Gustav Mahler's Second Century: Achievements in Scholarship and Challenges for Research

Article excerpt


Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is one of the few composers whose works and legacy remain the subject of intense interest by professional musicians and also the general public, and he holds a particularly intriguing role in the culture of the twentieth century. With some commentators dubbing the audience of the latter part of that century a "generation of Mahlerians," (1) the eponymous use of the composer's name suggests that his time has indeed arrives. (2) In 2010, the sesquicentennial of his birth, and 2011, the centenary of his death, the reception of Mahler points to his profound influence in symphonic music, song cycles, performing practice, and also musicological investigation. Mahler's status at the beginning of the twenty-first century bears consideration because of the ways in which it represents significant transformations in research on the composer and approaches to his works.



During his lifetime Mahler was regarded as a modern composer, (3) and some of the criticism surrounding him took issue with the innovative aspects of his scores, including the number and variety of instruments he used. A famous cartoon depicts Mahler amid a variety of percussion instruments with the caption having him lamenting the fact that he left out the automobile horn. (4) As superficial as this kind of commentary may seem a century later, it indicates the effect Mahler had on his audiences through the expanded orchestra he used and the unusual instruments he included.

While Mahler had been labeled a post-romantic by some, the pejorative aspects of the term suggest a hesitation about endorsing his music along with the works of other composers whose works had more longevity in the repertoire. Yet the very elements associated with the idea of hyper-romanticism are the very ones that underscore Mahler's distinctive style and individual voice. Beyond the forces he required in his music and the expansiveness of his works, both in terms of the number of movements beyond the common-practice norm of four, and the size of the individual movements, expressiveness is an important element of Mahler's differentiated and well-articulated voice.

The intertextual and self-referential elements point to quotation and allusion which are, in turn, found in the music of other composers of the twentieth century, from Dmitri Shostakovich through John Adams. Mahler's use of musical structure and treatment of form have become the subject of Schenkerian, (5) semiotic, (6) and other approaches to analysis; other aspects of his music are the subject of various studies, including investigations of his compositional process which, in turn, offer glimpses at the ways in which his works took shape. While not associated with a style of composition, as Schoenberg is with twelve-tone technique, Mahler's influence is profound. At the same time, Mahler's legacy as a conductor has also influenced practices in the twentieth century, and his extant letters offer details about this aspect of his life and also other information crucial for exploring biographical issues. An assessment of the research on his work reveals much about the composer, his works, and his significance, with the latter pointing to the directions for further study.


Scholarship on Mahler's life and works benefits from various important research tools, including several bibliographies. The first book-length bibliography on Mahler is that of the Vondenhoffs, (7) a pioneering effort published in 1978 that was succeeded several years later by a supplement almost as large. (8) While studies available to that point include bibliographic references, the quantity of published material on Mahler became apparent with the work of the Vondenhoffs, an effort that remains useful for its citation of early criticism and newspaper accounts not easily found elsewhere. …