Number of compositions: About 20
Number of symphonies: 9.5 (the last is unfinished)
Number of concertos: 0
Number of string quartets: 0
Style: Enormous, gloriously expansive symphonies. Mahler did not write many pieces, but he poured everything into the music he composed. Literally everything. In his own words: “A symphony should be like the world. It must embrace everything.”
So his music is pretty intense, then? Yeah, listening to a Mahler symphony is like watching an epic movie. Sometimes it’s not much shorter — his 3rd symphony is typically over 100 minutes long. That makes it the longest piece in the “standard repertoire” (the hundred or so pieces which orchestras typically play). They also run the whole gamut of emotions, from stab-yourself-in-the-face melancholia to hug-the-sun jubilation.
That sounds intimidating. Well I was going to say it isn’t… but it totally is. It’s like standing in a canyon looking up at some vast, elaborate cliff face and wondering how the hell you are going to climb all the way up. Having said that, it’s not like his music is one long churn. It’s full of extremes. Everything varies: the tempos (really fast to really slow) , the orchestration (one or two instruments playing, to every instrument you can think of playing at once), the dynamics (really quiet to ridiculously loud).
Is he hard to get into? Yeah, I think so, although Mahler fans will want to string me up for saying it. It’s definitely not the kind of music you make sense of straight away. It takes effort, and practice. I’m just starting to really get into him after a couple of years. Of course, your mileage might vary.
Alright, I’m scared but I want to hear it…
Symphony No. 6, 1st Movement
Here’s the hugely grand start of the 6th symphony, with some exceedingly melodramatic cinematography. I love when the drum roll hits at 2:20.
Symphony No. 9, 2nd Movement
Here’s something a bit more frivolous and flighty (and sarcastic), from the 9th symphony. Incidentally, Mahler was terrified by the idea of the curse of the ninth, where composers have a habit of dying right after writing their 9th symphony. Turns out he was right to worry; he never completed his tenth.
Kindertotenlieder I – “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (“now the sun wants to rise brightly”)
Ouch. This is from the “Kindertotenlieder”, which means “songs on the death of children”. They are beautiful, but immensely harrowing.