Magazine article The Spectator

Mahler's Mass Following

Magazine article The Spectator

Mahler's Mass Following

Article excerpt

It is 150 years since the composer's birth.

Michael Kennedy on his remarkable popularity

Approaching 60 years of writing music criticism, I have been wondering what I would nominate as the most remarkable changes on the British musical scene since I started. I decided there were three: the emergence of Mahler as a popular composer worldwide; the enthusiasm for the music of Janacek, especially his operas; and the establishment of regional opera companies. It is not as if Mahler's music was completely unknown in Britain, even in his lifetime (1860-1911). But until about 1960 his impact on the general public was roughly the equivalent of, say, Szymanowski today. Now you cannot escape him. The history of his rise and rise in Britain can be traced through a series of historic performances and the endeavours of far-sighted pioneers among conductors and critics.

But he was first known here and elsewhere as a great conductor who also wrote lengthy symphonies.

The first Mahler to have been played in Britain may have been the First Symphony, performed under Henry Wood at a Prom in 1903. The critic of the Times wrote that it was a certainty that Herr Mahler has little or no creative faculty. It is, in fact, quite impossible, however willing one may be, to find any genuine good point in the symphony, which is a work commonplace and trite to an almost infantile degree, contains no germ of real inventive ability and is not even well scored . . .

Pause to recover your breath. Undeterred, Wood gave the first British performance of the Fourth in 1905.

In January 1913 he conducted the still problematical (for some) Seventh and a year later the great song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde with Doris Woodall and Gervase Elwes, a famous Gerontius, as soloists.

Wood's services to Mahler continued with the first British performance in 1930 of the immense Eighth (Symphony of a Thousand) with the recently formed BBC Symphony Orchestra. He repeated this in 1938. The later performance was attended by 25-yearold Benjamin Britten who was 'tremendously impressed' but found the performance 'execrable'. He had become a Mahlerian in 1933 when he heard the Fourth in London conducted by Webern.

In Manchester in January 1913 the German conductor of the Halle Orchestra, Michael Balling, conducted the First Symphony and would have conducted others but for the war. He was supported by the Manchester Guardian critic Samuel Langford, who in his obituary of Mahler in May 1911 had described him as 'the greatest of present-day symphonists'. That was a lone view. He was the only English critic to attend the famous Mahler Festival in Amsterdam in 1920 when all the major works were conducted by Willem Mengelberg to commemorate the close relationship between Mahler and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1930 Balling's successor, Sir Hamilton Harty, conducted the first Halle performance of Das Lied von der Erde and the first English performance of the Ninth. Langford was dead by then and his successor Neville Cardus at first seemed to be only a lukewarm Mahlerian.

His enthusiasm followed later.

As it happens, the two works Harty conducted were to play a highly significant role in converting hundreds of gramophone enthusiasts into Mahlerians when special subscription recordings of live performances by the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter were issued by Columbia and HMV in 1936 and 1939. …

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