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Mahler v. Sibelius


The two composers are sometimes cited as being at the opposite ends of a spectrum of sorts: one being prone to employing vast forces in order to perform gargantuan works; the other having a penchant for compression and modesty of utterance ultimately to the point of silence. I had a passion for the music of both before I ever read of this dichotomy. Nevertheless there is truth in it and it is well illustrated by the often quoted conversation they had with each other to the effect that Sibelius admired the symphony for the severity of form and the interconnectedness of the materials, whereas Mahler opined that the symphony should contain the whole world. Or some such.

My father it was who introduced me to Sibelius and there is something about this composer that clicks with Scottish audiences. There is something distinctly “northern” and granite-like about it. It’s bleak and austere to those who find no empathy with it. Certainly the 4th Symphony has a grim, square-jawed aspect to it. But there is much that is warm and open-hearted and there’s plenty in his perhaps lesser known music that is downright populist and schmaltzy. He was a man who for a long time wrote popular trinkets just in order to make a living.

Me it was who introduced my father to Mahler. His responded immediately to the 2nd Symphony – even the 1st movement which I thought might have been a bit inscrutable on first hearing. He was profoundly moved on hearing the closing paragraphs of the work for the first time. It remains a fond memory of mine seeing this.

Mahler is unpopular with many for quite different reasons from Sibelius; often being dismissed as neurotic, self-referential and even self-pitying. There’s no doubt he wore his heart on his sleeve as a composer and he well knew how to manipulate the listener’s emotions with a tune. Others dislike his music for its very scale, citing it as long-winded and even self-indulgent. To me there is definite “bi-polarity” in the symphonies and the expression ranges from noble to vulgar, celebratory to despairing, naïve to sardonic, simplistically tuneful to unremittingly dissonant. He left no stone unturned or motif undeveloped.

So I have collected multiple cycles of the symphonies of both composers over the years. I’m not an expert on interpretations of classical music but I do enjoy discerning the different approaches taken to these works. I’ve also collected and read biographies of the composers and analysis of their music to the limits of my layman’s abilty. Some of the latter is intractable to me, not really being adept at reading musical scores.

I’m like a pendulum in my listening habits: being drawn to each of these composers for a “season”. Then I will tire of one and desire the world of the other.

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