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Gustav Mahler famously declared that a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.

True to his principles, the entire musical world is contained within his nine complete symphonies the colourful harmonies, vast orchestration, even the expansive length. But to consider only these qualities of the works ignores their complete meaning; the symphonies are about the world and they speak to the world. History is transcended in their themes and conflicts. They are of equal relevance to the listener of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Musically, one struggles to pinpoint Mahlers style. As Leonard Bernstein points out, Mahler straddled the fin-de-sicle divide between two centuries. What we find here is both a summary of the German tradition Bachs counterpoint, Beethovens heroism, Wagners lyricism and an introduction to the techniques and sounds of a new era. Although classical music is sometimes considered self-contained, immune to its surroundings, Europe looms large on Mahlers symphonies. The Industrial Revolution had fostered capitalism, urbanization and greater wealth. Simultaneously, tensions were simmering; three years after Mahlers death, unprecedented destruction shattered the idealism of modern life. Understandably, some (including Mahler) were uneasy about the course of society. The First Symphony follows a relatively traditional four-movement structure. The work opens with a pastoral scene that evokes the youthful beauty of spring. A woodwind melody descends in fourths through a veil of strings while the lower winds pipe a distant hunting-call. All is peaceful. Throughout the movement, the brass rumble, attempting to interrupt the serenity, but they are repelled each time, finally morphing into a majestic fanfare. The dignified atmosphere is maintained in the second movement with a Lndler, a traditional Austrian waltz. The phrases and melodies are precise and delicately balanced, perhaps a nod to Mozart. Things go awry in the third movement. The initial cello melody is the well-known round Frre Jacques but cast in the minor mode. It is haunting and disturbing; not conducive to putting poor Jack to sleep. We then hear a Jewish klezmer band with its idiosyncratic mlange of oboes, clarinets, trumpets and percussion. The interlude sounds exotic but the surface appearance is only half the story. In 1897, Mahler, a Jew, converted to Catholicism in order to secure the coveted directors post of the Vienna Court Opera. The tension between assimilation and individuality is therefore foreshadowed in the two themes of the movement. At one point, the worlds are superimposed on one another but disintegrate, leaving behind only the fourths that opened the symphony. They are not refreshingly rural now. Empty and hollow, they reflect the crumbling dreams of a Jew in Europe. Bad turns to worse as the entire orchestra, without warning, smashes open the final movement. Paradise is lost. The storm subsides quickly, though, as a coaxing violin breaks through the brass. Listen carefully and you might even catch the hint of a Chopin Nocturne. Episodes of musical violence threaten to ruin the finale but, like the first movement, heroism is the order of the day and a glorious climax confirms the triumph of good over evil, idealism over reality.

One of the tragedies of technological innovation is the demand for immediacy; everything is wanted now. Do you ever press fast-forward, in order to skip the boring bits and reach the spectacular conclusion of a symphony? A familiar situation, yet this defies the point of classical music music which demands your attention from start to finish. Unlike the First Symphony, which begins optimistically, the anxieties of Vienna seep to the surface from the outset of the Ninth. Slightly awkward melodies stutter forth, unsure of their direction or purpose and are lured into dark harmonies. War is coming. There is no respite in the second movement, another Lndler, which opens in a sprightly manner but is slowly disfigured by grotesque harmonies and shrieking violins. The third movement is titled Rondo-burleske. The second half of the title suggests something humorous, but nobody is laughing. Rather, the joke is dark and ironic; Mahler partners seventeenth-century counterpoint with the dissonant sounds of 1910. The music is nostalgic, yearning for bygone eras, yet infected by the cold, harsh realities of life. And then, a miracle occurs. There is no devastating end to the symphony, just a poignant farewell from composer to listener. Having traversed the ugliness of life, Mahler reaches the final stage death. It is not, however, imbued with resignation and regret like Tchaikovskys Sixth Symphony; rather, it is an introspective meditation on the inevitable. Furthermore, acceptance leads to a quiet affirmation of life itself. It is the silver lining to emerge from the dark clouds. I would say more, but you must hear it for yourself. No fast-forward buttons, please. A century after the composers death, it is appropriate to consider his legacy. From a musical perspective, some of Mahlers compositional techniques the flaunting of harmonic conventions, wandering tonality (ending a piece in a different key to which it began), structural unity achieved through motivic development appear in various guises throughout twentieth-century music. It is futile to argue if it werent for Mahler, however, he certainly provided direction for his musical successors. But what of Mahler in 2010? Who is he to the modern listener? Circa 1900, his music was often regarded disparagingly as extravagantly excessive and unnecessarily dissonant. What audiences failed to see in the music was their own reflection; these criticisms can be applied easily to capitalist society. And therein lies the genius of Mahler his music both plumbs the depths of humanity and ascends to its glorious heights. To listen and engage is to experience life. As Leonard Bernstein notes, only after the lowest points of human civilization (war, holocaust, depression) did audiences and critics properly appreciate and understand the symphonies. The irony is that Mahler foretold it all; my time will come, he prophesised. One hundred years on and the conflicts between urban and rural, modern and tradition, life and death remain with us. Such is their timelessness, they always will.