Michael Kennedy

Mahler’s mass following

It is 150 years since the composer’s birth. Michael Kennedy on his remarkable popularity

Mahler’s mass following
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It is 150 years since the composer’s birth. Michael Kennedy on his remarkable popularity

Approaching 60 years of writing music criticism, I have been wondering what I would nominate as the most remarkable changes on the British musical scene since I started. I decided there were three: the emergence of Mahler as a popular composer worldwide; the enthusiasm for the music of Janáček, especially his operas; and the establishment of regional opera companies. It is not as if Mahler’s music was completely unknown in Britain, even in his lifetime (1860–1911). But until about 1960 his impact on the general public was roughly the equivalent of, say, Szymanowski today. Now you cannot escape him. The history of his rise and rise in Britain can be traced through a series of historic performances and the endeavours of far-sighted pioneers among conductors and critics. But he was first known here and elsewhere as a great conductor who also wrote lengthy symphonies.

The first Mahler to have been played in Britain may have been the First Symphony, performed under Henry Wood at a Prom in 1903. The critic of the Times wrote that it was a

certainty that Herr Mahler has little or no creative faculty. It is, in fact, quite impossible, however willing one may be, to find any genuine good point in the symphony, which is a work commonplace and trite to an almost infantile degree, contains no germ of real inventive ability and is not even well scored...

Pause to recover your breath. Undeterred, Wood gave the first British performance of the Fourth in 1905.

In January 1913 he conducted the still problematical (for some) Seventh and a year later the great song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde with Doris Woodall and Gervase Elwes, a famous Gerontius, as soloists. Wood’s services to Mahler continued with the first British performance in 1930 of the immense Eighth (Symphony of a Thousand) with the recently formed BBC Symphony Orchestra. He repeated this in 1938. The later performance was attended by 25-year-old Benjamin Britten who was ‘tremendously impressed’ but found the performance ‘execrable’. He had become a Mahlerian in 1933 when he heard the Fourth in London conducted by Webern.

In Manchester in January 1913 the German conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, Michael Balling, conducted the First Symphony and would have conducted others but for the war. He was supported by the Manchester Guardian critic Samuel Langford, who in his obituary of Mahler in May 1911 had described him as ‘the greatest of present-day symphonists’. That was a lone view. He was the only English critic to attend the famous Mahler Festival in Amsterdam in 1920 when all the major works were conducted by Willem Mengelberg to commemorate the close relationship between Mahler and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1930 Balling’s successor, Sir Hamilton Harty, conducted the first Hallé performance of Das Lied von der Erde and the first English performance of the Ninth. Langford was dead by then and his successor Neville Cardus at first seemed to be only a lukewarm Mahlerian. His enthusiasm followed later.

As it happens, the two works Harty conducted were to play a highly significant role in converting hundreds of gramophone enthusiasts into Mahlerians when special subscription recordings of live performances by the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter were issued by Columbia and HMV in 1936 and 1939. These were my own introduction to his music. At the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, Walter conducted the Vienna Phil in Das Lied with Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears. The work ends with the contralto singing the word ewig (eternally) seven times, each repetition softer. Deeply moved and in tears, Kathleen omitted the final ewig and apologised to Walter afterwards. He replied, ‘My dear Miss Ferrier, if we were all such artists as you, we should all have been in tears.’ The recording of the work they made in Vienna in 1952 when she was already dying of cancer was probably as big a factor as the invention of the long-playing record in intensifying the Mahler boom.

Another influential individual contribution was Neville Cardus’s perceptive chapter on Mahler in his 1945 book Ten Composers (later A Composer’s Eleven). Cardus persuaded Sir John Barbirolli that he could be an ideal Mahler interpreter. Between 1954 and his death in 1970 Barbirolli conducted all the symphonies except No. 8 (about which he had reservations) with the Hallé or with orchestras throughout the world. He taught the Berlin Philharmonic to play Mahler — they had not played it for years. For his first Hallé performances of No. 9 he had over 50 hours of rehearsals. When I mentioned this to the Daily Telegraph chief critic Richard Capell, he said, ‘What a prodigious waste of time.’

If Sir Adrian Boult seems an unlikely Mahlerian, the facts contradict the assumption. He conducted the early cantata Das klagende Lied in 1914 and all the symphonies were in his repertory. In 1920 he went to the Amsterdam Festival and although not a critic sent an article to the Daily Telegraph. Highest on the Mahler English honours board, though, comes the musicologist the late Deryck Cooke, whose performing version of the Tenth Symphony revealed a completed masterpiece which otherwise might still be known only by two movements.

Why is it that the music of this composer who turned opportunistically from Judaism to Roman Catholicism has progressed from ‘specialist interest’ to something like mass adulation? Because its mixture of angst and death chimed with a mood in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st? Because it offers spiritual content that is not overtly religious? Because it offers musical adventure without going too far beyond the ordinary music-lover’s capacity for adventure? Because it mixes the banal and the sublime, folk songs, lullabies, military marches, heavenly choirs and May Day banners? To speculate further would take us too close to Pseuds’ Corner. The number of recordings is now astronomical. Yes, there was a boom but there has been no bust, even though there are still some who would agree with Vaughan Williams that Mahler was ‘a very tolerable imitation of a composer’. Less barbed and somehow very English was Boult’s summing-up near the end of his life: ‘Odd music, but great fun to conduct.’ Great fun!

From this month to June at the Bridgewater Hall, the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Camerata will co-operate in a complete cycle of the symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde, and will join forces in No. 8 under Sir Mark Elder. There are Mahler concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican and other venues during the year.