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And One for Mahler

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Portrait of Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

It’s July 7 – Gustav Mahler’s 151st birthday! Instead of highlighting manuscripts or correspondence by Mahler, I’d like instead to point out another composer/conductor’s commentary on Mahler, as provided in one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert scripts, Who is Gustav Mahler? The script, along with all other scripts for the Young People’s Concert broadcasts, is included in the Leonard Bernstein Collection, one of the Music Division’s most heavily used collections. The multiple script drafts (both handwritten and typescript) offer an insight into the preparations for Bernstein’s February 7, 1960 broadcast, one that celebrated Mahler’s then upcoming 100th birthday. Bernstein’s affinity for Mahler’s music is no secret to music aficionados, and Bernstein explains the basis of his admiration and intrigue on page 5 of his type script:

…I admit it’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer; there never seems to be enough time to be both things. I ought to know because I have the same problem, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so sympathetic to Mahler; I understand his problem. It’s like being two different men locked up in the same body; one man is a conductor and the other a composer, and they’re both one fellow called Mahler (or Bernstein). It’s like being a double man.


Who is Gustav Mahler? Typescript with emendations, Bernstein Collection.


Bernstein goes on to describe the various dichotomies that existed within Mahler as a person and how those dichotomies manifested into musical struggles: Mahler the innocent child vs. Mahler the damaged adult and Mahler’s Western music tradition vs. Eastern influences. Particularly interesting is what Bernstein initially wrote but then eliminated from his lecture on page 9 – his discussion of Mahler’s inner battle between Judaism and Christianity. In a final segment, Bernstein highlights the greatest struggle in Mahler and his music: that his compositional output simultaneously signifies the end of the German Romantic tradition and the beginning of 20th-century modern music.



Take some time to read through the script and maybe even find footage of Bernstein’s Who is Mahler? lecture – he may have called the series the “Young People’s Concert”, but his commentary is educational and insightful for all ages. So, listen to some Mahler today and keep Bernstein’s words in mind: “[Mahler] is like a child; his feelings are extreme, exaggerated, like young people’s feelings…I think young people can understand Mahler’s feelings even better than older ones. Once you understand that secret of his music – the voice of the child – you can really love his music.”

Comments (2)

  1. Mahler also appears in Stephen Sondheim’s lyric to “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from COMPANY, originally performed on Broadway by Elaine Stritch.

    • Correct, Michael — that lyric is in fact the title of my post!

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