Mahler stands as the culmination of the great Viennese musical movement which spanned the 19th century. Where Beethoven stormed the ramparts of “music-as-personal-and-political” at the beginning of the century – reshaping its form and function in the process – Mahler, at the end of it, took that form and function to what would be its last and most profound expression.
His 10 symphonies are not only breathtaking in skill and imagination, but are as personal and emotionally broad as they are long. Mahler’s life was filled with deep passion and unrest. Born a Jew in Christian Europe, he lived with a constant sense of rootlessness and “otherness,” any sense of belonging eluding him. Even at the height of his success as music director of the Vienna State Opera, he was confronted with petty prejudice, eventually costing him his job. A student of philosophy, his vision was lofty and ambitious, and his aim – like Beethoven’s – was to provide a clear reflection of the human condition in all of its struggles, and to light a way beyond them. You can listen to some examples here, but the only way to really take in Mahler is at a live performance, with 100+ musicians playing their hearts out, because that’s what his music inspires in everyone who steps into his world. He once said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Mahler’s work does just that.