lied von der Erde instead of numbering it and called his subsequent symphony the 9th Symphony. For what it’s worth he died while writing his 10th symphony.
Zachariah Friesen is the online merchandiser at Sheet Music Plus. He is also a freelance trombone player and private lessons teacher in the bay area.