March 23, 1907
Ugly Symphony Is Well Played Thomas Orchestra Shows Director Mahler of Vienna Writes Bad Music - by Miller Ular
Gustav Mahler is director of the Vienna opera. He is unequaled as an opera director, and almost unsurpassed as an orchestra conductor. He is a man of remarkable personality and of profound musical learning. So it is but natural that he should compose. His principal compositions are symphonies—six of them. The fifth, known as “The Giant Symphony,” was performed yesterday by the Theodore Thomas orchestra under the baton of Frederick Stock. It is a work an hour and fifteen minutes in length, 1 and before it was done, fully half the audience had fled. And with good reason. For Mr. Mahler, to judge by this one symphony that has been heard in Chicago, writes absolutely the ugliest music ever written. Why the symphony should have been termed “The Giant” is hard to say. Because of its ugliness, it might have been named “The Octopus”; because of its length, “The Dachshund”; and because it is without form, and void, it might well be termed “Chaos.”
Mr. Mahler’s compositions have nothing to do with the true, the beautiful and the good, which are supposed to be subject matter of poetry and music. Rather he deals with the false, the ugly, and the meretricious. His technical knowledge of the orchestra is equaled only by Richard Strauss, and his learning by Reger. But of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve. This symphony—which really is less of a symphony than any of
Tschaikowsky’s—is in five movements. Each of these movements is split up into innumerable subdivisions, by changes of tempo and rhythm. The result is a lack of cohesion and unity, producing an effect of intolerable tedium. Of these movements, the first is a funeral march, solemn and impressive, but which strikes one as lacking in spontaneity. The so-called scherzo is part waltz, part a sort of mazurka, and contains a piece of crass plagiarism on the scherzo from Beethoven’s fifth—I refer to the passage for strings, pizzicato. The
adagietto is the one oasis in the desert—a beautiful, slow movement for strings and harp; deep, thoughtful, melodious and expressive. Then it all ends with a rondo, based on the cheapest of themes, developed with a skill almost superhuman, but quite ineffective.
In short, it is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago.
Mr. Stock’s own view of this work is interesting. Here it is, as it was expressed to the writer yesterday after the concert: “It is a pity that Mahler, with all his learning and ingenuity, has not more originality, more ability to conceive themes, to rise to real inspiration. It
is a pity he has a sense of beauty no more highly developed. Most of the symphony is very ugly, indeed, though it is all highly interesting to the technical student. But, after all, Richard Strauss summed it up correctly when he said, ‘Mahler is to the symphony of today what Meyerbeer was to the opera seventy-five years ago.’ I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live.” A verdict both cruel and true. The only redeeming feature about it was that the orchestra—increased to about 100 men—played with a
virtuosity it has never surpassed, making nothing of the unspeakable difficulties of the symphony. Each man and each group fairly surpassed itself, and the result was a truly remarkable rendition.
Listen to the piece reviewed here