Behind Gustav Mahler’s Anniversaries

Orchestras don’t usually need special reasons to highlight the music of the late-Romantic Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860–1911). His titanic symphonies and delicate songs have shaped musical life in the 20th and 21st centuries, and they have a secure place on orchestral programs around the world.

Gustav Mahler, 1909.

But anniversary celebrations like the one in Amsterdam in 2020, where several orchestras will perform Mahler’s works over the course of two weeks, offer special glimpses into Mahler’s musical afterlife and into the ideas and attitudes of those who celebrate his legacy.

Next year’s festival actually marks the 100th anniversary of an important starting point in my book, Aaron Copland and the American Legacy of Gustav Mahler. In 1920 in Amsterdam, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg presided over the first significant festival of Mahler’s music, and it took place in a climate of international cooperation after the devastation of World War I. Over the course of two weeks, Mengelberg, who had been Mahler’s friend and colleague, celebrated his own 25 years in charge of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra by conducting most of Mahler’s works.

Forty years later, another momentous Mahler festival took place, this time in New York City. As part of it, Leonard Bernstein went on national television with the New York Philharmonic to extol Mahler’s music. As Bernstein pointed out, that year, 1960, actually marked two anniversaries: one was the centenary of Mahler’s birth, and the second was the 50th anniversary of Mahler’s first season as music director of the same orchestra.

Bernstein would go on to make Mahler’s music a central part of his own musical and personal identity, and it is fitting that Mahler featured in last year’s celebrations of Bernstein’s own centenary. At a New York Philharmonic-sponsored event in Lincoln Center dubbed “Bernstein’s Mahler Marathon” in 2018, audiences listened all day to Bernstein’s recordings of Mahler’s symphonies. (My students at the University of Arizona wrote a set of excellent program notes for this event).

When it comes to assessing the musical afterlife of a composer like Mahler, why are anniversary festivals like the ones in Amsterdam in 1920, or New York in 1960, so important? For one, these big public events could well have a lasting effect on a composer’s stature, placing that figure into the spotlight and inviting new audiences into the fold. They also offer historians an opportunity to take the temperature of critical (and sometimes even public) opinion at a particular moment, and they serve as focal points for investigating how a composer’s legacy can reflect the broader priorities of musical communities.

But for the story I tell in Aaron Copland and the American Legacy of Gustav Mahler, these festivals do even more: they serve as part of a larger story of how ideas about music flow, both in public and private realms, over time. And it’s what happens behind the scenes of these events—and how they’re connected—that especially fascinates me.

Nadia Boulanger, 1925.

One of the attendees of the 1920 Mahler festival was Nadia Boulanger. She would become a towering figure in 20th-century music, especially as a performer and educator. And she was at the festival to celebrate not Mahler, toward whose heavy Austro-German music she was ambivalent, but rather Mengelberg, her friend. And Mahler’s music moved her enough that she wrote a positive review of it in the periodical Le Monde musical.

Boulanger was also intrigued enough to bring copies of Mahler’s scores home with her to Paris—a decision that turned out to have a lasting effect on Mahler’s reception. The year after the 1920 festival, the young composer Aaron Copland traveled to France, where he would become Boulanger’s composition student. In her Paris studio, at her direction, he studied the very same Mahler scores Boulanger brought back from Amsterdam. It was there that he developed a deep connection to Mahler’s music.

One reason this detail is so significant is that without Copland, Leonard Bernstein’s involvement with Mahler’s music would look quite different. Correspondence reveals that as early as 1940, Copland pointed Bernstein toward Mahler’s music. Bernstein was about the same age Copland was when Copland first discovered Mahler. It is no coincidence that later, in lectures at the 1960 Mahler festival, Bernstein borrowed Copland’s own insights about Mahler, using them to support the larger vision he presented for 20th-century music.

The consequences on Mahler’s reception of Boulanger’s presence at Mengelberg’ 1920 festival, then, were profound. Through Copland, she unintentionally set the stage for Bernstein’s own highly visible Mahler advocacy.  So if you’re lucky enough to attend the 2020 Amsterdam festival, you could commemorate the 1920 festival’s significance by doing what Nadia Boulanger did exactly 100 years earlier: pick up some copies of Mahler’s symphonies and bring them home with you.

Or, if you have the patience, you could just wait for another Mahler anniversary to dive into the music: we only have about 40 more years until Mahler turns 200.

This guest post was written by Matthew Mugmon, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Arizona.

Aaron Copland and the American Legacy of Gustav Mahler
by Matthew Mugmon
Hardback / 9781580469647 / £22.50 or $37.46

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