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Mahler’s symphonies and his warning against mankind

Posted March. 31, 2020 08:02,   

Updated March. 31, 2020 08:02


From streaming sites and YouTube to the concert halls across the globe, Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are on par with Ludwig van Beethoven in popularity if not more popular. Beethoven’s symphonies seek to envision the ideal world while Mahler’s often describe the world of irregularities. Indeed, Mahler’s works were emotionally aligned with the apocalyptic atmosphere of the 19th century when expression‎ism and Freud’s psychoanalysis explored the dark side of the subconscious.

Among Mahler’s nine symphonies, Symphony No. 2 and 3 boast a massive scale for large choirs and solo singers, but in Symphony No. 4, the share of orchestra is reduced, and only the last movement has a soprano solo. From No. 5 to 7, the orchestra is played without vocalists.

The fourth movement of his famous Symphony 5 has “Adagietto,” a love letter meant for his wife, Alma. Movement 5, a paean to mother nature, puts a splendid end to the symphony. But the first part of the movement is dark and tragic with his composer’s near-death experience of a major hemorrhage from surgery reflected in it. The title of Symphony 6 is “Tragic” where a hero figure fights his way towards his own destruction.

Compared to Symphony 5 or 6, Mahler’s Symphony 4 has Mozart’s briskness about it. Its last movement, whose lyrics were adopted from a German folksong, presents a soprano celebrating the beauty of heaven. When one needs meat, a sheep comes along and gives his neck. It might be heaven for humans, but one cannot be sure if it is the case for other creatures.

Many musicians such as maestro Leonard Bernstein point out that Mahler’s music has a “warning against the hubris of mankind.” They say in unison that Mahler predicted the atrocities our civilization had in store such as the first and second world wars and other social maladies and gave flesh to them in the form of music. When the entire humanity is faced with such a massive challenge, one might be lucky enough to find a clue for solution in Mahler’s world of irregularities.

KBS Symphony Orchestra’s “Digital K-hall” is presenting its concert videos of Mahler’s symphonies performed when former chief conductor Yoel Levi was with KBS. Symphony 4 will be on air on Wednesday, Symphony 5 on Friday, and Symphony “Tragic” will be presented on Saturday.