The very first note of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony signals that you’re in for something on a whole new scale. It’s a single note, an A, in the strings, quiet and sustained, evoking the humid tang of sulfur in the air and the pregnant hush before rain. But that single note extends over seven octaves — that is, it’s being played from the lowest to the highest ranges in the orchestra. It’s at once tiny and huge and intensely personal. This is why Mahler, who died 100 years ago this week, remains one of today’s most popular symphonists: It’s this personal quality to his music, the sense that, at bottom, it’s really about you.

Classical music newcomers are wary of Mahler. His symphonies are very, very long. The shortest of them, the Fourth and the First, clock in at about 55 minutes (exact times vary from conductor to conductor); some movements last half an hour.

But long is relative. Most people think nothing of sitting through a two-hour movie. And Mahler’s symphonies are long in the way that movies are long, in the way that books are long, in the way that Charles Dickens and James Joyce are long — and poised aesthetically between these two, Victorian on the one hand, experimental modernism on the other.

Forget the idea that symphonic music is high art. Mahler crams his pieces full of folk tunes and dances and marches and birdcalls. There are moments of Hallmark-saccharine sentiment (the soprano solo at the end of the Fourth Symphony can evoke a Hummel figurine), and there are moments when you feel like the top of your head is lifting off (as when Ivan Fischer brought the chorus to its feet amid the trumpets of Judgment Day at the end of the Second Symphony with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2008).

Mahler told Sigmund Freud, during their single consultation, of a childhood memory of his parents fighting while a hurdy-gurdy played outside; this anecdote is invoked to explain his jarring musical juxtapositions of the sublime and the banal.

And there are special effects, including cowbells, sleigh bells, offstage trumpets and a giant mallet that delivers three crashing blows of fate at the end of the Sixth Symphony (the “Tragic”). You don’t have to know much about symphonic conventions to appreciate all this stuff.

The symphonies — 9, or 10, or 11 of them, depending on how you count — are a kind of soundtrack to the 20th century. Listening to them in order, as I did last week, is a reminder of how our understanding of them has changed with the times. In the early 20th century, they were seldom-played exercises in modernity. Willem Mengelberg was a friend of Mahler’s who kept his performance tradition alive at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw; in his lyrically restrained reading of the Fourth, from 1939, the emotion, rather than being wildly underlined, is allowed simply to speak for itself.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the symphonies were embraced precisely for their in-your-face emotional excess and general trippiness. Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the quintessential Mahler conductor, helped put him back on the map, wallowing in the music’s throbbing angst and producing some searing performances in the process. Bernstein’s over-the-top gesticulations on the podium were not unlike the ones Mahler was caricatured for when he headed the Vienna Court Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic (not, of course, at the same time).

Music of our time

Mahler was at least as much of a rock star as Bernstein in his day; like Bernstein, he was charismatic, controversial and criticized for work that some found lightweight or outre, but that was often popular with the general public. Musicians either loved or hated him for his uncompromising standards and long rehearsals. His music got written in the summers, around the demands of his international career.

Today, you find the symphonies everywhere: on every orchestra season, at every Grammy Awards (five different Mahler albums have won since 2000). Beethoven is our link with the past; Mahler is our connection to the present. His music is multi-tasking, rife with extra-musical meaning, often ironic and filled with ambiguity and contradiction: all very well-suited to our time.

The works are so huge that performing them is always a big event — the kind of thing orchestras today hope will draw in audiences — but it’s their personal, even private aspects that keep people coming back. Their drama is not confined to the stage: The scores are often annotated with words or quotes in the margins. “Have mercy!” appears over one passage in the unfinished Tenth Symphony, followed by “Almschi!” — a pet name for his wife, Alma, who he had recently learned had had an affair.

Listening to all the symphonies is nowhere near classical music’s hardest feat of endurance. If you don’t like the music, wait a minute: It will change soon and radically — as the First Symphony does when, after drawing out the suspense over that held A, it suddenly veers into a jolly little tune. Mahler is quoting his own song “Ging heut’ Morgen ueber’s Feld,” about a stroll on a spring morning with chatty little birds chiming in like a scene from Disney’s “Song of the South.”

As for the banal: The work’s third movement is a funeral march inspired by a contemporary print called “The Huntsman’s Funeral,” showing forest animals carrying a bier, manifesting affected grief at the death of their persecutor. To illustrate this in music, Mahler chose a minor-key arrangement of the children’s song we know as “Frere Jacques.” Audiences didn’t quite know how to take this.

A listening journey

In Mahler’s lifetime, his most popular symphonies were his biggest. The Third Symphony, the longest work in the standard repertory (upwards of an hour and a half) sets out to offer a musical illustration of the entire world. The Eighth Symphony, whose epithet is “Symphony of a Thousand” but usually employs a mere two or three hundred musicians, starts out as a hymn and ends as a cantata setting of excerpts from the end of Goethe’s “Faust,” becoming at times not unlike a Christmas pageant.

Today, though, the popularity votes would go to the powerful “Resurrection.” Or the Fifth, with its aching Adagietto that was conceived as a love song to the beautiful and strong-willed Alma, who married and loved several other important men — painter Oskar Kokoschka, architect Walter Gropius, author Franz Werfel — before and after her husband’s death. Or the Ninth, brooding and expansive, steeped in an elegiac sense of relinquishment.

“Das Lied von der Erde” holds a special place in the canon. Mahler, superstitious about writing a Ninth Symphony since both Beethoven and Bruckner had died during or after their Ninths, tried to cheat by writing a symphonic work and calling it something else. He then wrote a Ninth Symphony — and died, at age 50. The Tenth was found in draft form after his death, but only two of the five movements were fully written out for the orchestra; when it’s performed now, it’s as a conjectural reconstruction. Hence the ambiguity about the number of symphonies: Are there 9 or 10, and does “Das Lied” count?

For my listening journey, I picked an array of recordings past and present: Manfred Honeck’s genuine Austrian earthiness in the scherzo of the First; George Szell, in the 1960s, relishing the sinister military march-steps that open the Sixth; Claudio Abbado, in the Third, focused the Berlin Philharmonic on a translucent quality beyond their traditional power.

But no Mahler recording is a greater soundtrack to history than Bruno Walter’s 1938 Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Walter worked under Mahler in Hamburg and in Vienna. He gave the world premiere of the Ninth after Mahler’s death. In 1938, Austria was weeks away from the country’s annexation to Nazi Germany, and Walter was on the verge of emigrating to America.

At this moment of historical watershed, when a whole culture was about to collapse, there’s a special poignancy to the wistful, bitter sighs of the individual instruments at the end of the first movement, ultimately rising and almost evaporating into a single note. Mahler ends as he begins, with a small, sustained sound: This one, in this performance, is a last look back at a past that is about to vanish forever into darkness.


May 15 (concert): The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler’s epic Second Symphony (“Resurrection”). Christopher Zimmerman conducts. Hylton Performing Arts Center, 3 p.m. (Also May 14 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, 8 p.m.)

May 15 (concert): The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler’s First Symphony (“Titan”), along with the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. Kim Allen Kluge conducts. Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, 3 p.m. (Also May 14 at 8 p.m.)

May 27, 28 (concert): The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program includes a performance of “What the Wild Flowers Tell Me,” Benjamin Britten’s scaled-down arrangement of the second movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, May 27 at 8 p.m.; Strathmore, May 28 at 8 p.m.

June 23, 30 (TV broadcasts): “Keeping Score,” the award-winning television series about classical composers spearheaded by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, turns its sights on Mahler with two documentaries — “Origins” and “Legacy” — and two programs of concert footage, including a performance of the First Symphony. On WETA; check local listings for exact times. A Web site, with musical illustrations and short videos, is up and running at

Ongoing (Internet broadcasts): is hosting a complete Mahler cycle by Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, made with his previous ensemble, the Orchestre de Paris, as webcasts and movies. Access to live broadcasts on the site is free; subscriptions are needed to see the archived video, starting at about $11.40 a month for unlimited access.