Hammered: Pounding Out The Excess In Mahler's Sixth Symphony

Marin Alsop
NPR Music

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By Marin Alsop

I've written about Gustav Mahler and his monumental symphonic achievements before, but right now I'm not sure there has ever been a more fitting symphony for our time than Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

Today, as we have become immune to shock, where nothing seems too extreme and where hyperbole rules, Mahler and his Sixth Symphony seem to fit right in.

Mahler was a man of excess, spectacle, illusion and indulgence. Most likely a narcissist, he was also devastatingly brilliant, a shameless self promoter and a man of enormous contradictions who fed off conflict and constructed delusions of grandeur.

By the 1890s, Mahler was a veritable rock star – a celebrated conductor accompanied by throngs of adoring fans wherever he went. But even this constant attention could not satiate his need for acceptance as a composer.

For most audiences in his day, Mahler's symphonies were bewildering and virtually unintelligible. While he was personally devastated by the public and critical dismissals of his work, he maintained a messianic conviction that posterity would recognize and embrace his greatness. A conviction that history has indeed borne out.

For many, Mahler was a savior, for others a tyrant. Without a doubt, he was an extraordinarily complex man.

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