Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsWho is Gustav Mahler?

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Young People's Concert

Who is Gustav Mahler?

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 7 February 1960


Hello again all my dear young friends. It's wonderful to be back with you again after so long a time and after that long tour we made this summer of Europe and Russia. We thought about you a lot while we were over there. And we hope that you thought about us and missed our concerts as much as we missed you. Now just to welcome you back in a happy way, we're going to play you a little music:

Now, I'll bet there isn't a person in this whole Carnegie Hall who knows what that music is. Well, maybe some of you do, because you've peeked at your programs, and you know that today's concert is about a composer called Gustav Mahler. But who is this Mahler? Has any one of you ever heard of him? I'll bet not, or only very few of you. You see, Mahler isn't one of those big popular names like Beethoven or Gershwin or Ravel, but he's sure famous among music lovers. In fact we're playing an awful lot of Mahler these days right here at the Philharmonic; there's one of his pieces on every program for at least two months. And the reason is that this year is his hundredth birthday. Imagine, he would have been a hundred years old in July, if he were still alive. And so we're having this long birthday party for him, by playing his music every week, and I thought: Why shouldn't you all be invited to this party too, and celebrate with us? That's why we're going to talk about Mahler today, and play some of his music for you.

There's also another very special reason why we should be celebrating Mahler's birthday here, and that is that fifty years ago he was the conductor of this very same New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Of course it wasn't called the Philharmonic then, and it certainly wasn't made up of the same players who are sitting here today. But they gave many beautiful concerts with Mahler right here on this same stage of Carnegie Hall, and I am very proud to stand here on the same stage, with the same great orchestra, because Mahler was one of the greatest conductors that ever lived. Of course, I never heard him conduct myself, but everyone who did hear him said he was simply marvelous. Now, there are some people, a lot of them, who say that Mahler may have been a fine conductor but he wasn't so hot as a composer. Some people say that Mahler's own music sounds too much like all the composers he used to conduct--Mozart and Schubert and Wagner and all the other composers belonging to his German tradition--and that he just remembered their music and imitated it when he wrote his own. They say that anyway a conductor's head is too full of everyone else's music, so how can he write original stuff of his own? Naturally I don't agree with these people at all; I think Mahler's music is terrific, and very original, too, as I'm sure you'll agree when you hear it.

But still I admit it's a problem to be both a conductor and a composer; there never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. I ought to know because I have the same problem myself, and that's one of the reasons why I'm so sympathetic to Mahler: I understand his problem. It's like being two different men locked up in the same body; one man is a conductor and the other a composer, and they're both one fellow called Mahler (or Bernstein). It's like being a double man. But with him, with Mahler, the problem was much worse even; he was a double man in every single part of his musical life. And today we're going to try and get a picture in our minds of this double man, by listening to his music, and discovering how the battle between those two different Mahlers inside him made his music come out sounding the original way it does.

Now for instance, take that happy music we played a little while ago, which was the beginning of his Fourth Symphony. You remember those merry Christmasy sleigh bells at the beginning?

And you remember that lovely, graceful melody, that sounds like the happiest sort of Mozart tune?

And you remember this other gay tune, which is full of high spirits, like whistling when you feel on top of the world?

Well, you might not believe it, but the man who wrote all that jolly stuff was one of the most unhappy people in history! And the reason he was so miserable was exactly because of that battle that was always going on inside him. In this very same symphony which is so happy and so delightful, every once in a while you will hear this sad, crying voice, the other Mahler's voice, as if his heart were breaking, right in the middle of all that happiness and gaiety. Like this part, in the third movement of this symphony:

Is that heartbroken-sounding music the real Mahler? Or is it the other happy sleigh-bell music? No--they're both Mahler, the voices of the two different people inside him. But then, of course, you'll say, "Doesn't every composer go from happy to sad and back again? I mean, it's true of Mozart, isn't it, and Bach and everyone?" Yes, but no composer goes quite so far in each direction, so happy and so sad. When Mahler is sad, it is a complete sadness; nothing can comfort him, it's like a weeping child. And when he's happy, he's happy the way a child is--all the way. And that's one of the keys to the Mahler puzzle: He is like a child; his feelings are extreme, exaggerated, like young people's feelings. That's another reason why it's so especially right to have you come to his birthday celebration; I think young people can understand Mahler's feelings even better than older ones. Once you understand that secret of his music--the voice of the child--you can really love his music.
So that's the main secret about him. He was struggling all his life to recapture those pure, unmixed, overflowing emotions of childhood. I'm sure you've all had emotions like that, that filled-up feeling that nature sometimes makes you have, especially in the spring, when you almost want to cry because everything is so beautiful. Well, Mahler's music is full of those feelings and full of the sounds of nature, like bird calls and hunting horns and forest murmurs--which are all part of his idea of beauty, childlike beauty. Here was this grown-up, very sophisticated, learned man, with children of his own and a heart full of struggles between the different voices fighting inside him, always trying to feel pure and innocent again, like a child. And that, too, is another one of those battles he had, the battle of the double man--half man, half child.

We're going to play for you now the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, the whole movement, because it is a perfect example of what we have been talking about. It is like a man's dream of childhood, quiet, peaceful, and contented. But it is done with the knowing art of a grown-up man.

This music is sung as well as played. It uses a soprano, who sings--in German, of course--a charming poem about how heaven is going to be when we get there--whoever of us is going to get there, that is. And naturally it is a child's dream of how heaven's going to be. And the voice that sings it has to be light and clear and young, like a child's voice. Let me first give you a short translation of the poem into English, so that you'll be able to understand what the soprano is singing about. She says:

We are enjoying the pleasures of heaven,
Free from all the noise and troubles of earth,
Everything is quiet in heaven, in gentle repose,
But lots of fun just the same.
We dance and skip and sing
With St. Peter looking on.
When we're hungry, St. John brings us lamb to eat,
And St. Luke brings us beef.

By the way, at this point in the music you will hear Mahler imitating the sound of the lamb like this:


and you will also hear the sound of the ox.


Well, to go on with the poem, she says:

We can eat everything we want from the heavenly garden;
Bowls full of asparagus, beans, and apples, and pears, and grapes.
If you want venison, a deer comes running down the street;
If you want a hasenpfeffer, a rabbit comes running down the street.
If you want seafood, all the fishes come happily swimming by
Where St. Peter is standing ready with his net and his bait to catch them.
The cook, of course, is St. Martha.
As for music, there is no music on earth that compares to our music in heaven.
St. Cecelia and all her relatives are marvelous musicians;
The angels' voices cheer up our spirits
And everything lives for joy--everything is joy.

Isn't that a lovely dream? And when you hear the gentle, innocent music that goes with it, I think you'll understand right away what I meant by Mahler's search for childlike purity. Now here is the soprano, Reri Grist, to sing it with us now.

All right. What do we know about this great composer Mahler so far? We have talked about three of his great inner battles: the fight between the conductor and the composer; the fight between the happy young nature lover and the tragic, tormented grown up; and, finally, the fight between the smart grown-up and the innocent child. But there are still more battles going on in this double Mahler.

He was even divided geographically between belonging to the East and belonging to the West. Imagine, even those two forces are at war in him. You see, he was born in a country called Bohemia, which we now call Czechoslovakia, and that country is smack in the center of Europe, between the West and the East. So that Mahler carried in him memories of both sides: The songs, and the history, the manners and customs and ways of thinking and feeling of both East and West.

Now the Western side of him naturally drew him to Western musical styles, so that his music shows the influence of Mozart, and Schubert, and Wagner--all the great German and Austrian composers.

But his Eastern side drew him to other musical ideas, like gypsy, and Slavic, and Jewish ideas (which are also based on Eastern folk music), and even as far East as Chinese musical ideas. He loved Chinese poetry, Chinese philosophy, and the sounds of Chinese music. And his own music shows it. Right in the middle of this same Fourth Symphony, with all its German Mozartean and Schubertian sounds, suddenly comes this peculiar Chinese tune:

Imagine that absolutely primitive Chinese tune in the middle of a big Austrian symphony. And the strangest thing is that when Mahler, after writing eight big Austrian symphonies, came to write his greatest and best known work, The Song of the Earth, he based that whole long piece on--of course--Chinese ideas. The Song of the Earth is a big symphony which is sung from beginning to end by two voices that take turns. We're going to hear part of it now, a song for the tenor soloist called Youth. The words of this song are based on an old Chinese poem, which describes a beautiful scene of young Chinese friends sitting in a garden summerhouse made of green and white porcelain, very pretty, drinking and chatting in their silk robes, while in the brook outside you can see the whole picture reflected upside down in the water--the friends, the summerhouse, the garden, and the bridge--all upside down. And the music is a bit upside down, too, the music of a European reflected in an Oriental pool of water. That's the double Mahler again--half real, half reflection. And that's one of the reasons that the music sounds so original. Here is the tenor, William Lewis, to sing this charming song Youth for us now.

By now you must have noticed something very special about all these symphonies of Mahler: The fact that so many of them use voices in addition to the orchestra. Out of his nine symphonies Mahler used voices in four of them--that's almost half: And in two of the nine, in fact, he used whole choruses. His greatest symphony, called The Song of the Earth, part of which you have just heard, is sung from beginning to end. It's really a song symphony. You see, Mahler was as much a composer for the voice as he was for orchestra. And that makes us think right away: Why didn't he write operas? What a natural thing for him to have done with that deep feeling he had for the human singing voice. But he didn't write operas, never one, and there again we see that split in Mahler: Here is a natural operatic composer who never wrote an opera. He just kept writing symphonies that sound operatic. For instance, just listen to this duet section from his Second Symphony--it's almost exactly like listening to opera.

You see, that's really operatic. Mahler was really in love with the human voice. He was always writing songs, in fact, and many of his own songs he used in his symphonies, even without a voice singing. Like the songs in a collection called The Boy's Magic Horn--which is a series of sort of folk songs about childhood and childlike dreams. Remember that important side of Mahler, the childlike side? You must never forget it: because as we said, it is the main secret of his music. It also explains why he loved folk music so much, which is, after all, part of childhood.

Take this particular song from the Boy's Magic Horn which is called St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fish. It's a humorous song. You might almost call it a comic song, because it tells about how the fish came to listened to St. Anthony's sermon--including the crabs and the turtles--and then at the end they all just swam away happily being just as silly and naughty as they had been before they heard the sermon. We're going to hear part of this song first as a song, then afterwards we'll hear the same music used without singing in a symphony. Here is Miss Helen Raab to sing St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fish.

And now let's see how Mahler takes that same song and makes a movement of a symphony out of it, not the whole movement of course. The orchestra now will sound much bigger now, because it's on its own; there won't be a singer. The music is bigger too, more developed, more symphonic. You remember the program we did last year about development and what makes music symphonic? Well, if you do remember it, you'll understand how that little comic song we just heard has developed into a great symphonic scherzo. Listen to this part from it.

And so it goes on and on, for a much longer time. But what a difference between this and the singing version we heard before! See in this music also, we can see again the double Mahler, in still another way, and that is the double way he has of treating the orchestra: the little way and the big way. I'm sure you heard it. Most people think of Mahler as a composer for big monster-orchestras, which is true, as far as it goes. He did use the biggest orchestral assemblies in history, and so we come to expect sounds like this one we just heard:

But just as often as not, he does exactly the opposite and makes wonderful new sounds with just a few instruments, like chamber music. Like this passage we just heard a bit earlier:

Now that music shows us something, that Mahler was a real master of chamber music sounds. And yet he never wrote chamber music--not a quartet or trio or a violin sonata or anything. That's another strange example of that tug of war that was always in him. Just as the operatic Mahler never wrote operas, so the chamber Mahler never wrote chamber music. A double man, you see? But there still remains one more split, and perhaps it's the biggest split of all: that on one hand Mahler was the end of the whole romantic nineteenth-century tradition of composing, the last of that line beginning with Mozart and running through Beethoven and Schubert and Wagner, and at the same time he was the beginning of modern music, of what we call the music of our time. Imagine being the end of something and the beginning of something else, all at once! But he was. In the various pieces of his that we've played today, you have heard bits that sound like Mozart, like Schubert, or Bach, or Wagner. But you've also heard many bits that seem to prophesy the coming of new composers, like Schoenberg and Webern, Copland and Britten, and even Shostakovich, very much Shostakovich, in fact. So now we're going to perform for you a piece of Mahler that does both things, that reminds you of the old German music, and at the same time gives you very strong hints of the new music that is to come. What we're going to do is play you the last part of the last song of his great symphony, The Song of the Earth, part of which we heard before, which is one of the most beautiful endings any piece of music has ever had.

Now certain people were amazed when I told them I was going to play this for you today. They said, "What? You're going to play that long, slow, highbrow music for young people? You're crazy--they'll get restless and noisy. They won't understand it. It's just too highbrow. And it doesn't even end with a bang-up finish. It dies away quietly. Nobody will clap."

Well, I know my young people, and I'm not afraid to play this music for you. I know you'll understand it, and even love it, because you already know more about Mahler than most people do, and you'll understand also all the doublenesses, those fights in him, all those things we've talked about today. They're all in this music. It has very heavy orchestration and very light chamber-music orchestration. It's very German-sounding, but it also has some Slavic- and Jewish-sounding phrases. It gets very complicated and then gets childishly simple, even has bird calls in it. It sounds sometimes like opera, and sometimes like a simple folk song. And it's very Chinese. Especially in the orchestration, which uses harps, and mandolin, and celeste, and all things calculated to make a delicate oriental sound. Now just one more word before our contralto, Helen Raab, sings it for you. I want to tell you sort of what it's about. This last song is called The Farewell and comes from an old Chinese poem describing a person who is saying farewell to the world. But at the very end of the poem the singer says: "This beautiful world blooms again, every spring, over and over, forever." That means the promise of everlasting life at the end of life.

But it means something else too: It is like Mahler's own personal farewell to the old romantic kind of German music, as if he knows it's all over, and now he must begin a new kind of music, which he begins right then and there. And it comes out sounding very original. But at the same time he doesn't want to say goodbye to the old music; he loves all that Wagner and Schubert so much. So he says goodbye sadly, unwillingly, so that at the end of the piece, when the singer says the German word ewig, meaning forever, she sings it again over and over as if not wishing to let go of this beauty.

And then again, and again,

so that finally the music dies out on this word, without seeming to end at all. It's almost like magic, this marvelous ending. You really have the feeling that it goes on and on, forever, even after it's stopped. And if this magic stillness at the end makes you feel like not clapping, then just don't. I'll understand.


© 1960, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

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