This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler. It is remarkable, perhaps, that Mahler has become such a mainstay of the repertoire. His works are challenging to perform, especially in these recession-laden times, seeing as they call for such huge forces. They were not always warmly received during his lifetime. Following Hitler’s accession to the chancellorship of Germany, Mahler’s compositions were banned. Mahler was Jewish. Despite the fact of his conversion to Catholicism, his Jewish ancestry was enough to disqualify him in the era of National Socialism. Even Mendelssohn, whom one could never imagine being the source of controversy now, was banned.
Mahler was more renowned for his conducting than for his composing. As a composer, he faced many difficulties gaining acceptance because of the fact that he was Jewish and that he was born in the Czech Republic. For a time, even Dvorak faced opposition in Vienna, as the Vienna of his time was none too favorable towards Czechs, let alone Czech composers. Fortunately for him, Dvorak had the support of a composer beloved of the Viennese, Johannes Brahms. Mahler liked to say that he was thrice homeless, firstly as German speaker in Czech lands, secondly as a Czech in German lands, and thirdly as a Jew everywhere.
Following the War, the Mahler renaissance began in earnest. It is perhaps fitting that one of Mahler’s greatest champions was one of his successors at the New York Philharmonic, namely Leonard Bernstein. Mahler’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic probably hastened his early death at the age of 50. His wife, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (she was married three times) wrote derisively of the treatment of her husband by the symphony board, made up largely of women from America’s wealthiest families. Mahler, who had conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker to great acclaim and who ruled supreme at the Wiener Hofoper (now the Wiener Staatsoper), found himself at the beck and call of wealthy American women with far too much money at their disposal and far too much time on their hands.
His most famous work, the fourth movement of the Fifth Symphony. Given the fact that almost every symphony of his lasts over an hour in length, music programmers of the time did not feel that audiences could sustain attention for even one of these mammoth works. The Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony was often performed at the expense of the rest of the symphony.
John Bell Young, an American pianist, author, and critic has made a wonderful transcription of the Adagietto of the Mahler Fifth for piano solo. Despite the absence of a full symphony orchestra, the transcription works surprisingly well.