In the Rhythm of the Heartbeat: The Genius of Mahler

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Introduction: Life as a Constant Struggle

One of the most prominent people of the epoch, Mahler deserves being called the man who made the world sound in a different way. Without his enchanting and thrilling compositions, the world of art would have lost its specific flair of greatness.

Tracing the background of Symphony No.2, one will inevitably see the way the music was shaping and realize how many prerequisites this amazing piece depended on. It cannot be doubted that the music possesses the specific peculiar features that make it an outstanding creation of a genial musician.

Speaking of Mahler is impossible without mentioning the epoch that the musician belonged to. Reconstructing the past, one can see that the impact of the then atmosphere on the creations of the composer was immense, each piece shot through with the air of the distant times.

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Mentioning that the composer stood at the crossroads of the XIX and XX centuries would be enough to create a general picture of the time in which Mahler lived and created his amazing music.

Being squeezed between the two eras, the one featuring the conventional approach to composing and adhering to the postulates of the classics, the other suggesting all possible innovations that came together with the progress of the humanity, these two centuries brought a conflict between the old and the new, which Mahler would reprint in his works.

The question was, did he do it intentionally? However, is there any musical piece that was composed intentionally?

Inspired from somewhere up above, these compositions cannot be judged as something that belongs to the world of the ordinary; nor are these the frozen pieces of classics – it seems as if the powerful melodies live a life of their own, a peculiar cross between the spirit of the century and the ideas that were haunting Mahler through all his life.

What strikes most about the genial musician is the fact that he was writing the music that both reprinted the epoch and at the sane time reflected the soul of the musician. It was truly unbelievable, yet that was the fact.

Mahler’s Symphony No.2 was another stage of the musician’s self-perfection process. It is amazing to learn that the symphony written by the great composer was predetermined by a number of factors that influenced Mahler’s creativity and set the right tone for his pieces.

Plunging into the Ocean of Music: What Stands Behind the Downpour of Notes

Speaking of the pieces created by the musician, one must mention the early years of Mahler for a better understanding of his works and the incredible inspiration that stood behind each of his works and led him to the top of the musical Olympus.

It is important to mark that his early years were the time of the most fruitful creation and the period when the composer improvised most. Making the new steps into the unknown, he searched for the new ways to create musical pieces and managed to fin the most unbelievable solutions for the musical ideas that rushed through his head.

It is quite peculiar that, though the ideas that inspired the First Symphony of Mahler were quite clear and well-researched by the musical experts, the ideas that inspired him to crate the second symphony are still a mystery to the world. As Mitchell explained,

It is plain, I think, from the example of Symphony I, that Mahler was fascinated by the potentialities of the Landler, and sensed it in his musical possibilities; but had not yet evolved his singular approach to the Landler which both created his unique type of scherzo and represented a sharp break with tradition. (Mitchell 210)

Thus, it becomes obvious that the composer decided not to follow the blazed trail and create his new approach to the music creation. This was rather bold decision for his epoch, it must be admitted. However, this could not stop Mahler. Seized by the mysterious passion to the music and to the idea of the new symphony, he could not stop until his creation could see the light.

It is also quite peculiar that the birth of the new music was greeted with much more ardor than the author must have been expecting. This leads to the idea that the world considered Mahler almost a revolutionary in the sphere of music, which means that with his creation, the composer literally broke new grounds in the world of symphonies. Who could ever think that the world of arts could be turned upside down even with such powerful music?

Considered both genial and daring, Mahler was the first man to introduce the idea of classicism renewed to the world of music. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Mahler’s first attempts were given a cold shoulder – as Mitchell remarked, Mahler’s first works were considered as a “stone wall of musical classicism” (146).

However, as time passed, Mahler’s personality shone brighter – the genial composer put a speck of his own self into each of his astounding pieces – and, as a result, the audience recognized his works.

In view of Brahm’s doubtless aggressive view of Das klagende Lied, his comment after seeing the MS. of Mahler’s Symphony II in the summer of 1896 is of particular interest: “It is not wholly intelligible to me why Richard Strauss is proclaimed music’s Revolutionary; I find that Mahler is King of the Revolutionaries.” (Mitchell 146)

Indeed, in the eyes of the public, Mahler did the unacceptable, making music sound natural and at the same time thrilling. He broke all possible music canons to create the ones of his own, which finally led to creating the Symphony II – the top of what could be called the revolutionary in music.

What makes the creation of Mahler priceless is the fact that he was actually accepting the new ideas, creating his own path to follow. The composer denied the canons that had been set before, blazing the new trail on the way to the musical masterpiece.

Neither did he use the approaches that he resorted when creating his earlier works. It can be considered that Symphony No.2 is an entirely new composition, the piece that made musicians take a look at the other side of the composing process.

With help of his genius, Mahler made the impossible – he broke all possible musical laws to create the most beautiful piece ever. Some critics argue, though, that Mahler used Das klagende Lied to compose this piece; however, Mitchell notes:

Such parallels and similarities as exist are not, of course, evidence of Das klagende Lied actively influencing Symphony II; rather it is the case of characteristic C minor music revealing a certain unity of shape and sound, the kind of relation one often finds in a composer’s oeuvre: a specific key and mood can develop their own cross-fertilize otherwise quite disparate works (176)

Thus, it can be considered that the famous Das klagende Lied had very little to do with the Symphony II of great Mahler. Nevertheless, this does not shed the light on the mystery. Did the incredible music pop out of nowhere?

As it turns out, the history of the magnificent piece can be traced rather easily. Since the composer tended to mark each newly concurred stage of his mastery, it is possible to find out what lied in the basis of the great composer’s creation. Thus, Nicholson states,

The manuscripts for Mahler’s Second Symphony provide one of the most extensive, if still far from complete, records of the genesis of any of Mahler’s compositions. At the same time they reflect the long and curiously discontinuous gestation of the work as a whole, and the highly intuitive nature of Mahler’s approach to composition (84).

Therefore, tracing the origins of the symphony is obviously possible. On to the new discoveries!

Inside the Treasure Trove: The Pearls to Find

Analyzing the peculiarities of the epoch to evaluate their influence on Mahler’s compositions, one can possibly suggest that the idea of creating the Symphony No.2 rooted from the Symphony No.1. Yet the time gap between the two allows to suggest that Symphony No.2 was not the continuation of the old idea, but something completely new – the next chapter in Mahler’s book of life.

Indeed, there is certain evidence about the period of stagnation in his work, which happened to be the turning point for the Symphony No.2. According to what Mitchell said, “The failure to work on the symphony reflects the advent of a major ‘dry’ period in Mahler’s creative work” (86).

Can that mean that the works of the great composer were the result of the long-suffered fight against the critics and the people disapproving of his attempts to break new grounds in the sphere of music? It seems that such statement has certain grounds to base on. Analyzing the composition, one can track the aftereffects of the depression that seized the musician and made him taste the bitterness of defeat.

Whatever the case, he resumed compositional work only in 1892, with at least six and possibly seven songs in a new group of settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. These prepared the way for a return to the Second Symphony in the summer of 1893, five years after the completion of the first movement. (Mitchell 86)

Thus, there is no doubt that the composition was influenced not by the first part of the entire composition, but rather by the abovementioned two pieces – Der Knabe Wunderhorn and Das klagende Lied.

As a matter of fact, the latter had the greatest impact on the entire symphony. As Aries remarked, “The third movement of the Symphony No.2 (1894)(W838) transforms the song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” from Des Knaben Wunderschon” (92).

It can be considered that the author was heavily influenced by the troubles that he was to face, which resulted in the general mood of the composition and made the music acquire the famous tragic depth and the mournful air about the melody.

Speaking about the specifics of the composition, one can mark the incredible expressivity of the piece, which is rather surprising, taking into consideration the epoch and the atmosphere of the century. As Mitchell explained,

Remarks about the Second Symphony by Mahler tend to confirm this contrast between the early drama of the First and the redemption of the Second. Whether this should cause us to view the triumph of the close of the First Symphony as a more temporal overcoming than Natalie suggests is coloured by Mahler’s own use of ‘Dall’Inferno al Paradiso’ as a title for the finale, but it is perfectly natural to consider these images (more cliche than Dante) as metaphors for the highs and lows of an early human comedy. (Mitchell 60)

Therefore, there is certain evidence that Mahler made efficient use of Dante’s allegories and managed to restore the idea of descending from the heaven above into the smouldering fire of the Inferno.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that the composer uses one of the most unexpected approaches to make his Symphony render the hearts of the audience even more – he mixes the comic and the tragic, making it reach the divine. Like the Divine Comedy, it touched the secret strings of people’s souls, helping them reach the peak of the esthetical delight.

However, it seems that there is no one who can define the peculiarities and the specific features of the composition better than the author can. Thus, Mitchell explained further on,

When Mahler sets waltz and Landler in opposition to each other, as here or in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, it becomes difficult to distinguish the elements of parody from the ideal. (Mitchell 60)

Therefore, the mixture of the comic and the tragic gave birth to grotesque that becomes the main characteristics of the work of Mahler in the eyes of Mitchell. Rather tricky issue, this means that the change brought into the classical music by Mahler is tremendous. With help of the specific approach that incorporated the elements of various musical genres, Mahler crated the most adorable fusion. According to what Mitchell claims,

The strain of the grotesque or the fantastic that is already present in the scherzo dominates the march. Whether the listener keeps the image of the huntsman’s funeral in mind is in a scene irrelevant to the experience of the three types of music in this movement. (Mitchell 61)

Indeed, the music created by the famous composer is filled with the passion and the strain that was rather weird for the reserved and conservative century.

Considering the way the author perceived his work himself, one can possibly say that the evaluation of the maestro was quite different from what the critics saw in the piece. It was the mixture of the styles that he created; no matter what the critics might say, he continued his daring experiments.

Thus, Arias mentioned, “Gustav Mahler’s symphonies soften mix grotesque irony and black humor” (92). It can be considered that the heavy, depressing atmosphere of the epoch did not have its effect on the composer, yet it seems that Gustav Mahler tries to create the piece that could balance the gloomy atmosphere of the century and people’s need to strive for optimism.

Such mixture of ideas must have given birth to the specific irony that the Symphony is all pierced through with. Thus, Aries marks that “The Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments) (1902)(W858) ends with a joyous depiction of the sanguine temperament” (92).

Such fluctuations of style and tempo of the symphony might signify, first, the uneven and rough pattern of development at the split of centuries, and, second, the hardships of the composer’s own life. Just as grotesque as the melody he created, Mahler’s life was full of contradictions and complicacies that led to the tragicomic misunderstandings and misconceptions.

At the Historical Crossroads: The Last Great Romantic or the First Adventurer of the Century?

What could inspire such incredible symphonies? Was Mahler the last romantic who could breathe a new life into the melody, or a musical adventurer who dared to penetrate the holy of holies and break the postulates of classical music?

It seems that the composer was rather inclined to constant change in the tempo, the mood and the overall air of the music. Such changes signify that the composer’s vision of the world was rather complicated and that Mahler could be in conflict between the world and his own ideas.

Rosenzweig explained this phenomenon in the following way: “Re-submersion in world sorrow after ecstatic flights of creative inspiration, as always occurred following the completion of a work, was a characteristic trait of Mahler the symphonist” (36). Perhaps, Rosenzweig was right claiming that Mahler was “a romantic at heart” (36).

However, it must be admitted that, to compose the music that was so different from what the rest of the composers created, one has to possess that certain piece of adventurism, the desire to reach beyond all known boundaries and learn the truth that is hidden beyond the horizon.

That was more than merely a romantic idea of music – that was the beginning of a new exciting adventure into the world of extraordinary, the place where music took completely new, different shapes and mixed styles in the weirdest fashion to produce grotesque.

The castle of Fata Morgana would not look more miraculous than these attempts to transform the old, ossified ideas into the brand new world of the classics. Thus, it is evident that Mahler managed to comprise the traits of a romantic and an adventurer, painting the entire world in his peculiar, grotesque palette.

Perhaps, Mahler was one of those people who could combine the traits of romanticism and adventurism in the most unbelievable way to make their personality ever brighter. Making the romantic mix with the speck of adventurism, Mahler combined the incompatible, which resulted in the most stunning compositions.

For instance, tracing the peculiarities of the Second Symphony, one can mark that the composition possesses both the romantic features and the spirit of adventurism. Rosenzweig marked that “Mahler was a thoroughly romantic nature, all fierce determination and tragic inner turmoil” (Rosenzweig 30).

In Search for the Truth: A Conformist or a Rebel?

Another peculiar question is whether Mahler preferred keeping with the views traditionally accepted in the world of music, or if the composer created the path of his own. Although it is evident that the music created by Mahler has now become a perfect specimen of the classical music, it used to produce quite a stir in the spheres of art several decades ago.

Because of his incredible skill to transfer various ideas that emerged in the other spheres of art into the world of music, he managed to create the path of his own, a specific way of composing music that was bound to embody the composer’s ideas of the world and people. Thus, Adorno noted that Mahler transformed various fables and myths into melody and rhythm:

The fairy-tale tone in Mahler is awakened by the resemblance of animal and man. Desolate and comforting at once, nature grown aware of itself casts off the superstition of the absolute difference between them (9)

Why such weird transformations, one might ask. Yet the answer is simple: with help of these manipulations the composer tried to apply to the public’s humanity, their “sapiens sapiens” part, and make them understand what they have already felt in the enchanting music: “Through animals humanity becomes aware of itself as impeded nature and of its activity as deluded natural history; for this reason Mahler meditates on them” (Adorno 9)

Perhaps, the author merely tried to reconcile with the rest of the world, which led to such conflicts and such rebelliousness that his Symphony was saturated 2ith. In his useless attempts to find the golden mean, the one and only Truth, he was raging like a wild beast – or, at least, so did the melody of his compositions – and resulted in the most shocking and stirring music.

Its [nature’s] integral oneness abolished multiplicity; its suggestive power severed all distractions. It preserved the image of happiness only by proscribing it. In Mahler it begins to rebel, seeks to make peace with nature, and yet must forever enforce the old interdiction (Adorno 9).

Thus, it cannot be doubted that the air of rebelliousness that made Mahler’s compositions so emotion-filled was a part of the author’s self, his own vision of the world and his soul. Abandoning the old, hole-ridden ideas, Mahler chooses his own path, which means that he must not resort to the methods of expression created by the other composers. There is no doubt that with help of his unique approach Mahler managed to astound the public and make the classical music sound in a different way.

However, it would be erroneous to claim that Mahler blazed the trail to the world of music completely on his own. It would be more correct to claim that he applied such approaches to the art of music that had been used in the other spheres of art before. Thus, for instance, it was Mahler’s idea to fill the Second Symphony with the magical world of Kafka and the folk songs described above.

Could a man who created the Second Symphony be considered a conformist? It is beyond any shadow of a doubt that the composer would not be able to create this piece unless he had worked on his own theory of the classical music and blazed his own trail in this sphere. Denying the conventional ideas of what classical music is supposed to be, he worked thoroughly on each note to build the powerful cadence of notes. However, the rebelliousness of his soul showed up not only in the Second Symphony. As Mitchell recalled,

When Mahler resigned his post at the Opera in 1907, he, like Otto Wagner, was a much an emblem of an artistic and social establishment as he was viewed as a rebel. Radical conservatives regarded him as the ultimate personification of a Jewish cosmopolitanism which for decades had been destructive to native Viennese sensibilities. (Mitchell 37)

Thus, it was obvious that rebelliousness was a part of the composer. Without this trait of character, he would have never managed to create the Second Symphony. Perhaps, the strength of his character is what the world owes Symphony No.2 to.


One of the greatest composers of the XIX-XX centuries, Mahler showed the world what music can be as he introduced his Symphony No.2 to the public. With help of his specific vision of the world, he managed to shape the traditional classical approach to create the music that will last for centuries.

Although he preferred the approach that could not be described as the conventional one, the composer’s work was still accepted by the humankind with gratitude. Since he composed the music in his own, unique way, reworking the music of the past, trying different variations and creating the new ways to make the music sound truly astounding, the composer was considered as a rebel in the world of music.

Seized by the desire to create, he was labeled as the romantic of the passing century, yet his experiments marked that the spirit of adventurism the composer possessed guided him on his way to the classical music.

The famous Second Symphony, the pearl in the crown of the great maestro, was a long-suffered piece. Despite the obstacles that the composer met on his way and the hardships that Mahler had to encounter, the symphony stirred the world to the core.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Edmund Jephcott. Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Arias, Enrique Alberto. Comedy in Music: A historical Bibliographical Resource Guide. Westport, CN: Greenwood Publishing Press, 2001. Print.

Mitchell, Donald. Gustav Mahler: The Early Years. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980. Print.

Mitchell, Donald, and Andrew Nicholson. The Mahler Companion. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Rosenzweig, Alfred, and Jeremy Narham. Gustav Mahler: New Insights into His Life, Times and Works. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 2007. Print.

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