Mahler the Giant

… [A symphony] so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.   — Mahler

Ambitious goal, that. To Mahler, the artistic aim to create a “universal symphony”  translated into expanding both the size and scope of the ensemble and the form. Where the average symphony up until then typically had first movements lasting roughly 10-15 minutes in duration, Mahler upped the ante to over 20 minutes in Sym.2 and over 30 in Sym.3; where the usual, humdrum orchestra had 4-6 horns, for instance, Mahler brought in a cavalry of 10 parts for Sym.2. In order to express the universal, it seems, everything needed to be larger.

RT calls this expansion of symphonic means and ambitions “maximalism,” a term that implies an uncompromising dedication to the extremes. It’s a fascinating fin de siecle paradigm that shows up in areas outside of music as well (one recalls a particular super-sized ocean liner..).

You have to wonder how much of this “maximalization” of the symphony had to do with expanding the expressive range of the orchestra to encapsulate the whole world (nay, the universe), and how much of it had to do the same sort of hubris that lay behind the construction of the aforementioned ocean liner. I’m an ardent admirer of Mahler, but there’s a lot of arrogance mixed in with the audacity here (first, to think that the “universal” is musically possible; second, to think that he would be the one who could do it). There’s an odd conflation of universality and philosophical serious-mindedness with massive orchestral forces, volume, and duration. Could not a Mozartean symphony also be “universal,” or are claims of universality proportionately related to size, making the “small” simultaneously the “non-universal”?

As a companion term to RT’s “maximalism,” I might suggest “gigantism” as another designation of the ballooning of orchestral forces, time scales, and philosophical ambitions during this period. The OED defines the word as “abnormal or monstrous size,” and in the context of the book so far (and music after the first decade or two of the 20th century), Mahlerian scale does indeed represent something abnormal. Both maximalism and gigantism work in tandem here: ambitions were extreme, but the equation of expressive range (“the whole world in a symphony”) with size expresses a “bigger is better” mentality as well.


  1. Granted, there are very few composers that do Big Moments as well, and as Big, as Mahler. But let me suggest a few additional perspectives regarding Mahler’s use of the orchestra which should not be overlooked:

    Consider that Mahler was an esteemed, experienced professional conductor, considered by many – then and now – as a pivotal figure in the evolution of the art and craft of conducting. He was intimately acquainted with the coloristic and practical possibilities of the instruments of the expanding, post-Wagner orchestra. Yet even with his outstanding tonal imagination, Mahler insisted on repeated hearings and adjustments of the instrumentation of his works before (and sometimes after) he would let a score be engraved & published.

    Also, Mahler’s use of multiple woodwind and brass, including the highest and lowest members of the families (e.g. E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, etc.) allows him to score passages of complex polyphonic and harmonic texture in similar timbres or, more often, in complicated mixed timbres.

    But most importantly, I think, is the restraint with which Mahler uses his vast forces. Long passages of even the most “maximal” symphonies (listen, for example, to Part 2 of the eighth symphony) are scored with the utmost delicacy and attentiveness to tone color. I believe this is something that is often overlooked in the usual appraisal of Mahler and his compositional aesthetic.

    I don’t have Taruskin at hand. What’s his take on this? (More importantly, what’s yours?)

    1. Thank you, Reed, for your much-needed additions to my drastically incomplete post. I agree with you entirely: Mahler (et al) may have employed symphonic forces and time-scales hitherto unknown, but that certainly isn’t to imply that it was entirely for the purpose of bombast. There is exceptional subtlety to Mahler’s scoring and, although RT doesn’t go into much detail on this count, I can name a few of my favorite moments: the introduction to the 7th, with its dark, moody baritone-horn solo; the witty, klezmer-inflected third movement of the “Titan”; the magical, shimmering first movement of the 3rd; and the ravishing adagio to the 9th.

      RT’s discussion of maximalism is a prelude to the turn-of-the-century decadence exemplified by Strauss’s operas (among others). Maximalism here is virtually synonymous with gigantism: for instance, Taruskin talks about the limits inherent in the very process of growth (once they’re reached, then what? p.22), and how this sort of amplification of orchestral forces, duration, and motivic saturation was ultimately a competitive process (p.31).

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