Dreams Of Mahler

Reports of the composer’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Gustav Mahler photographed by Moritz Nähr, cropped from source.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In 2010, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall featured a series of concerts performing all ten symphonies by Gustav Mahler, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth. Each concert also featured a new work commissioned to sit alongside the symphonies, plus another for Das Lied Von Der Erde, from eleven composers.

The results included a wide variety of approaches – from a short choral piece, to an orchestral arrangement of a Schubert song, to the seventh symphony of David Matthews, accompanying Mahler’s of the same number.

Edward Gregson is a composer and (now retired) academic, born in Sunderland in 1945. He took on the task to introduce Mahler’s sixth symphony, an immense and turbulent work of some 80-plus minutes. His tone poem Dream Song is one of the more substantial Manchester commissions, and is perhaps the one which most directly confronts its Mahlerian pairing. As he explains:

My approach in tackling this commission was to ‘invade’ Mahler’s world of musical ideas […] to portray a half-remembered landscape of some of the themes and motives from his Sixth Symphony, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream […] 

Mahler’s sixth is a vast emotional canvas, but it has a reputation as a ‘tragic’ symphony, made clear from the ominous march of its opening, through to the violent ‘hammer blows’ of its finale.

Gregson’s decision to reconfigure ideas from this particular work is appropriate, because the story of Mahler’s sixth is marked by questions of orderings, timings – even claims of premonition. It is a symphony that has never fully settled its version of events. Mahler made revisions after an unsatisfactory premiere, and consequently there is a lasting dispute over the correct sequence of the two inner movements.

A further mystery lies in its tragic character, as it was composed during the seemingly happy early years of Mahler’s marriage to his wife Alma, when their second daughter Anna was born. Mahler fostered intrigue himself, writing that his sixth presented ‘riddles’, the solution to which ‘only a generation will dare to apply itself which has previously absorbed and digested my first five symphonies’.

Alma went on to claim that this work anticipated later personal crises, most tragically the death of their first daughter Maria in 1907. It was Alma too who identified a passionately leaping violin theme, introduced as a second subject of the first movement, as representing herself.

The musicologist Hans F. Redlich went so far as to speculate that this music expressed ‘instinctive forebodings’ of the turmoil that would rock Europe through the new century, beginning shortly after Mahler’s death with the First World War.

If suggestions of prophecy seem fanciful, less contentious is that the symphony evokes the past. The trio section of the scherzo movement is marked Altväterisch – ‘old-fashioned’. At other points off-stage cowbells are heard, as if the intrusion of a bucolic memory. This all aligns with the popular idea of Mahler’s famous attributed comment – that a symphony should be ‘like the world, it must embrace everything’.

It may sound like an ambitious task to compress such a vast work into a tone poem, but Gregson avoids trying to encapsulate it all in his 20-minute span. His ‘parallel musical world’ selects various elements, and flips the tragic narrative to culminate in a Liebeslied – or ‘love song’ – which is his own variation on the ‘Alma’ theme.

The closest thing to a hammer blow is the very first chord, a nightmarish dissonance loud enough to wake anyone with a start. But what quickly emerges is a more probing and mysterious scene. Mahler’s so-called ‘fate’ motif – a major triad darkening to the minor – is heard in reverse. Minor becomes major, but it is a sonic stretching that seems to lead us nowhere.

The unfolding narrative gives us various signposts from the symphony – Mahler geeks can peruse Gregson’s guide – but this is no rehashing. His term ‘half-remembered’ is key: in the confusion of this dream, ideas are altered, updated, and personalised.

As a concert opener, Dream Song foregrounds Mahler’s sixth in the strangely transfigured light of its own remembering. The first four notes of the ‘Alma’ theme, an upward-sweeping gesture, become a leitmotif that gives coherence to the work, while portending the tragedy to follow.

Part of what makes the music so compelling is the imaginative orchestration, particularly in its translucent and ghostly passages. The central section is a menacing scherzo, but with some serenely pastoral music at its heart – Gregson’s own take on the Altväterisch trio. Then in a witty touch, we hear a glimmer of steel drums: cowbells translated from Alpine pastures to the streets of multicultural Britain.

When we finally reach the Liebeslied, it is a singing string melody complete with authentic late-romantic harmony. We could be fully in Mahler’s world, but the theme then transfers to a brass choir, reminiscent of Gregson’s northern origins and his large body of work for brass band. Bitonal scales start to distort the harmony, the dream-vision warps.

In the composer’s words, the work ends ‘peacefully, albeit bittersweet’. It comes to rest on a quiet E major chord, but the ‘Alma’ motif snakes over it on muted violins, diminished to a final questioning B-flat. Dream Song ends as it starts – with a strange ambivalence.


The Manchester Mahler commissions were arranged for an anniversary year, but Mahler’s symphonies require no such occasion. Last year for example, the BBC Proms included no fewer than five of them, in what was just a regular season.

I’ve long wondered when the trend for endless Mahler will subside, his music start to become too familiar. But as the LSO live-streamed a recent performance of his second symphony, my Twitter timeline filled up with rapturous responses of the kind that few composers, living or dead, seem able to generate.

Mahler’s second is known as ‘The Resurrection’ – but it seems that he himself has been resurrected. I would venture to say that reports of his death in 1911 have been greatly exaggerated. He is, in effect, a leading orchestral composer of our time. While he has his detractors, he is also given the frequent performances, along with the buzz and gushing plaudits that you would expect – in an ideal world at least – to be conferred on a composer writing the music of our moment.

In 2016, I heard Bernard Haitink conduct his third symphony at the Proms. It is a gargantuan piece. But standing in the packed Albert Hall arena, the audience’s collective faith was palpable. The extreme demands of this music – including a boy’s choir sitting in silence for most of its 100-minute duration – was completely normalised.

The evening’s triumph was a foregone conclusion. And I certainly enjoyed the experience – if nothing else, Mahler understood that if you give people a sublime ending they will go home on a high, no matter how long you take to get there.

But there is something more than just beautiful music going on here. There is an aesthetic of monumentality, something the Manchester Mahler brochure gives away in its first sentence:

Mahler’s symphonies are considered the greatest pinnacle of the symphonic repertoire, an unparalleled challenge for even the greatest symphony orchestras of today.

It is without doubt that Mahler serves as a kind of showcase composer for orchestral music – and by extension, classical composition itself. He exemplifies the lengths to which it can be put, the range it can cover, its ability to ‘embrace everything’. To a sometimes hypochondriac classical music culture, Mahler reassures with an emotionally powerful form of monumentality.

The metaphor of a ‘greatest pinnacle’ is also telling, because it uncritically replicates the masculine rhetoric – size, strength, challenge – that is bound up in the format of the symphony orchestra itself, as a large ensemble commanded by a traditionally male authority figure.

In the years since the 2010 Manchester season, conversations around representing women and non-white voices in concert repertoire have advanced significantly. It seems as if the classical music world is finally waking from its own long dream of complacency. Concert programming is slow to catch up, but it is promising that festivals such as the Proms have now pledged to bring their commissioning of new works to a 50:50 gender ratio by 2022.

By comparison, consider that only one of the eleven Manchester works was composed by a woman – the short, broodingly dissonant Mosaic by Bushra El-Turk. There were more members of the Matthews family represented that year, through brothers Colin and David.

And if Alma Mahler lies at the heart of Mahler’s sixth symphony, it is important to remember that she was also a composer herself, as well as a very complex character. But a key fact of their relationship, less prominent in concert marketing material, is that Gustav insisted Alma give up composing as a condition of their marriage, in order to support him.

Alma Mahler c. 1905-6, with daughters Maria (left), who died in 1907, and Anna, right. Unknown photographer. Cropped from source.

It is a jarring fact, and one that should inform our approach to Mahler’s all-embracing ideal. Can we completely separate his desire to express himself at such vast scale from his selfish suppression of his wife’s creativity? I don’t think we can. They share a cultural connection of that time, a male entitlement that underpins his monumental aesthetic – that the man’s genius, ascending his pinnacle, must be the hero.

So here is the real tragedy of the sixth symphony, whatever its supposed riddles might be. In the seemingly happy early years of their marriage, Alma would find herself as a theme in her husband’s music, when she might have been composing her own.

Now, I don’t underestimate the difficulty of programming unfamiliar works, while having to negotiate the commercial reality of box office receipts. But if we can at least aspire towards more diverse concert programming, we can see that some composers would necessarily have to be heard less often than at present to achieve that.

Our modern Mahler addiction would be a prime candidate for curtailment, firstly because a concert culture truly engaged with diverse perspectives simply wouldn’t be able to consign so many hours to these enormous symphonies. There would be too many other voices needing some of that space. But secondly, we might become more critically aware of what this monumentality represents.

We live in a time when Mahler’s works are being ‘absorbed and digested’ to an extent he might never have imagined. But to a generation that demands a menu more representative of the 21st century, his music – heard less frequently in a more varied context – might start to have some of its strangeness rightfully restored.

It would be no less powerful of course; no less beautiful, no less moving. But in a truly diverse repertoire, his idea to ‘embrace everything’ might seem a little presumptuous. His means and demands might appear somewhat inflated. In the passion of the ‘Alma’ theme we might hear the silent music of the numberless women who were historically pressured away from their artistic potential.

Much like the final chord of Dream Song, this music might leave us with a quiet note, one that lingers dissonantly. A 21st-century sense of complicated truth. For all his wonderful qualities, Mahler would simply be revealed more clearly for what he is – a man not quite of our time.

You could say, a little Altväterisch.

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