… [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.