Shostakovich and Mahler- KW recycles to beat the heat.

It is unbearably hot in London this week, and it has really sapped my ability to concentrate enough to come up with new stuff. Fortunately, I have a few old things I’ve been meaning to add that were written for discussion groups, editorials and so on. This was written to the DSCH email listserve in response to someone’s question about if and how Shostakovich’s symphonies were influenced by Mahler. Once the weather cools off, I promise to let Dmitri and Gustav have a bit of time off and maybe get back to my modernism series or do something on jazz again. We’ll see.


I liked the quesiton about M’s influence on Shostakovich. Most of the answers so far seem to focus on finding those moments in S’s output that “sound” like M. There are a few, but not many, and I don’t think that in any case they are the key to understanding the ways in which M influenced S’s approach.

One reason the two sound so different is that they are each rooted so firmly in the musical vernacular of their own culture- who could be more reflective of both the high and low musical traditions of his culture than M, except perhaps S? Where M brings together the elegance of Vienna, the contrapuntal tradition of high German composition from Bach through Brahms with a sense of the music of everyday life in its most varied and even vulgar forms, S is able to mix the daring and modality of Mussorgsky, the epic weight of Tchaik and the great operatic tradition with everything from polkas to revolutionary songs. I would say they are both deeply rooted in their own worlds, their own traditions but work in remarkably similar ways, even where their aesthetic aims are very different.

Look at their approach to form- Neither were radical, but both found great interest in manipulating and evading the expectations of classical forms. The formal structures of the 1st mvt of M9 and the 1st mvt’s of S5, 8 and 10 all show similarities. Rather than using the sonata form to create a sense of roundedness and closure, all use the expectations of true sonata form to create something more about departure and disolution, mostly by working with the ordering of musical ideas and key relationships in interesting and highly unorthodox ways.

In their approach to orchestration, they are also  very similar, even though their voices are very distinct. Both used the orchestra with the most extraordinary flexibiltiy, deploying massive forces but working often with discrete ensembles with the orchestra, both often reducing the orchestra to a trio or even a duet. They favor different unusual combinations of solo instruments, but both seem to love very unusual pairings. They both loved expoiting the symbolic potential of instruments on the extremes of register, especially the e-flat clarinet, pic and contrabassoon.

Finally, S seemed to understand that Mahler was right when he said the symphony must contain the whole world, and that therefore it had to live in its own world. He knew what he could take and use from other musics, but also understood that he had to find his own voice, one that is the most unique in his time.


c. 2004 and 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Shostakovich and Mahler- KW recycles to beat the heat.”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Response from the original list posting-
    “As definitive an answer to the question as one could hope for.
    Thanks, Ken”

    Donald Clarke

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