What Was Mahler Thinking?

MahlerJan Swafford examined “Why haven’t we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?” in Slate 6 years ago. Now James C. Taylor wonders the same about Mahler’s 8th symphony in More Intelligent Life and comes up with a tentative answer:

Performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (the “Symphony of a Thousand”) never quite add up. Perhaps the work is too technically unwieldy, or maybe its meaning is too obtuse. (After he finished the symphony, Mahler wrote his wife in 1909 that “it is all an allegory to convey something that, no matter what form it is given, can never be adequately expressed.”) Whatever the reason, it is a work that demands attention. Mahler’s largest creation–and one of few that were well received in his lifetime–premiered in 1910. Nearly 90 years later, New York City played host to not one but two performances of this massive and rarely mounted symphony.

The first took place in May at Carnegie Hall. Pierre Boulez, a French modern-music maestro and arguably the leading interpreter of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, conducted the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra for the Berlin State Opera. The Staatskapelle is a solid pit band, but hardly a world-class symphonic orchestra, and not the first group of players you’d pick for Mahler. The singers, however, were first rate and the orchestra played with assurance, if little sparkle. The performance was most notable for its restraint.

It is not clear whether this restraint was due to Boulez’s minimalism, the relatively modest size of the forces assembled (the Carnegie concert involved barely 300 musicians; at the symphony’s premiere in 1910 there were over a thousand) or simple fatigue (the Staatskapelle was performing all ten of Mahler’s symphonies in under two weeks). Regardless, the result was an 8th that beguiled more than it overwhelmed.