Performer’s Perspective- Is Mahler’s music hard(er) to conduct?

Mahler in Manchester

“Is Mahler’s music more difficult to conduct than that of other composers?”

When I was asked this question just the other day it was by no means for the first time.

It is not hard to understand why a listener might suspect that Mahler’s music is harder to conduct than that of most other composers- he writes much of incredibly complexity, subtlety and variety on a vast scale. There is a lot going on all the time, and it goes on for a long time. The sheer psychophysical impact of a work like the 2nd Symphony is so powerful that it seems that it must be the most difficult thing in the world to perform.

So is it uniquely hard to perform?

Well….. Mahler is a composer of paradoxes and dichotomies, so it probably won’t surprise you if I tell you that it is, and it isn’t….

One thing that is not obvious when you hear a Mahler symphony in the concert hall or on the stereo, and something that many writers who think of him as a high-strung, Romantic neurotic forget completely, is that Mahler was an incredibly practically minded musician. He was one of the few truly great composers ever to hold a complex administrative position, not only serving as the chief conductor of the Vienna Opera, but as the General Director.

Mahler understood, and dealt with, budgets. He set schedules, he booked soloists and had to watch the box office receipts. He knew how much an orchestra could accomplish in a rehearsal- under his unique leadership and under that of lesser talents. More than anything, he understood the painful truth that resources for art are finite.

The impact of this hard-won understanding on his artistic output is easy to see. Many writers see Mahler’s “Retouchen” or re-orchestrations of pieces like the 9th Symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert or the symphonies of Schumann as evidence of Mahler’s megalomania, showing him trying to make the music of past masters conform to his sonic ideal. Far from it- Mahler’s changes, while far more extensive than many of us feel are necessary (I make no changes in Schumann), are not intended to make those works sound like Mahler symphonies, but to allow his orchestra to realize them in the performing conditions of Mahler’s time with the greatest clarity and ease. Rather than use up rehearsal time verbally asking some players to play less and others to play more, or to pencil in a doubling, he does it all beforehand so that they can read it down in rehearsal and have it work.

Mahler transcribed two string quartets for string orchestra- the “Serioso” Quartet of Beethoven (op. 95 in F minor) and the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet of Schubert. On the one hand, he was clearly hoping to use these transcriptions to bring these important works to a larger audience, but on the other hand, he often takes advantage of the larger forces to simplify the practical demands of the instrumental writing. In its original form, “Death and the Maiden” has a first violin part that borders on the impossible- in particular, Schubert often demands that the 1st violinist repeatedly leap from the bottom of the instrument’s range to the top. It can be a sort of painful musical target practice if one’s nerves falter. Mahler takes advantage of his increased numbers by simply letting half the players play the high material and half stay in the lower register. Something that could have required weeks of preparation becomes sight-readable.

And of course, this kind of thinking permeates his own works, particularly in his orchestration and in his handling of the conductor. Mahler was the first major composer to address the conductor directly- his scores have plenty of the kind of character markings long found in the scores of others, but also specific technical warnings and instructions, many added after his own early performances. If bitter experience has led him to discover a helpful solution, he always shares it with the conductor to follow him.

Likewise, his instrumental writing is first and foremost, practical- he wants to achieve his musical ideas in the most natural way possible, but he never sacrifices the musical idea in the name of convenience. He is never sentimental or defensive about his own writing- if he found a more effective way of realizing something in a performance, he changed the score. His vast experience not only as a conductor of a great orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) but as a builder of regional opera orchestras meant that he knew each instrument’s quirks inside out. He writes things of astounding difficulty, but, with a bit of practice, everything works.

In this sense, there is an interesting comparison to be drawn with two of his contemporaries, writing in a similar style.

(Mahler’s friend in student days- Hans Rott)

His classmate in Anton Bruckner’s counterpoint studio was the young Hans Rott, who died tragically young, having never heard a performance of his only symphony. Mahler knew Rott’s work well, and once wrote that Rott was “the inventor of the modern symphony as I understand it.” In fact, he often quoted from the Rott symphony- something that almost nobody realized until my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, made the first recording of the Rott in the 1980’s.

Unlike Mahler, Rott was never a performer, and never had the opportunity to watch his music be rehearsed and performed. As a result, where even Mahler’s most difficult music “works” for the players, even Rott’s most straightforward passages are full of frustrations and challenges for everyone. It takes 2-3 times as much rehearsal time with a first rate orchestra simply to bring the Rott up to an acceptable technical standard is a Mahler symphony does, and would even if the players weren’t already more familiar with the Mahler.

A similar case is the early music of Arnold Schoenberg, including Verkarte Nacht, Gurrelieder and the marvellous tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande. Pelleas shows an incredible imagination for color, texture and sound, but the practicalities of making all those ideas perceptible to the audience are left entirely up to the conductor. Simply playing the ink will lead to disaster. A wise conductor preparing this work will always have a trusted set of ears in the audience to help with balance- that’s a wonderful luxury in Mahler, but a necessity in Schoenberg.

So at this point, you might be concluding that Mahler’s music is less difficult to perform than that of Schoenberg and Rott. It seems the question stands answered- Mahler’s music is not more difficult to conduct or play than that of other composers.

Well, let’s not be hasty….

Let’s go back to Mahler the administrator and Mahler the conductor. If it were true that Mahler’s practical mind meant that his music was simpler to play than music in a similar style by less grounded professionals, it might also follow that working in Mahler’s opera houses would have been easier than life under a less well-prepared, well organized and self-disciplined conductor. You might imagine that Mahler would come in with those carefully retouched parts of his, run the pieces through with the orchestra, and send the players home early (orchestra musicians do love that approach).

Interviews with players who worked for him tell a different tale. Veterans of the Met and the NY Philharmonic testify that Mahler worked them harder than even Toscanini (only when his health failed did he start to shorten rehearsals). Every problem that was solved before rehearsal only meant he could tackle two more in the newly available time. His artistic drive and ambition were never satisfied.

Similarly, as a composer, even on the same page that he’s obviously gone to great lengths to make something as idiomatic as possible, you will find something that pushes the musicians to their absolute limits. This apparent contradiction becomes wider and wider throughout his works- as his experience grows and he becomes ever more efficient, he simply expands the boundaries of the possible again and again.

And hard to conduct? The music for offstage band in the Finale of the 2nd Symphony is some of the first truly polymetric and mixed meter (music that is 2 meters at the same time and where those meter(s) change from bar to bar) music ever written. Those complexities pale in comparison to the rhythmic hornet’s nest in the Scherzo of the 6th Symphony, where for page after page of the score, the meter changes almost every bar.

Then there is the 7th- a piece to make most conductors quake with fear. I recently heard Valery Gergiev on Radio 3 discussing his recent Mahler cycle with the LSO. He said that when the series was planned, he had two huge worries- how to manage the acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral, where they were playing the 8th Symphony and, in his words “how on earth I was going to conduct the 7th Symphony.” One of today’s most famous Mahlerians was very humbled by the 7th when he recorded his cycle. Having finished a run of performances and several days of recording sessions with one of the best orchestras in the world, his producers concluded that the last movement simply didn’t work. Fortunately for him, this was in the era when record companies had money to spend, and they re-recorded it a few years later after he’d done the piece a few more times. What a luxury! (Yes, it is a true story, yes it was a very famous conductor, and no. I’m not telling who it was…. Yet…..)

Late Mahler poses even greater technical challenges- the meter changes in the 2nd Mvt of the 10th Symphony are wilder than anything by Stravinsky, and there is simply nothing else like the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde in all of conductor-dom. Rite of Spring is but an exercise by comparison. In this instance, the music sounds simple and serene, but is, in fact, incredibly complex, as Mahler creates a new form of counterpoint in which sections playing the same or similar material come in and out of focus with each other- a sort of calculated blur. The conductor is beating so slowly in 1 that it feels like anything could happen between beats- it is a new kind of difficulty, and almost the opposite of the challenges of Stravinsky.  Mahler’s calculated chaos means the players aren’t sure wether to trust their eyes or their ears, and may try to fix things that aren’t broken. It is the difficulty of fusing complexity with near stasis. It pushes concentration, awareness and focus for everyone on stage to the limits of what the mind can achieve. Mahler may push the ship farther out to sea than any of contemporaries in terms of funky meters, but what really sets his music apart is the difficulty of doing musically complex things in an emotionally demanding setting. The end of Das Lied can only work if everyone is in complete command technically and in the exact right place spiritually.

We live in a time that is uncomfortable with contradiction- Mahler was a great master at managing and manipulating contradiction to communicative ends. Today we say that this composer’s music is consonant and that composer’s music is dissonant- Mahler’s music is both, and therefore when consonant feels more consonant and when dissonant feels more dissonant. Likewise, the more he simplified his music, clarified his notation and refined his means of execution, the more he could demand and get from his performers.

So, you heard it here on Vftp-

Mahler’s music is harder to conduct than that of other composers….. and it isn’t.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

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.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

8 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Is Mahler’s music hard(er) to conduct?”

  1. Erik K

    3 things:

    1) The first time I followed the 8th Symphony along with a score, I thought my head was going to explode.

    2) It takes a true master to warn you against what you’re bound to do…not a lot of other composers tell you not to slow down exactly where you would be tempted to. Looking at a Mahler score is like being psychoanalyzed by Freud.

    3) I know who it is!

    Amazing, amazing post. As an aside, that Rott Symphony, while admittedly having never seen the score to understand the challenges in it, is a wonderful piece, and I still treasure the Samuel recording above the other 3 I have.

  2. Mitch F

    And how about Das Lied von der Erde? Mahler himself asked Bruno Walter, “Do you have any idea how to conduct it? I don’t!” Thanks for the picture of Rott. I don’t recall ever seeing one before.

  3. Robin Gosnall

    Mahler certainly seems to belong more to the 20th century than the 19th.

    Speaking of the Tenth Symphony, I heard Deryck Cooke’s “performing version” again the other day and I have to say I am less convinced than I ever was that this is worthy of performance.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Erik-
    Thanks for the comment- I agree completely about no. 2, and am probably going to quote you on no. 1. As for no. 3, ain’t it nice to know, even if the truth hurts. The Rott is fab, and I’m so glad I got to help Gerhard prepare it when we did it again for his farewell tour.

  5. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 7, a degree of difficulty

  6. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 9, a meditation after a drama

  7. Enrique Lasansky

    I have lived in Colorado for three years, working as Director of Orchestras at the Denver School of the Arts. Somewhere I noticed an advertising for the MahlerFest just a couple of days ago and drove to Boulder for Saturday evening’s performance of Mahler 7. I was extremely impressed by the performance. My understanding is that the orchestra is comprised of a large number of volunteers. This is astonishing when you consider the quality of the performance! Bravo Maestro Woods!
    I’m hoping to bring my student orchestra students to next year’s concert. This year they played the Adagietto at the Midwest Clinic so they already have a bit of an “in” with Mahler.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Thank you so much for your message, Enrique. I’m so touched you came and thrilled you enjoyed it! Do come say hello next year. It would be fantastic if your students can attend next year. The Adagietto is quite an achievement at any age.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *