This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest, yet most controversial of composers, that being Gustav Mahler. So it’s no surprise that the BBC Proms season opens this evening with his Eighth Symphony, a work requiring immense orchestral and choral forces, and which was first given in 1910, with the composer himself conducting.
Mahler’s journey reflects the way Europe was in the 19th Century, but also how it was changing, despite ingrained prejudice and an established social order. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic, to a relatively poor Jewish family, but later converted, for practical reasons, to Catholicism (a Jew would not have had a chance of securing the directorship at Vienna’s Hopopfer).
Much of the press at the time of Mahler’s years in Vienna, and underlying public opinion, was variously anti-Semitic, yet as a conductor, he enjoyed great success, despite the resistance to his often autocratic methods. As a composer, though, acceptance was slow, and in his lifetime he was not well regarded.
The Eighth Symphony was an exception: the first performance, in Munich, was a triumph. But less than a year later, he would be dead. His music was only rescued from a period of obscurity by the advent of the long playing record, and the advocacy of those who had studied with him, like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.
So this year we will hear much of Mahler’s work. The BBC are carrying the opening Proms concert live this evening, when once again we can hear the Albert Hall organ sound the first chord of an opening movement setting of Veni Creator Sprirtus.
Extraordinary music from an extraordinary composer.