Happy Birthday Gustav Mahler, Counter Culture Hero (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911)

By S. Stasov
Middle-aged man, seated, facing towards the left but head turned towards the right. He has a high forehead, rimless glasses and is wearing a dark, crumpled suit
Photo: Wikipedia

The Jewish Bohemian Gustav Mahler is one of today’s most cherished composers. During the 1960s Mahler’s popularity peaked when he was discovered by the young, impassioned, radical mavens of that period, who embraced his music for its emotional intensity and complexity. Lydia Seifter, Madison pianist and teacher, came of age in that thrilling era of discovery. Lydia is a treasure trove of knowledge about Mahler’s music and biography. I asked her for her thoughts on Mahler. Here is her reply:

“Mahler had an active, vibrant, completely engaged intellect. He was capable of conversing with top intellectuals in many fields, including science, literature, and philosophy, who were astounded by the depth of his knowledge. His music depicts the full spectrum of human experience. It takes a courageous listener to enter into that territory. Mahler is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the faint of intellect. The emotions Mahler expresses are authentic, not airbrushed. His music is an all-encompassing fusion of the intellectual, the philosophical, the emotional, and the spiritual. Mahler was a veritable dynamo of professional activities. He was a celebrity conductor as well as a composer. He became a hero to the counter-culture in the 1960s.”

Mahler had plenty of emotionally wrenching conditions to inspire him. Half his brothers and sisters died, his wife cheated on him, and shortly after one of his children died, he developed a lethal heart infection. When Mahler was appointed music director of the Vienna Opera, there were accusations of “the Jewification of music.” However, Tchaikovsky, who met Mahler in 1882, described him as “astounding,” a “genius who is burning to conduct.” This incendiary spirit can be heard in many of Mahler’s compositions.

This is the first recording of Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Bruno Walter, close friend of Mahler

Madison pianist Lydia Seifter accompanies Karen Wilberg in Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts: Who is Gustav Mahler? 1960

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