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July 7 composer birthday: Gustav Mahler

July 7 composer birthday: Gustav Mahler featured image

Pairs figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva  (pictured with pairs partner and husband, Sergei Grinkhov) skated solo to Mahler to remember him after he passed away.

Mahler’s a bit of a divisive composer; people who love him are fanatical. Fans wax rhapsodic about how extraordinary and deep his music is (which is true). Then there are those who aren’t quite as enthused, who find his music rather self-aggrandizing, overly complicated, and too long (I may or may not be in this category). Everything about Mahler is long and complex – his symphonies require many extra players; it’s impossible to find a short blurb about his life; at this rate, I’m thinking some Webern is in order (a composer who wrote really short, concise pieces without Mahler’s gift for long, sweeping melodies).

The idea that Mahler was pretentious and unsuccessful as a composer haunted his reputation for years after his death, and while his music was not perfect, with moments of bad judgement (a two-hour long symphony?), his music is more about the overall scope, the vision he had in mind, than the small stuff or the details.

Mahler was obsessed with his own mortality, and was superstitious. Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner all died after their ninth symphonies, so as Mahler worked on his ninth symphony, he included the tenor and alto voices, and named it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) then wrote a ninth and tenth symphony, but he never completed the tenth, so really, like everyone else, he died with nine complete symphonies written. Symphonies were his thing. He felt a symphony must be “a world”, although I think each of his symphonies was a whole universe.

The only way you can get me to happily engage in Mahler’s music is to set figure skating to it. I knew of the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 of course, and it is exquisite; this music slowly pierces your heart, leaving you to wonder if it’s ever going to heal.

There are two memorable moments Mahler’s Adagietto was beautifully used for skating. In 2010, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, skated their gold medal performance at the Vancouver Olympic Games. This is an arrangement, better suited for an ice rink’s acoustics, and I remember during the live broadcast, one of my friends texted me, “is that a piano I hear tinkling in the background? What’s up with that??”

Previously, in 1996, Olympic and World gold medallist and pairs figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva skated alone to the same work, to remember her husband and pairs partner, Sergei Grinkov, who suddenly passed away due to heart disease. Here she is, bravely flying solo, just over a year after she lost him. I blubbered during this broadcast, and let’s face it, Mahler had something to do with it.

Gustav Mahler was born July 7, 1860, in Bohemia (then part of the Austrian Empire) and died May 18, 1911, in Vienna, Austria.


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