Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century

Translated by Neil K. Moran

by Constantin Floros (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 397 Pages


The subject of this book is the semantics of symphonic music from Beethoven to Mahler. Of fundamental importance is the realization that this music is imbued with non-musical, literary, philosophical and religious ideas. It is also clear that not only Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner were crucial role models for Mahler, but also the musical dramatist Wagner and the programmatic symphony composers Berlioz and Liszt. At the same time a semantic musical analysis of their works reveals for the first time the actual inherent (poetic) quintessence of numerous orchestral works of the 19th Century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • First Part: Basics of the Symphony
  • I. Mahler’s place in history
  • 1. Eclectic or original genius?
  • 2. Bruckner-Successor or Bruckner-Antipode?
  • II. Beethoven and the new categories of symphonic music
  • III. The history of the reception of Beethoven’s music
  • IV. Mahler’s conception of the symphonic cantata
  • V. Borrowings from the Lieder repertoire
  • 1. Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms
  • 2. Mahler’s intentions with his borrowings
  • VI. Aspects of architectonics
  • 1. Varying number of movements and their arrangements – sectional structuring
  • 2. From Beethoven’s Pastoral and Berlioz’ Fantastique to Mahler’s Titan
  • Some programmatic symphonies in five movements
  • VII. Content and Form The “axis” of the new aesthetics
  • VIII. The cyclic form principle and the programmatic idea
  • Beethoven
  • Schubert and Schumann
  • Berlioz
  • Liszt
  • The correlation between music and program in Liszt’s Les Préludes
  • Bruckner
  • Tchaikovsky
  • Mahler
  • “Flashbacks”: Six examples from the symphonies of Beethoven, Berlioz, Bruckner and Mahler
  • IX. Musical themes and the “poetical conception”
  • 1. The alteration and ornamentation of thematic characteristics as a means of expression in Berlioz, Liszt and Mahler
  • 2. Simultaneous reduplication of contrasting themes as a means of expression in Berlioz, Liszt, Bruckner and Mahler
  • X. The Mephisto movement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony A semantic analysis
  • 1. The themes and Liszt’s method of ornamentation
  • 2. The Malédiction for piano and string orchestra as a source for the Mephisto movement
  • 3. The curse as a central idea of the Mephisto movement
  • 4. Liszt’s setting of the Chorus mysticus
  • Part Two: The Universality of the Symphony
  • XI. Characteristics in general
  • 1. Fundamentals
  • 2. Regarding Adorno’s conception of the “material theory of form in music”
  • XII. Characteristics derived from vocal music
  • 1. Speaking parts: Recitative and Arioso
  • 2. The Chorale
  • Regarding the meaning of genres in the symphonies of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler
  • 3. The Hymn
  • The hymn in Bruckner and Mahler as well as in Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms
  • 4. Lieder
  • XIII. Characteristics derived from instrumental music
  • 1. March (marziale) and funeral march
  • The meaning of the category in the symphonies of Berlioz, Liszt, Bruckner and Mahler
  • 2. Entombment music: “like a very slow funeral procession”
  • 3. Pastorale
  • The genre in Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Bizet, Brahms and Mahler
  • 4. “Music from afar”
  • Orchestra in the distance or illusion of an orchestra in the distance
  • 5. Crescendo (and diminuendo) as sounds dynamics expressing musical form: March music from afar, gradually coming closer
  • Nine examples in works of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Bizet, Mahler and Debussy
  • XIV. Scherzo, scherzando and dance characteristics
  • 1. Fundamentals
  • 2. Minuet
  • The genre in Mahler, Bizet and Liszt
  • 3. Ländler
  • Two types used by Mahler: The “leisurely” Ländler as main movement and the “slow” Ländler as the trio – Ländler of Schubert and Bruckner
  • 4. Waltz and Valse
  • XV. Conclusions
  • Structure of the opening movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony Analysis in accordance with the characteristics
  • Third Part: Elements of the Symphonies
  • XVI. The symbol in music
  • 1. Explanation of the concept
  • 2. Schering’s conception of the symbol
  • 3. Techniques for solving the problem (heuristic)
  • XVII. The semantics of the sounds of birds
  • 1. Birdcalls and sounds as the “sounds of nature”
  • 2. Mahler and the birdcalls in Beethoven’s “Scene at the brook”
  • 3. Mahler and birdcalls in Wagner’s “Forest murmurs”
  • 4. The “bird of the night”
  • 5. The “bird of death”: The song of the nightingale as the “echo of earthly life”
  • 6. Bird cantilenas, duets and concerts
  • XVIII. Elementary Motifs
  • 1. Calls and signals
  • 2. Sighing motifs: Plaintive cries, woes, motifs of suffering, “screams”
  • XIX. Motifs of falling and symbols of the abyss
  • XX. Symbols of night and of sleep
  • XXI. Satanism and the Crucifix
  • The polarity of the spiritual world in the music of Franz Liszt
  • 1. Liszt’s attraction to Goethe’s Faust and for Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • 2. The polarity between calamity and victory
  • 3. The diabolus in musica and the “tonal symbol of the Cross”
  • The semantics of the most important symbols in the music of Liszt
  • XXII. “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso”
  • Theological-philosophical motifs
  • 1. Regarding a fundamental philosophical-poetical idea in the symphonies of Liszt and Mahler
  • 2. Inferno and Lucifer motifs in Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Mahler
  • 3. The “tonal symbol of the cross” as a representation of the “heavenly” in Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky
  • 4. Motifs for “eternity” in Wagner and Mahler
  • XXIII. La Gamme terrifiante
  • The history of the whole tone scale
  • XXIV. Rhythmic Leitmotifs
  • Symbols of death, fate and combat
  • Beethoven
  • Liszt
  • Wagner and Bruckner
  • Strauss
  • Tchaikovsky
  • Mahler
  • XXV. Guiding sounds (Leitklänge)
  • Characteristic chords and symbols
  • 1. An “eerie“ minor third chord as a tonal symbol in Wagner, Liszt, Mahler and Strauss
  • 2. Major-minor motivic shifts in Schubert, Mahler, Strauss and Brahms
  • 3. The “terrifying fanfare” in Beethoven’s Ninth and in Mahler’s Second
  • 4. Four note chords as mottos
  • 5. Neapolitan sixth chords and dissonances at climaxes in Mahler, Schubert and Strauss
  • Neapolitan Sixth and Fifth-Sixth Chords
  • Diminished Seventh Chords
  • ‘Minor’ Ninth Chords
  • Double Leading Tone Sounds and Double Dominant Sounds
  • Thirteenth Chords
  • 6. The shape of Bruckner’s climaxes
  • 7. The nine-tone sound in the Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth
  • 8. Regarding the technique of imprévu A “frightening note” in Beethoven, Berlioz, Bruckner and Mahler
  • XXVI. Idiophonic sound symbols
  • 1. Regarding sound symbols generally
  • 2. The tamtam as a funereal and macabre sound symbol in Mahler, Wagner, Liszt, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Schönberg and Berg
  • 3. Bell sounds in Berlioz, Liszt and Strauss
  • 4. Bell sounds as a sound symbol for the eternal in Mahler
  • 5. The symbolic and coloring functions of the Glockenspiel
  • The Glockenspiel as an essential sound for the musica angelica
  • 6. Cow bells as a sound symbol for the “otherworldly solitude”
  • Epilogue
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • List of Tables
  • Tables
  • Index

← X | 1 → Introduction

“It has recently been frequently remarked that a technical analysis of a piece of music achieves nothing and ultimately reveals no more about the actual inner nature of an artwork than that which one already knew at the start of the exercise.”

“Once we have reached the point or we have learned from experience as to which artistic means should be used to achieve a certain spiritual effect, then we have made an important step forward. Thus one will be able to say that the composer expressed in his chosen category a particular thought and that the prevalence of a particular element indicates a particular characteristic. Then we will be able to recognize purely intellectually the nature of an artwork, initially without the involvement of the emotions and the immediate enjoyment of art, thereby establishing a far more objective, universal basis for understanding an artwork. Then the spiritual significance will be added to the technical analysis like a second page.”


It is quite remarkable that the symphonic works of Mahler have been always viewed up to now as distinct from the symphonic tradition of 19th century. Many researchers considered and still hold them to be historically unprecedented. This book demonstrates that this point of view bars the way to a proper understanding of Mahler. A close consideration of Mahler’s symphonies reveals many links to several composers and various movements. They are not only indebted to Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner for essential impulses but also reveal a special affinity to the music dramas of Wagner and the programmatic symphonies of Berlioz and Liszt. In a certain sense Mahler is the culmination of the symphonic tradition of the 19th century.

The perspective from which the theme of this book is considered, is the realization that the symphonic music of Mahler’s era cannot be understood as music per se. It is influenced by personal experiences and extra-musical (that is poetic, literary, pictorial, philosophical) contents, images and ideas to a far greater extent than is commonly assumed. This is true not only for the symphonic works of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Peter Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss, but also for the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. For this reason, this music requires an exegetical approach.

Musical exegesis is in the opinion of the author a higher-order discipline that goes beyond the analysis of form and stylistic criticism, and in contrast to the older previously employed hermeneutics will lead to a more objective and verifiable interpretation of musical works of art.

← 1 | 2 → The first part of the book deals with the “foundations” of the symphonic music of the 19th century. In addition to the issues involving the reception of Beethoven's symphonies, the aesthetics and the “theory of composition” of the new symphonic program music are especially taken into consideration.

The second part investigates the different genres of symphonic music of the 19th century. The third part encompasses a large-scale study of the elements of symphonic music. Among other elements the author concentrates on the symbols which the leading symphony composers used to convey their extra-musical conceptions.

This new exegetical method will make it possible to identify the contents both of these compositions as well as of many musical works that are generally considered to be examples of so-called absolute music.

The book grew out of years of research. In addition to the musical works of the leading symphonic composers, their theoretical and aesthetic writings, their letters as well as documents on the history of the works were investigated. The author worked intensively on the manuscript from the summer of 1968 until the autumn of 1973. The book was first published in 1977 and a second edition appeared in 1987. The present English edition was prepared by my friend Dr. Neil K. Moran. He deserves my thanks for his subtle and conscientious translation. I also wish to express my gratitude to Michael Bock for the layout and to Michael Rücker and Thomas Papsdorf of Peter Lang – International Academic Publishers for their cordial cooperation.

← 2 | 3 → First Part
Basics of the Symphony
← 3 | 4 →

← 4 | 5 → I. Mahler’s place in history

“We cannot yet fathom today where Mahler is to be placed historically”


With none of the major German composers of the late Romantic period has the question about his historic classification evoked such violent controversy as in the case of Gustav Mahler. While the historical positions of Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Hans Pfitzner or Max Reger were fixed long ago, the classification of Mahler's still remains problematic. Among the reasons that explain this paradox it can initially only be said that the contemporaries of Mahler cited above contributed to their historical classification with their own corresponding clear statements. The symphony composer Richard Strauss saw himself as the successor of the program music of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.3 Hugo Wolf committed himself passionately to Richard Wagner’s progressive party.4 Hans Pfitzner defended in his polemical writings the cause of absolute music.5 Max Reger was dedicated to Brahms and Bach and he considered the programs of Berlioz and Liszt to be failures.6 But Gustav Mahler? Mahler, in spite of his later polemics against program music, did not express himself so clearly. What is more – his statements were contradictory.7 Therefore one has to search for other clues.

1. Eclectic or original genius?

Already in his lifetime two theories arose with respect to Mahler's music-historical position. Both of them attracted equally convinced supporters and bitter opponents. Of each theory, there is a positive and a negative variation. (In this respect, one could also distinguish four theories.) According to the first theory Mahler is an eclectic composer. His symphonic music was thought to be that of a “Kapellmeister” with all the advantages and disadvantages of this type -skillfully orchestrated and beautifully interwoven, yet evoking a “veil of reminiscences”. To this conclusion came no less an authority than Romain Rolland, a certainly unbiased critic, after he had heard the Fifth Symphony under Mahler's direction in 1905 at the Strasbourg Music Festival:8

“Mahler's case is really rather curious. When one studies his works one feels convinced that he is one of those rare types in modern Germany – an egoist who feels with sincerity. Perhaps his emotions and his ideas do not succeed in expressing themselves in a really sincere and personal way; for they reach us through a cloud of reminiscences and an atmosphere of classicism. I cannot help thinking that Mahler's ← 5 | 6 → position as director of the Opera, and his consequent saturation in the music that his calling condemned him to study, is the cause of this. There is nothing more fatal to a creative spirit than too much reading, above all when it is not undertaken at will but rather involves being forced to absorb an excessive amount of nourishment, the larger part of which is indigestible.”

According to Rolland Mahler’s First united the style of Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn with Wagner and Bruckner. Rolland was not alone with his assessment of Mahler. Rudolf Louis9, Hugo Riemann10 and many others11 also shared his opinion.

Several statements by Mahler help us understand that the charge of eclecticism hurt him very much. He felt it to be unjust and he vigorously objected to the position taken against him. This was done in his name by Richard Specht.12 In his small monograph authorized by Mahler himself the following responses are set forth:

“As a student Mahler – alone from reasons of thrift – had little opportunity to learn about opera and music literature from performances. Even as he later acquire a huge advantage in his development as both a composer and as a conductor, it was clear that neither his work nor his interpretation of other works came under any outside influences.”13

Specht is also the one who handed down in his biography of Mahler14 this most memorable statement.

“He [Mahler] always denied that any great composer had a vital influence on his development (except in external things - such as Berlioz and Bizet with respect to some problems of instrumentation and rhythms).”

Mahler’s understandable defense against the stigma of eclecticism contributed significantly to the emergence of a counter-theory - mirabile dictu - that his historical development was without precedent. Desiring to come to terms with suggestions of eclecticism, Guido Adler15 in 1914 took a position against such accusations in that he emphasized Mahler's “own style” by distinguishing “certain” idiomatic expressions which could be followed from the first symphony on. Later researchers distanced themselves from such a balanced viewpoint and literally reversed these accusations into their complete opposite. Mahler was proclaimed to be historically without precedent and they choose not to ask questions about Mahler’s own relationship with his artistic environment. The result was that Mahler's oeuvre came to be viewed in a hermetically sealed environment and he was to be ‘honored’ purely in terms of his alleged uniqueness!

← 6 | 7 → 2. Bruckner-Successor or Bruckner-Antipode?

According to the second theory Mahler’s symphonies are derived directly from Anton Bruckner. The rumor that Mahler was Bruckner’s student, the fact that Mahler respected Bruckner and campaigned for performances of his works16 as well as the well-founded acknowledgement that Mahler and Bruckner symphonies shared several common traits strengthened the perception that the symphony composer Mahler could and should be regarded as Bruckner’s successor.

Hugo Riemann was one of the first historians who held this view. Already in 1901 he classified Mahler as an “energetic advocate of the path taken by A. Bruckner (the application of Wagner’s style to the field of absolute music)”.17 In 1905 the Königsberg Mahler-admirer Otto Nodnagel18 expressed the opinion that Mahler's art could be traced “directly” back to Bruckner. Felix Weingartner19 expressively stated in 1909 that Mahler was Bruckner’s pupil and successor. A universal dissemination of the Bruckner theory occurred after 1921 with the publication of a thorough examination of Mahler in a book by Paul Bekker.20 Bekker lauded Mahler as having brought a specifically Austrian symphonic tradition derived from Schubert and Bruckner to its culmination.

Bekker focused on the architectural aspects of Mahler’s symphonies – the weight and positioning of the movements and in particular on the design and interpretation of the finale. He perceived the “problem of the symphonic form” to be imbedded in the subordinate role of the finale of the classical symphony as the denouement of the work. Consequently he evaluated the historical significance of individual composers on their role in the development of the symphonic genre primarily on the basis of their attempts to bring this problem closer to a solution. Both Beethoven and Bruckner had recognized the problem to its full extent and had contributed to its solution – Beethoven by creating a new type, the final apotheosis, Bruckner by extending the middle movements, and by shifting the emphasis from the first movement to the Adagio. Mahler succeeded in finding a convincing solution to the problem with his conception of the “finale symphony”. He was the first to conceive of the finale as the principal movement of a symphony.

The “content of the finale in his symphonies determined the arrangement of the whole, the number of movements, their characters, their relationships to one another”. Bekker believed that all of the symphonies of Mahler were “finale symphonies”. All of their last movements – up to the Ninth – set the tone for the entire work. They were the centers which tied up all the threads of the previous movements and from which they unfolded.

Bekker’s ‘finale theory’ certainly highlighted a significant architectural character of Mahler's symphonies and is fundamentally correct. Bekker’s attempt to ← 7 | 8 → highlight Mahler’s leading role is however one-sided in that he concentrated only on this one aspect. Moreover, one cannot conceal the fact that Bekker, in his understandable endeavor to give Mahler a broader perspective, did not always recognize the importance of the major symphonic composers before Mahler and therefore he sometimes arrived at some almost absurd conclusions.21 To cite some examples – it is understandable, given Bekker’s perspective, that the symphonic works of Schubert were viewed with respect to Schubert’s approach to the “problem of the finale”. Thus Bekker considered the great C major Symphony – a work whose pioneering role cannot be sufficiently emphasized (see chapter VII) – to be a return to “the old classical symphonic form”. Despite its massive scope, any involvement with the “problem of the symphony” is not evident. Bekker saw a proof of his thesis in the B minor Symphony (1822). Schubert had left the work unfinished, because he recognized for the first time the problem of the finale, i.e. he recognized his inability to deal with the problem properly. One of course should be aware that the question of why Schubert left the B minor Symphony unfinished is still unclear.22

Bekker’s appreciation of Bruckner's achievements with respect to symphonic architecture is based on either a misconception or it is biased. Bekker says Bruckner shifted the focus of the symphony from the first movement to the Adagio: “He wanted to emphasize the finale, but he was fascinated with the Adagio and ended up playing around with it while the finale was left lying in the distance”.

This claim is simply a false judgment. It is strange that Bekker ignored the fundamental discussions of Max Morold23 with respect to the development of the symphonic finale from the classical period to Bruckner. It was in 1906 that Morold convincingly demonstrated that Bruckner's historic achievement in the symphonic field was not least the creation of a novel type of finale which crowned the whole symphony.

Bekker believed that three types of design could be distinguished in Mahler's symphonies. The first is “that of a straight forward ascent to the final destination” (as in the First, Sixth and Eighth). The second type is an arrangement of movements which “approach the final core circularly”: “The finale is again the center but the previous movements do not directly lead up to it but rather accumulate around it by increasingly closer paraphrasing”. (This was supposedly true of the Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh). The third type unfolds in the middle between the other two. The final movements of the Fourth and Ninth do not reach a peak but their antecedents are neither circular nor are they arranged like a suite.

In these cases “a fantastic architectural display passes through the air and any attempt to conceptualize the effect is doomed to failure”. It should be noted that Bekker does not seem even to think in categories of time, when he speaks of ← 8 | 9 → the finale as the architectural “center”. Secondly, it is hard to take seriously the notion of an arrangement of movements which “encircle the final core”.

One does not necessarily require meticulous comparisons between the symphonic works of Bruckner and Mahler to recognize that the ‘Bruckner theory’ probably contains part of the truth, but never the whole truth. No wonder then that it was not accepted without reservations. Mahler himself was decidedly opposed to it. In a letter of 1902 to August Göllerich he had already declared:24

“I had never been Bruckner's student. The on dit likely originated from the fact that in my younger years in Vienna I was often seen with him and in any case I belonged to his first admirers and propagators. I think that I and my friend Krzyzanowsky (currently active in Weimar) were the only ones at that time. This was, I think, in the years 1875-81.”

In the same spirit Specht wrote in 1905:25

“But Mahler never studied with Bruckner and the older master of the symphony hardly had any influence on the younger composer other than a certain fondness for the pious beauty of rousing chorale-like passages which can be found in the works of both composers.”


X, 397
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
semantics religious ideas quintessence
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. X, 397 pp., 80 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Hamburg. He has published several volumes about Gustav Mahler. In recognition of his many years of researching, the International Mahler Society awarded him the Mahler Medal in gold in March of 2010. Neil K. Moran is the author of numerous studies on European cultural history. He studied in Boston and in Hamburg. His publications include many books about the medieval music and about Rudyard Kipling. He has translated several books by Constantin Floros.


Title: Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century
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