Listening to Mahler: More than Just Music

Monday, August 22, 2016.

When listening to a composition by Gustav Mahler, try to think about time and place.

As in, the precise time and place Mahler aimed to convey in the music, recommends Donato Cabrera, music director for the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

“(Mahler) was trying create an entire environment, whether it’s going back to his childhood in Bohemia or dealing with the knowledge of his own mortality,” Cabrera says. “His music is an entire universe. It’s a philosophy, it’s geography, it’s smelling the blossoms in the air. Through his music, he’s really trying to touch all the senses.”

Portraying human experiences through melody embodies the unique style of Mahler, one of the world’s most performed composers today.

The Austrian composer, who lived in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, applied unique methods to his music. These included infusing his compositions with the melodies of street musicians and sounds depicting everyday noises, all with the aim of painting the clear picture of a scene from life.

“It had really never been explored to this degree by other composers, and it’s for this very reason that his music wasn’t popular in Vienna during his lifetime,” Cabrera says.

Cabrera points to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 as a prime example of the composer’s style. The symphony, written as an exploration of the world through a child’s eyes, includes sounds borrowed from Mahler’s own rural childhood, such as sleigh bells that were commonly strung on horses.

The symphony’s second movement goes a step further, with a solo violin recreating a common fairy tale of the time, in which a sinister pied piper lures children out of a village.

“It’s a direct reference to what was a very real concern for children,” Cabrera says, noting the many dangers for children in an era when outdoor lighting at night was uncommon. “This was the typical (message): ‘Don’t talk to strangers. Bad things will happen if you follow a stranger out of the village.’”

Another strong theme can be observed in many of Mahler’s compositions: death. This includes his “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”), comprised of songs based on poems about the grieving process. Some even link elements of his symphonies to deaths and illness experienced in his own family.

This merely reflects the era Mahler lived in, Cabrera says, when the average lifespan was short and most families expected to lose multiple children to illness.

“It’s sort of like the Blues,” Cabrera says. “It’s only through accepting (hardship) and looking it straight in the face that one finds solace and beauty in it.”

Mahler’s music has had tremendous influence, Cabrera adds, with composers throughout the 20th century emulating his musical style and focus. Mahler’s style can still be seen in European music composed today.

The prevalence of his music stems back to the relatability of his compositions, Cabrera says, which held greater appeal to audiences as society opened up to understanding human emotion and experience at the turn of the century.

“Why it’s become so popular and why it captures the hearts of so many people is really that it’s a great reflection of the 20th century and who we are as modern individuals,” Cabrera says. “That’s why his music became so ubiquitous.”

The Las Vegas Philharmonic will perform works by Mahler at The Smith Center on September 10. For information and to purchase tickets, visit






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