LIANE HANSEN, host:

Gustav Mahler died 97 years ago today - May 18, 1911. Known as a great composer, he was also one of the finest conductors of his time and one of the greatest opera conductors of all time. He worked himself up from provincial summer opera theaters in Bohemia to become conductor of two of the top opera companies on the planet - the Vienna Court Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

You could also that Mahler was the best opera composer never to have actually written a single opera. Here to discuss what may or may not be a paradox about Mahler almost a century after his death is WEEKEND EDITION's classical music commentator Robert Greenberg. Nice to talk to you again.

ROBERT GREENBERG: Great to be back.

HANSEN: Okay. That paradox: a great opera composer who never composed a single opera. What's up? Why not?

GREENBERG: I think for Mahler his symphonies were his operas, his all-inclusive artworks. Mahler, as you mentioned, was a great conductor of opera, he was also a great composer for the voice. He composed over 50 songs for the voice, many of them, most of them, originally for piano and voice but then he orchestrated many of these. And then, of course, he wrote nine numbered symphonies - began a tenth symphony, and then a wonderful piece for orchestra and voices called "Das Lied von der Erde" - "A Song of the Earth."

You know, if we had him sitting here with us right now and if he would deign to talk to us, because he was a thorny character. He might simply walk out in disgust. But if we said, Gustav, buddy, why didn't you write any operas and do you plan any? He'd said, of course I'm not going to write any operas. I don't need to write any operas. My symphonies are my operas.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

GREENBERG: My symphonies tell these wonderful stories. Many of my symphonies use voices.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

GREENBERG: Many other of my symphonies employ melodies originally composed for my songs.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

GREENBERG: And so whatever emotional or spiritual representation that song melody had originally now is planted into the symphony.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: So my symphonies are my all-inclusive art forms and they have the same dramatic punch as anybody's opera.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Let me ask you about this nine completed and number symphonies, although the song of the earth, that you mentioned, it wasn't numbered as a symphony, I mean, because this thorny character Mahler had, what, a fear of the ninth? What is that?

GREENBERG: Yeah, a healthy fear of the ninth...

HANSEN: Okay.

GREENBERG: ...I would add. Everyone looks at Beethoven's nine symphonies as the canon of modern symphonies and it's true. Beethoven started a tenth and died. Dvorak, nine symphonies, dies. Bruckner, nine symphonies, dies. You know, I come around there and I start thinking there's something bad about trying to go past the number nine. So what Mahler did, he wrote eight numbered symphonies, then he wrote this piece that was called initially Symphony Number Nine, "Das Lied von der Erde" - "Song of the Earth."

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: He decided not to call it The Ninth Symphony and not bring the curse down upon his head. So he called it "Das Lied von der Erde" instead. Then he composed his ninth symphony and he thought he had cheated God. He started his tenth and died.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: So, you know, you just don't tempt certain things and Mahler did.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You brought a song, and I'm not going to try the German, but it's songs of a wayfarer. And this was something, what, he put it into his first symphony. Tell us what Mahler was doing here.

GREENBERG: It is the first song of the Songs of a Wayfarer, which tell the sad story of a young man whose love has been rejected and slowly he goes from denial and an attempt to find joy in his world, to abject depression by the last song. But this is the first song, and he's still trying to find solace in beauty and in nature. The name of the song is "Ging Heut' Morgens Ubers Feld" - "In the Morning I Went Over the Field."

And there's a beautiful pastoral melody that Mahler created for these words, which by the way, were of his own creation as well.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

GREENBERG: When he turned to writing his first symphony a few years later he decided simply to take that melody that had represented this nature scene in the first song and make it the first theme of the first movement of his first symphony.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: In Mahler's own ear the same moods of natural beauty tinged by the bitter pain of rejection existed in the first symphony as well.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Gustav Mahler was a rather young 50 when he died from a bacterial infection. You talked about him starting his tenth symphony. But do you think if he had lived longer he would have composed an opera?

GREENBERG: I don't think so. I don't think he felt the compelling need to write an opera. He made this very famous statement at one point: the symphony is the world, it must contain everything.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: But having said that, it contains opera as well as the symphony for him. So, no, I feel his symphonies really were his all-inclusive artworks.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: What was his dying words?

GREENBERG: His dying word was Mozart, and he becomes one of any number of composers. Chopin's dying words were play Mozart for me. I think they were both glimpsing heaven at that moment. Paradise.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Music historian Robert Greenberg. He's with San Francisco performances in the Teaching Company, which markets recorded lectures in the arts and sciences. And he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Robert, thanks again.

GREENBERG: My great pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENBERG: Gustav Mahler was buried in a suburb of Vienna after his death on May 18, 1911. The ceremony was simple, even austere. You can hear music from Mahler's symphonies and song cycles and explore classical concerts and studio performances, all at our Web site, NPR.org/Music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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