Mahler on the Radio

Ethelbert Nevin

[March 2003.]

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was on the radio a while back. I heard a bit of it driving to the grocery store. For a brief moment I thought how nice it would be to have a grocery store about 80 minutes away so that I could take it all in.

Mahler’s immense Eighth sounds bigger over the air. It’s easy to imagine the Symphony of a Thousand’s cast standing alert, their bright, beaming faces ready to emit three cheers for Faust. While it may be a symphony of a thousand, they’re not all working all of the time. If you’ve heard the work in concert, it’s clear that the minutes pass slowly for some of the team. How does the chorus manage to stay awake? How do you keep a boys choir from fidgeting? Does the mandolin player have some reading material discreetly placed on the music stand? What if one of the eight vocal soloists suddenly has to scratch?

Logistics aside, Mahler’s Eighth has been a tough nut to crack. It’s his least sentimental work and that alone makes it impenetrable for hardcore Mahler fans. A lot of writing examines this work about redemption in the context of Humanism and Mahler’s own conflicting religious thoughts. Mahler’s Eighth comes from a world that’s trying to get along without God but can’t, and maybe the music helps to reconcile that dual need for self-direction and divinity.

But I was in the car on the way to buy groceries, and the mundane took precedence: Will that light stay amber just long enough? Do I need gas? Are we out of flour? What became clear was that Mahler should have written an opera – and messing about with Weber doesn’t count.

A Mahler opera would probably be on the same scale, if not longer, as anything of Wagner’s. But think of the wonderful passages of tone painting we must accept as missed opportunities. Many squirm at the thought of a Mahler opera. Consider a long evening in Der Abschied’s gloomy mood occasionally relieved by the childlike innocence of the Fourth Symphony’s sleigh bells. Maybe Mahler would have surprised us all with something short, in the vein of Zemlinsky. He might even have gotten a libretto from Gerstl!