Gustav Mahler Blog by Universal Edition

July 10, 2009

"Mahler is certainly the greatest symphonist ever."

By Wolfgang Schaufler

Do you remember the first time you heard the music of Gustav Mahler?

Eschenbach: In my childhood there was not very much Mahler in concerts in Germany, for obvious reasons: he was banned in the Hitler years. Only slowly did Mahler Symphonies get onto concert programmes. I was living in the countryside, in Schleswig-Holstein, so I did not have much access to concerts anyway, but I remember listening to Mahler on records. Friends of my parents gave me the first one, the 2nd Symphony. There was a very famous actor at this time, Gustav Gründgens, whom I knew, and he was the one who introduced me in 1961 to the 2nd Symphony. It's very interesting that it was this man. And then the door opened and I listened to the 5th, and I listened to the 9th with Bruno Walter - the famous recording where he rehearses it - and the 4th; I love the 4th.

But the second overwhelming introduction to his music was the Scherzo of the 5th, where the counterpoint of the Ländler, of the happy music with the very sad trio - with the horn soli - and the pizzicato [sings rhythm]. And that struck me. That is probably the point where all Mahler music clicks in the listener; the immediate counterpoint of burlesque and sadness. So that's how I came to Mahler.

What did Gründgens tell you about Mahler?

Eschenbach: Well, first of all he said that this is great music. And he talked of the trip, the voyage, from the first movement into all of the other movements, into the transcendent ending - which was already there with Beethoven's 9th, but here it is extended in enormous measures and forms. He talked very much about form. He also particularly loved the Ländler movement and talked about that. I wasn't so familiar with Austrian music, except that I played Schubert on the piano and loved it. So there is of course a connection between Schubert and Mahler.

At that time Mahler was not established in the repertoire. Was this for you a kind of new world you had discovered, because it was not part of your musical education? Did you feel from the beginning that, in some way, you had an understanding of this music?

Eschenbach: Yes, yes. The door opened very quickly. And there are other composers, for example, with whom I have struggled , not understanding them for years and years, and with whom the door then opened all of a sudden: Shostakovich for example. But with Mahler it went very, very fast.

When did you start to conduct Mahler?

Eschenbach: In the '70s, when I began again to conduct. There were seven years when I didn't conduct at all, where I played the piano, until '72. And then in my first big concert, after my conservatory time, I conducted Bruckner's Third, because he was a composer whom I loved too, and who had written nothing for piano, and I wanted to do this symphony, but then came Mahler's 5th. The 5th was the first of the Mahler Symphonies I conducted. The next one was the first, and the next one was the 6th.

Conducting Mahler, what's the main thing you have to take care of?

Eschenbach: [Laughs] 'Take care' is a good word. You have to try to understand everything. I mean, it's not so easy to understand everything intellectually, and it shouldn't be totally from an intellectual point of view in understanding Mahler. One shouldn't forget that his music is written next door to Sigmund Freud, and that it is written in a time when psychoanalysis was 'opening'. Therefore, this music, of course it deals with these big emotions - like Brahms, like Beethoven - but also the very miniscule insights into the soul. You can discover that intellectually, but it's better if you go from the heart and from the soul itself, and try to figure out for yourself: Why is that phrase going like this? Why is that all of a sudden breaking off? Why is it changing all of a sudden into a totally different mood? Because inside there is so much happening; Mahler is going very much a step further, and also breaking forms, going further than Brahms for example.

You conducted Mahler's 3rd in Prague recently, and you told me that you had to work on the sound very much. Is there a special sound required for Mahler?

Eschenbach: No, but the sound scope has enormous amplitude and can also change from a fortissimo outbreak to a pianissimo, intimate scene. And therefore the amplitude is enormous and you have to work on that. You cannot tolerate a mezzo piano where a pianissimo is necessary. You can't tolerate that in any music, but in Mahler it would be senseless.

Did your personal approach to Mahler change over the years?

Eschenbach: No, it just developed more and more and more and more. I conduct a lot of symphonies, and every symphony is so different from the other. And even if you compare the 1st to the 6th, or the 4th to the 7th, or the 3rd to the 9th, they're really different; every Symphony is different. Not one movement of the Symphonies is similar to the other, so you always discover new things to develop and extend your understanding. It's the case with all music, but with Mahler it's extremely manifold.

When Bernstein made Mahler popular, to me it seems that to emotionalise the music was state of the art at this time. Is there a danger of overpowering Mahler?

Eschenbach: Not to overpower, but there's a danger of being on the fringe of tastelessness. If you don't understand why certain things are called trivial, in quotation marks, which are not actually trivial, and you let them be trivial, but take away the quotation marks, then there's a danger. There's very much irony in Mahler; irony in the Aristotelian sense of things which are seen from two sides at the same time.

How can you perform this irony?

Eschenbach: You have to understand, you have to see it that way, you have to investigate that, and you also have to constantly ask questions: Why? Why? Why?

You mentioned Bruno Walter and the famous recordings. Are there conductors who influenced your Mahler understanding?

Eschenbach: Well, I'm a strange person. I listen very little to recordings. Especially when I perform pieces, I never listen to other people's recordings, because I don't want to be influenced.
Certainly Bernstein influenced me and brought me further into Mahler, but that's a long time ago, and now I need myself - my insight - to listen to Mahler. I don't need others to give me insights. It sounds a little pretentious but it is not, it is just how it is.

Did you talk with Bernstein about Mahler?

Eschenbach: Yes, very much. And he was very, very serious. He was somebody who also talked about this triviality which is not trivial, but which is seen by people as triviality. Those marches, for example, or those really obvious Ländlers, or the Bohemian dance in the 1st Symphony, 2nd movement. And of the danger of exaggerating these things: he did not. Often people say that he milked this music. It's not true. He's a wonderfully classic, 'classical' also, Mahler-conductor.

But the first, after Mengelberg and Walter, who was a Mahler-prophet for the people was Stokovsky. He brought Mahler to America. It was not Bernstein who was the first after Bruno Walter, it was Stokovsky. And he gave - even in Philadelphia - already in 1916 the first American performance of the 8th. And eight years later, I believe, once again the 8th, and then all of them. He was, anyway, one of the great conductors from my impressions.

What was the main advice of Bernstein on conducting Mahler?

Eschenbach: He didn't give very much advice. Of course he talked very much about the emotional and conflicting emotional attitudes of his music.

He was very careful with advice actually and especially with Mahler, because he himself was always so overwhelmed after conducting a Mahler Symphony. And I remember the 9th symphony in Tanglewood where afterwards I went to ask him something, but he didn't answer. He was just so totally overwhelmed, which I can understand.
Or after the 2nd. And so it was not that he didn't want to give advice, but he just lived the music: how to be so intensely in the music, and identify so intensely with the music. That was his best lesson actually, that this man was so totally worn out afterwards, sweating. But he was not sweating with his body, it was his soul that was sweating, and that was his advice.

Did he talk with you about his understanding of the personality of Mahler?

Eschenbach: No, not in this way, but he always said he is Mahler. Yes, he identified with Mahler. He always said that when he was in Maiernigg in the house where Mahler composed, he had this vision that he himself was Mahler. It was of course a little bit exaggerated. But Bernstein was not pretentious, he was always true. He was such an honest man, so that even things which pour out of him like this, were right in the moment. So he gets this vision he was Mahler, and therefore he didn't talk about Mahler - 'that is me' [laughs].

Would you say the struggles in Mahler's life influenced his music?

Eschenbach: Well, yes and no. I'm always amazed by the contrast of composers like Beethoven, for example, who wrote his Symphony No. 8 - which was the happiest one - in his worst time of health; Schumann's 2nd Symphony: same thing. It's overcoming suffering, almost as a recipe, almost as a medicine, to think positively to overcome suffering. But of course the suffering is also there, and also composed, and also very, very much work to identify with for an interpreter.

But would you go so far, like Bernstein, that the first movement of the 9th Symphony deals with his heart conditions?

Eschenbach: Yes, it is obvious actually. I think his irregular heartbeat, at the beginning and then in the climaxes, in the fortissimo where it is really desperate, it is rather obvious and a bit like Shostakovich's 2nd Cello Concerto, at the end, where the heart-and-lung machine was ticking.

Mahler writes about how to organise his symphonies, especially about the flexibility of the tempi. Are you influenced by such texts?

Eschenbach: Well, I'm for flexible tempi anyway, and I'm always attacked for dealing with flexible tempi and seeing flexible tempi in compositions. That's like speaking or breathing; you don't speak like a metronome, you don't breathe like a machine, you don't think like a machine, and you don't sing like something or someone who doesn't breathe. So tempi are flexible because phrases have to have space around themselves, and with Mahler especially, as he expressed so many thoughts, and so many emotions, and so many enigmatic things of the psyche. He needs space and time, and I think it's very important that you deal with this as an interpreter, and don't forget it. There's no metronome.

You conduct Mahler in the States a lot, and here in Europe, especially in France - you have your own cycle there at the moment. Do you see a difference in orchestral cultures concerning Mahler?

Eschenbach: No, it's just that you have to be very secure in what you want to say in your interpretation. The orchestra follows. And I have a wonderful time with the Orchestre de Paris, who have learned really to identify with this music intensely and very easily now, and I am therefore very happy to do this cycle for DVD. And with American orchestras it is the same, you just have to live it for them, as a person and as a musician, and then the interpretation shows and the orchestra follows on a certain level.

But do you still feel the fact that Mahler was not part of the French education, or is it not a subject anymore?

Eschenbach: No, you don't feel it anymore. Orchestras anyway are not so different anymore as they were maybe 50 years ago: when American orchestras were brilliant but a bit cold, and European orchestras were warmer but a bit sloppy. That has changed because of the interchange of touring and information - so the American orchestras became more emotional and the European orchestras became more precise - and also due to the exchange of literature. Which European orchestra in the 50s played American music for example? None. And of course in America they always played European music, because there was no other music except a bit of American. So there was an advantage actually and they played Mahler earlier than the Europeans. But this has changed now and everywhere there is the possibility to play Mahler first-class.

How do you see the relation between Bruckner and Mahler?

Eschenbach: First of all: Mahler loved Bruckner. He did the first complete performance of Bruckner's 6th Symphony. And I think it comes from Schubert, who influenced Bruckner enormously, and then Schubert who influenced Mahler enormously. He brought Austrian folk music into classical music for the first time, in his earlier works, which was very important; all these marches with trios, the trios were really from nature. And in his Ländlers, in his dances, and then further on in his symphonies: look at the Scherzo of the C major Symphony for example. Bruckner took very much of this landscape music into his style, and so did Mahler then from Bruckner: the Ländler from the 2nd Symphony comes from Schubert, then Bruckner, then Mahler. In this way I see the connection.

And in terms of masses, with this huge orchestra - was Mahler influenced by that?

Eschenbach: Yes. Bruckner was more erratic in constructing blocks. Mahler didn't use that technique so much. But of course the lengths of the symphonic thought, that carried over into Mahler and Mahler even prolonged it. His symphonies are the biggest, longest symphonies, which use everything possible: singers, choruses, lacking only a narrator. Mahler is certainly the greatest symphonist ever.

How do you see Mahler's influence on the Second Viennese school?

Eschenbach: Certainly there are hints, especially in the 9th, which suggest the role of these compositions. For example, at the end of the first movement of the 9th there comes this big flute solo, which is an eleven-tone row, an exact eleven-tone row, and the solution of the eleven-tone row, the twelfth tone, comes with the F sharp of the violin solo which resolves the schweben [floating], he writes schweben for this very enigmatic flute row in the second-to-last page of the score.
Schönberg claimed in his famous speech in Prague two years after Mahler's death that Mahler was a saint: so he really confirmed him as a visionary, and a visionary who influenced him and certainly Berg.

This is highly speculative, but if Mahler had lived another 30 years, in which direction do you think he would have proceeded?

Eschenbach: In the direction of Berg I guess. And in which direction would Berg have proceeded after 1936, who knows that? But Berg's Drei Orchesterstücke op.6 and Mahler's 6th Symphony, that is almost the same composer.

Is there any Mahler work you feel especially close to?

Eschenbach: No, this is a question which I'm often asked, which is my favourite composer or something like that which I don't like to answer. I'm totally against specialisation and totally against fixing myself on one thing, because I'm afraid that I would lose other things at the sides. Especially with Mahler; the symphonies are so different and give so much, every symphony gives so many valuable insights, in life and beyond life, that I cannot say that one of them is specially attractive to me. It's the same thing with the song cycles. The Kindertotenlieder are for me as amazing as the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which is a young piece, or the Wunderhorn-Lieder, which are in themselves so different. And they're so important, every one; there is not one which is less good than the others.

You conducted the 8th in Paris, and you told me once that you tried to have as many singers as Mahler had in Munich in 1910. Have I remembered this episode rightly? Can you speak about this performance?

Eschenbach: Yes, it had to do with the location where we did it. It was in Le Grand Palais des Sports, which seats 12,000 people. So we took this oval, and we took one side of the oval as the stage, and we had one and a half orchestras - that means Orchestre de Paris plus all the members from our academy, the young people. Then we had three choruses: the Wiener Singverein, the London Symphony Chorus, the Orchestre de Paris chorus.
And we had 300 children from the banlieue, from the outskirts of Paris. This was a wonderful attitude, a wonderful effort that people made, to get underprivileged children to sing Mahler. And they rehearsed for three months, and one month before I had a rehearsal with these children, and I shiver when I tell you now; it was so wonderful, so overwhelming to see how these children were living this music, and wanted to do their best, and they did. At the end they were so fantastic. So, that filled the space for 800 people - it wasn't a thousand, but anyway it was a little bit in that direction. And it was the relation between them; now we had 9,000 listeners, and in the other part of the hall were the performers, and there was a bit of space between them.

We will give a performance on the 18th of May 2011 in Prague of the 8th, with the NDR Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic together, and several choruses, and a great cast of singers of course. We are planning it now.

Karajan hardly conducted Mahler. Did you speak with him about that?

Eschenbach: No, I didn't. But he came very late to Mahler, that was the problem. When he began to conduct Mahler it was in the '70s. Then he wanted to do one after another, but there wasn't too much time left. He did 5, 6, 9 - a very, very wonderful 9 - and 4. 4 and 9 were his best.

In his early years Karajan was in Ulm and to do a Mahler Symphony there with eight first violins was impossible. And later on it took time to get into it, I guess. And the strange thing with Karajan is, it came at the same time that he was studying and conducting, I think, everything of the Second Viennese school, and recording it also. So Karajan was certainly open to it.

I regret it, because I think that if Karajan had come earlier to Mahler he would have been a great Mahler conductor. But it was too late.

Conducting Mahler, is this possible to bring his monumentality and his structural modernity together?

Eschenbach: Yes, of course. These symphonies are masterpieces in composition. Sheer hand-craftsmanship. They are monuments of craftsmanship. Everything is clear with Mahler, there is nothing which is questionable, or where you say, oh, this is not so well composed - it's perfect, perfect.

When I asked you earlier about the acceptance of Mahler, I really wondered why it was so hard for the audience of Mahler's own time to accept his music.

Eschenbach: Well, in Mahler's time, he himself said, "My time will come". These were monsters for the audience, this had never been heard. But the 8th was actually the greatest success. The others were kind of semi-successes. He conducted them in Essen, the 6th, in Krefeld, and these are not really musical capitals. And he didn't dare to conduct them in Vienna because he already had so many enemies. That was terrible for him. But then came the people who were really involved in performing his music, like Bruno Walter and like Mengelberg, for example. Mengelberg, Stokovski, and other people who emigrated, like Leinsdorf, conducted Mahler; and then of course Bernstein. The second renaissance came with Bernstein.

What frightened people at the time of Mahler?

Eschenbach: Well, it was just the lengths of the pieces and the complexity of texture, and the complexity of emotions also. As I said before, it's like being on the sofa of Freud and opening your soul, you know, and identifying with it. Today, I think it's very healthy to identify with this music, and to find similarities in certain traits and trends and movements of the soul: it's a cycle.

So if you suffer, listening to Mahler can help you?

Eschenbach: Yes, because it's like a minus and a minus makes a plus. Certainly it could help, because you have the reasons for his own suffering, and then it's a relief.

Would you agree that in his music Mahler anticipated the catastrophes of the 20th century?

Eschenbach: Yes. Oh yes. In a non-outspoken way, but, for example, if you have the last movement of the 6th Symphony, this is a catastrophic movement, and therefore there is a connection to Berg's Orchestral Pieces, which are written just before the outbreak of the First World War. And they are certainly visionary of the catastrophe, and not the catastrophe of a war - there were many wars - but of that very First World War, which was so different from the other wars before, because it was the first modern war in a horrible sense. And I think Mahler, especially with the movements of the 6th, captures that same thing . Because, from the beginning of the 20th century, there was something in the air that was in many, many ways opening minds, opening the whole way of thinking of mankind, and with it the possibility of the destructive catastrophe. The opening of abstract art, of psychoanalysis, of modern theatre, and at the same time, the evil force, which - not always, but often - goes with a creative destructive force. And one would hopefully learn from this, but mankind and learning is a problematic matter to say the least.

After the experiences of the Holocaust, and after all other catastrophes in the 20th century, do we have a different understanding, or a better understanding, or a deeper understanding of Mahler?

Eschenbach: Probably, yes. Because understanding the music of Mahler came with the developments in the 20th century. When he said, "my time will come", he meant that: he meant that we have to go through so many difficulties, which he foresaw, and which he envisioned as a visionary - which he absolutely was. And therefore we see, and hear, and interpret his music differently than before. And also, on the other hand, it is easier for us to understand his music because we have suffered so, so much; we have gone through so much historically. And so it's at the same time easier and even more complex, because there are more complex sides that we see in the music, and we have to wake them and fill them into our interpretations.

When Mahler met Strauss, he asks himself: "Am I made of different material?" How do you see his character?

Eschenbach: He was a very courageous man actually, very courageous in any aspect: courageous fighting against anti-Semitism in Vienna, for example; courageous in going to a new continent, to America, to create there something new; and courageous in seeing himself as a loner in creation. But Strauss was actually conservative, or turned to conservatism when he saw that things were difficult in the reception of his music. So he went from Elektra and Salome to Rosenkavalier. In my view it's a pity. Mahler, in the short time he lived, went so much further. He died in 1911 and touched the whole century, the 21st century as well. Mahler is so modern today. No wonder people like Boulez conduct Mahler all the time.

Zeitgenosse der Zukunft.

Eschenbach: Exactly.

If you could try to explain in a few words: what did Mahler want to tell us?

Eschenbach: I think Mahler wants to tell us to be aware, to receive, and even to enjoy every instant of life. Because his life was so short, he certainly did it, and he expressed it in music. And he wants us to discover that alertness to every instant of life: whether it's people, whether it's nature, whether it's transcendent things, whether it's metaphysics, and also whether it's simply the physical and metaphysical in oneself.

Video interview held in Schwarzenberg, Austria, on June 26, 2009
Transcript: Flora Death, Universal Edition
Copyright © Universal Edition AG -