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Just how innovative was Mahler?


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I'm hardly a late German Romanticism (and Post-Romanticism) aficionado. But just as Mozart, though brilliant, was hardly as innovative in opera, the string quartet, and the symphony as some contemporaries (Gluck, Haydn, and Beethoven, respectively, though the last a tad unfairly), I'm curious as to how innovative (harmonically as well as orchestrally) we consider Mahler to have been.

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Mahler had two major thrusts of innovation. The first was in orchestration. Before Mahler, orchestras were dominated by strings, they always have been. What Mahler did is create a "wind dominated orchestra" where the winds had more melodies and material. The brass were expanded (of course in the shadow of Wagner) and subtlety of woodwind writing became very important to him. Just look at any page from his symphonies to see that his wind writing was very deliberate and often not always the most "obvious" choice.

Another major invention was in the percussion section. Unlike his predecessor Bruckner, Mahler expanded the percussion section with new instruments and new uses for old ones. Examples are the Ruth (switch) and Hammer, and the large chimes and bells in symphonies 2, 3, and 8.

In regard to orchestration, an interesting concept which Mahler expanded upon (though not necessarily introduced since many argue Brahms was the first) was writing for the orchestra as if it were a chamber ensemble. Even though Mahler's orchestras have hundreds of players, they are rarely, if ever all playing at the same time. And, indeed, he gives everyone on stage something interesting and meaningful to do.

An interesting revival Mahler brought about was the Choral Symphony extending Beethoven's and Berlioz's concept. With the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 8th Symphonies, he included choruses, solo voices, or both. Using text to emphasize the drama was very important to Mahler.

The second major innovation was the concept of "progressive tonality" where the key of a large-scale work would define it structurally. However, rather than having the same key starting and ending the piece, Mahler would have two different keys and have the key continually change until it would reach its goal.

Some examples:

In the 2nd Symphony, it starts with a massive Funeral March in C minor. The 2nd movement, a landler in Ab Major; the 3rd, a Scherzo in C minor again. Then, most interestingly, the 4th movement alto solo in Db Major leading into the 5th movement which is in several keys from C minor to D minor to F minor to C Major to Gb Major to the final *goal* of Eb Major, the relative major to the initial C minor. This constant striving towards the Eb Major (which is seen throughout the piece) gives a great deal of passion and emotion to the music and also gives a convenient structure to the work.

In the 5th Symphony, the first part starts in C# minor. The last rondo movement is in D Major (actually, the very end Coda is). The C# opening with the trumpet acts as a "giant leading tone" to the final D Major, to quote Benjamin Zander.

In the 6th Symphony, the first, second, and last movements are in A minor. But the tranquil 3rd movement adagio is in Eb Major, the furthest possible away you can get from A on the circle of fifths. But then the final massive march movement springs back into A minor. But throughout the movement, it strives and strives often changing keys several times until the hammer blow where it goes back to A minor. It strives again, then another Hammer, A minor. The final hammer solidifies the A minor as does the Coda. It makes the symphony sound very tragic.

Other symphonies and pieces have schemes like this, some of the most interesting in the 8th and 9th Symphonies and too complex to go into here.

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I remember my first music history course some years back when I was 20. We discussed Mahler for about 20 mins. The only real innovation that Mahler used was expansion of the orchestra. My professor, a Dr in music, visually showed the size of the orchestra from Beethoven to Berlioz to Mahler. Thankfully, modern orchestra are about 1/4 the size of the Mahlerian orchestra! Other than that, he really didn't contribute that much theoretically or melodically. We spent more time talking about the music of other contemporaries of his and their contributions musically.

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1/4?! Today's orchestras are more like 2/3 the size of Mahler's orchestras. (80 today vs. 120 for Mahler, and that's a high number for most of Mahler's symphonies.)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a composer who belonged to the post-romantic school. He is well known for writing 10 huge, lengthy symphonies. His 8th is also a choral symphony nicknamed the symphony of a thousand. It requires about a thousand musicians to perform, the standard sections are all increased and many other instruments are included; piccolo clarinets, tam-tam, deep bells, glockenspiel, celesta, piano, harmonium, organ, mandolin, offstage brass, 2 mixed choirs, a boys choir and many vocal soloists. Although large orchestras are common with Mahler, and nearly all his symphonies require voices of some kind, these are by far the largest forces he ever requested.

Also, most of his symphonies according to several websites I've visited to verify your claim of the small number (120 required for the symphonien of mahler's performance), state practically the same as this dictionary entry given. He wrote for large orchestral forces and is very much known as that.

A little more comical, though I think 100% factual, reference to Mahler can be found here:

Mahler

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Mahler had two major thrusts of innovation. The first was in orchestration. Before Mahler, orchestras were dominated by strings, they always have been. What Mahler did is create a "wind dominated orchestra" where the winds had more melodies and material. The brass were expanded (of course in the shadow of Wagner) and subtlety of woodwind writing became very important to him.

How about Berlioz? Plenty of wind domination in Symphonie Fantastique no?

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'Unlike his predecessor Bruckner, Mahler expanded the percussion section with new instruments and new uses for old ones.'

Be careful when comparing Mahler and Bruckner, as although there are some similarities in output, the music and philosophy behind the two men are very different. In fact the only definite common feature the two composers have is the expansion of the symphony's form to enormous proportions. Mahler was deliberately 'pushing the envelope' of what the orchestra was for in order to present overwhelming visions in which the whole of creation and experience is crammed into the score, often with frantic and sudden changes of direction and a sense of a very human perspective. Bruckner, on the other hand, was entirely disinterested in innovation for its own sake; he wrote music concerned with the gradual and logical unfolding of material - no less overwhelming, but instead shaped into a contemplated and deeply religious experience which tries to transcend human experience. I am not aware of the extent to which Mahler was influenced by or even interested in Bruckner's music, although it is likely he would have been aware of it by the time he was an established composer.

On the same track, the points about orchestration are interesting - Bruckner's almost subordinates the individual colours of each instrument into a whole much as an organist mixes stops (indeed much has been written on the organ-like sound of his music) whereas Mahler heightens the individuality of instruments. Interestingly, both composers have a comparable level of counterpoint in their music, however Mahler's is the more colouristically striking for this reason.

A final point has not been mentioned yet - Mahler's ability as a conductor (which he actually considered his primary occupation). Aside from raising orchestral standards it would have been difficult for anyone to conceive of the orchestra as he did without having spent the amount of time he did on the podium.

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Bruckner was Mahler's teacher at the Vienna Conservatory and Mahler was one of his later disciples. An anecdote I remember is at the premiere of Bruckner's 2nd Symphony (not sure on the number, but one of the earlier ones) where the audience hated the work. They booed and hissed and by the time the work was over, only about 15 people applauded at the end. Mahler and his fellow students from the Conservatory were most of them.

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