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Mahler: Reader, Thinker, Composer

22 October 2017, 11:15am - 4:30pm

Mahler has been celebrated since his own day not just for his musical gifts, but also for his wide-ranging literary and intellectual interests. This Study Day will explore the world of the mind behind the music, focusing particularly on the songs which are an equal legacy to his symphonies. Talks by expert researchers will cover topics such as his choice of texts, the poets who inspired him, the way that his music conveys and goes beyond the meaning of the words, and his influence felt down to the present day. Mahler’s fascination with the folkloristic poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, his evident kinship with Rückert’s poetry of grief and consolation, his repeated use of the literary motif of the military Drummer Boy, his oscillation between the intimacy of the Lied and the public statement of the symphony; all these all these and more will be topics for the day’s talks and performances.

How is Mahler best understood? A morbid obsessive who never escaped a traumatised childhood? A Viennese intellectual like Freud or Wittgenstein (both of whom he met), always ready to seize new ideas? A victim of anti-Semitic political manoeuvring who never felt he belonged to the musical establishment? Is his music best heard as a throwback to earlier Romanticism, or as the path to a new kind of composition? These questions can best be explored by examining the thinkers and writers whose works he read, those who lived and worked alongside him, and those who took their inspiration from him in the years following his extraordinary career.

11.15am Session One: Three 30-minute talks

1.45pm Recital 

3pm Session Two: Three 30-minute talks

Presented in association with the Open University's Literature and Music Research Group and the Bodleian Libraries.


Session One

Robert Samuels: Mahler’s Songs Without Words
This talk explores the times that Mahler re-uses his songs in his symphonies with their words removed. Does he expect us to remember the original? Does the re-used version ‘mean’ the same? What about his last symphony, where he re-uses a song by his wife Alma, which hadn’t even been published?

Richard Wigmore: From Innocence to Experience: Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings
‘In these songs you can feel the heartbeat of the German people’, wrote Heinrich Heine of the folksong collections published as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Nineteenth-century composers set them in droves. This talk looks at the sources of the Wunderhorn collection, and at Mahler’s brilliantly imaginative settings, with their fascinating, often disturbing juxtapositions of bucolic naivety and extreme sophistication.

Anna Stoll Knecht: Military echoes in Mahler’s early songs
This talk explores the military topic in Mahler’s early songs, particularly in the Wunderhorn songs ‘Revelge’ and ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’. Listening to echoes of these songs in the context of the Seventh Symphony (1905), we hear the interplay between several sets of oppositions in Mahler: (funeral) march vs. dance, movement vs. immobility, death vs. nature, nature vs. mankind.


Session Two

Peter Franklin: ‘First I’ll sing you a song...’ When Mahler’s singer ‘sings’.
When Mahler’s singers announce, in song, that they are going to ‘sing’, the result can be something that stretches the usual conventions of Lieder . His singers may even question whose song it is that they are singing or, ‘lost to the world’, may claim to vanish from the listener into ‘song’, while they are still singing…

Charlotte Lee: The poetry of grieving: Rückert, Mahler and the Kindertotenlieder
Friedrich Rückert’s Kindertodtenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) consists of over four hundred poems. Mahler chose just five of them to set to music. This talk will explore the changing shapes of grief expressed in the original poetry, before considering Mahler’s musical contribution to this most sensitive of topics.

Laura Tunbridge: ‘Auch kleine Dinge’: the scale of the fin-de-siècle Lied
The songs of Mahler, Strauss and their followers are typically thought of as large in scale: lengthy in duration, lush in orchestration, and requiring powerful voices. Yet the fin-de-siècle Lied always retained its sense of small-scale intimacy. This talk focuses on the poetics of these intimate yet lavish Lieder, through examples from Mahler and his youthful Viennese associates, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss.


13 October 2017 | 9:00am

The Last of the Romantics - Mahler and fin-de-siècle Vienna

Previous Event
Motets at Merton
21 October 2017, 10:00pm 17 June 2024 - 7:50am
Next Event
Mahler: Reader, Thinker, Composer: Christina Sidak & Deirdre Brenner
22 October 2017, 1:45pm 17 June 2024 - 7:50am

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