Mahler the Innovator

Aware of my life-long fascination with classical music, Laurance kindly passed along this intriguing Wall Street Journal article, entitled “How Mahler Rewrote the Score for American Concerts.”

Surprisingly, the article is not about the significant musical contributions Gustav Mahler made to the classical repertoire. Instead, it focuses on the dramatic, oft-overlooked changes he brought to the ways in which large symphonic orchestras went about their business:

Mahler split the Carnegie season into four subscription blocs, each with a thematic base, something no conductor had tried before. As well as a Regular Series, he put in a Beethoven cycle “for the education of lovers of classical music, for the education of my orchestra and for students.” Sunday concerts were for “workers and students” who could not afford full-price tickets, and a Historical Series set out to demonstrate the evolution of music from Bach to the present, a kind of pre-media documentary.

Other conductors planned seasons to attract audiences and applause. Mahler redefined the core purpose of concerts, substituting enlightenment for mere entertainment and reaching out to socially diverse audiences. Education and integration were wired into the concert prospectus.

Early on, he told his board that this breakthrough was too important to be confined to Manhattan, and too expensive. He could save rehearsal time by taking big concerts on tour.

Particularly interesting is the article’s claim that Mahler, much like Leonard Bernstein years later, was motivated by a desire to elevate the levels of musical knowledge and appreciation everywhere, especially in demographics traditionally less familiar with classical music’s sizable charms – a desire which may well have led to his death.

Mahler’s objective was not just to save rehearsal costs. His aim was to raise musical standards across the nation. In Boston, home of America’s first orchestra, the composer Arthur Foote wrote that Mahler’s “passion for perfection” now stood as “a constant object lesson” to the rest of the nation.

In a musical environment that seems to question the future of classical music on a nearly daily basis, I can’t help but wonder what innovations Mahler would be proposing if he were alive today. I’d love to see how he would deal with the question of classical music’s decline; clearly, it would not be a new question to him.


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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