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Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century

Translated by Neil K. Moran

Constantin Floros

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.
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I. Mahler’s place in history

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

PAUL BEKKER (1921)2

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?

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