Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Although separated by more than a century and a half of music history, the now-iconic figures of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) share important musical connections as well as historical-biographical commonalities. Bach’s influence on Mahler is intensive and extensive, as revealed in the later composer-conductor’s music and related activities. In a larger sense, they share a unique experience involving their times, common destiny and influence on the future.

Their biographies and activities show important parallels. Both were born and raised in rural, Germanspeaking lands with a growing national consciousness and psyche. Initially they were considerably selftaught with key mentors and gravitated toward larger communities. Eventually each found his musical calling in key musical cities primarily as keyboard virtuosi, music directors, and cultural participants, not as composers whose musical skills, genius and visions would transcend their surroundings. They commanded and performed an enormous amount of music and mined the treasure of contemporary interests in musical forms and structures, especially the dance. After their deaths, a half century past before the significance of their music was fully recognized. Today, that significance is assured and honored.

Ironically, Bach and Mahler are now seen as key pivotal figures – participants -- in their changing worlds. Bach brought to culmination and summation the so-called “Baroque Era” (1600-1750), then known as the “common-practice period,” and died in 1750 exactly on the cusp of the beginning of the Modern Era of liberation, learning, industrialization, science, technology and urbanization. In essence Bach’s passing marked the end of the dominant spiritual world he celebrated and the emergence of the rational world.

This is figuratively known as the shift from “Bach’s Cycle to Mozart’s Arrow,” from the sphere of traditional connections and reaffirmations to the sphere of presumed progress and seeming perfection. Mahler stood at the end of the Classical-Romantic period and with his music created a new world reflecting the 20th Century’s struggle with the currents of the apocalyptic, irrational, and existential. The concept of “Bach’s Circle and Mozart’s Arrow” is the title of “An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity,” by Karol Berger, an exhaustive (420-page) study (University of California Press, 2007) of the pan-musical currents generated by Bach, nurtured to maturity by Mozart and the First Viennese School and transformed by Mahler and the Second Viennese School.

Beyond their unparalleled musical talents and creativity, Bach and Mahler shared profound spiritual, philosophical, and metaphysical interests while driven by biographical and historical influences. Both grew up and raised families surrounded by the death of siblings and children. Both struggled with the meaning of existence, the expression of their gifts, and conflicts with the masters they served. Both had an intense interest in matters spiritual, from Bach’s Lutheran orthodoxy to Mahler’s absorption in elements of Catholicism, particularly Resurrection, Pentecost, and Purgatory. Both faced charges of uncompromising and obsessive personalities, showing certain excesses in their music bordering on what might be described as a mannerist’s attitude. Meanwhile, both enjoyed home life, intense music making, creative and intellectual collaborations, good spirits, nature, and the love of talented wives.

The key to the Bach-Mahler connection was Mahler’s possession of the entire 46 volumes of the Bach collected works, published by the Bach Gesellschaft (BG) between 1850 and 1900, half of which involves the vocal music of the sacred cantatas, Passions, sacred songs, and motets, as well as the instrumental music of the Orchestral Suites and violin and clavier concerti. His name is found in the BG subscribers’ list from Hamburg as Music Director (1891-97). “Mahler’s admiration for Bach was certainly wide and deep, and, as Mahler grew older, came to mean more and more to him, and, also (I believe), to have a progressive influence on his own music,” says Donald Mitchell in <Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years> (London: Faber & Faber, 1975: 346).

This Bach affect on Mahler “was surely influenced by his possession of the Bach” collection, says Mitchell. This is supported by the recollections of Mahler’s long-time companion, Natalie Bauer-Lechner (also listed in the BG, Vienna), from 1890 to 1901 and his wife Alma, 1901-1911. Both recall the collection as the only music in his composing summer-houses in the Austrian Alps as Mahler studied Bach’s music and played it on the piano. Later he obtained performing scores with numerous rehearsal markings as conductor of the Vienna and New York Philharmonic Orchestras.

Other historical facts bearing on Bach’s influence and Mahler’s receptivity and expression exist in broad outlines and anecdotes. They begin, as with many composers, in Mahler’s early study of the <Well- Tempered Clavier>. Next is Mahler’s first major tenure as assistant conductor to Arthur Nikish at the Leipzig opera house, 1886-1888, in the Saxon city of Bach’s last tenure as sacred cantor and city music director (1723-50). With the opera house closed during Lent, Mahler availed himself of the opportunity to learn the Passion music of Bach first hand. The Thomaskantor, Wilhelm Rust, who had produced 26 volumes of the “old” Bach edition (BG) between 1855 and 1881, inaugurated the tradition of continuously performing Bach cantatas, Passions, and motets beginning in 1880. In 1893 Gustav Schreck succeeded Rust.

These were Mahler’s early formative years when he discovered the world of Armin and Brentano’s folk collections of “The Youth’s Magic Horn” to be set to song, forged his First (“Titan”) Symphony and struggled with <Das Klagende Lied> (The Song of Lament), an archaic cantata form containing his first “Mahler-ish” music he preserved and in its original version having been rejected by both Brahms and Liszt, champions primarily of Bach’s keyboard music.

Polyphony and Death, Palindrome

The Bachian elements of polyphony and death came to dominate Mahler’s music from 1900 to his own death on May 18, 1911. Counterpoint, experienced in all four movements of the Symphony No. 4, comes to the fore in the Rondo-Finale of his Symphony No. 5, with its chorale theme set against a quadruple fugue. Intricate and complex fugues are found in Part 1 of the Eighth Symphony, especially in the development march leading to the restatement of the opening theme, and in the Rondo-Burelesque of the Ninth Symphony. Like Bach in his last decade, Mahler turned his musical genius to increasingly elaborate, contrapuntal structures while both encountered growing criticism, including tendencies toward mannerism. At the same time, the theme of destiny and death infused Mahler as it had Bach.

A structural element particular and pervasive to both Mahler and Bach is the so-called “palindrome,” mirror or pyramid form. As mentioned above, Mahler in his double scherzos in the second and third symphonies had expanded the tri-partite ABA song or trio-form to the five-fold structure of ABABA. In the Symphony No. 7 the “Nachtmusik I” is Maher’s longest scherzo, 15-18 minutes, in 11 parts with three contrasting tempo areas, A five times, B four times, and C twice: ABABCACBABA. Further, the entire symphony is a palindrome: extended allegro-rondo first and fifth movements and intimate pairs of Night music flanking the central scherzo. Mahler perfects this form in his Tenth Symphony with 24-minute opening and closing slow movements, two 12-minute scherzi, and the central, four-minute allegro moderato with momentary middle trio. In 1910, Mahler had completed his particell four-stave draft of this work and had begun the final orchestration and counterpoint, ceasing at almost midway point at the beginning of the central “Purgatorio” allegro moderato.

Bach’s interest in palindrome form began with his first extant, reperformed vocal work, the pure Chorale Cantata BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ Lies in Death’s Dark Bondage) for Easter Sunday, 1708, in Muehlhausen. It is prominent as a structural device in his three cycles of sacred cantatas for the church year in Leipzig, 1723-26: opening chorus and closing tutti chorale with alternating arias and recitatives, often with a central aria or recitative that the musical sermon turns on, from the challenge to the solution. The sermon form itself is a rhetorical palindrome: exordium (introduction), proposito (dictum or key statement), central tractatio (development or investigation of the propsito), the applicatio (application), and conclusio.

Bach actually uses a series of palindrome symmetrical structures, built around the musically thematic (parodied) turbae or crowd choruses in his highly-dramatic 1724 St. John Passion. Here, scenes of Jesus’ confrontations with antagonists in the garden, at his trials, and on the road to and actual crucifixion are structured in what Bach scholars call “chiastic” or “cross-like” forms. There is a central chorale or “Herzstücke” (heart-piece) such as a commentary aria or character arioso, surrounding the narrative of the Evangelist, the main characters, and the crowd that is interspersed with commentary arias.

The significance of the palindrome involves the structural device of symmetry, one of the three key elements in rhetoric, as developed by the Greeks, that also includes repetition and contrast that are significant, and intentional, especially as highly developed in the music of Bach and Mahler.

Lasting Influences

While examining Mahler’s obsession with death and the significance of the three blows of fate, Reik found that there was another important chorale hymn for Mahler, the Latin Veni, Creator Spiritus, Part 1 of the Eighth Symphony. Reik, one of Sigmund Freud’s earliest and most brilliant pupils and a life-long Mahler enthusiast, found connections involving the link of the Latin Pentecost hymn of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (spirit, wisdom, knowledge, counsel, strength, insight, and fear of the Lord; Isaiah 11:2) to the remainder of the Eighth Symphony.

The 9th Century Latin Hymn of Hrabanus Maurus (text and melody) for Pentecost (Vespers) was adapted by Martin Luther in 1524 in seven verses as “Komm Gott Schöpfer Heiliger Geist” (Come God Creator Holy Spirit) and set three times by Bach as a harmonized four-part vocal chorale, BWV 370; as a “Great Leipzig” Organ Chorale, BWV 667; and as an organ chorale prelude in the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), BWV 631.

A most remarkable example of a Bach influence is Mahler’s use of a children’s choir in the fourth verse of the Pentecost hymn, <Accende lumen sensibus> in the <Veni Creator Spiritus> of the Eighth Symphony, entering in the midst of the adult double chorus. It is reminiscent of the entrance of the boy’s choir singing the chorale “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (O Lamb of God Unspotless) at measure 34 of the opening double chorus, “Komm ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen” (Come ye Daughters, Help Me Lament)

Mahler’s Bach Performances, Arrangements

Mahler did present the closing chorus, “Wir sitzen uns,” in Hamburg in 1896, the same year that he made an Easter gift of the scores of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, as well as the Christmas Oratorio, to Bruno Walter, his young rehearsal pianist and vocal coach at the Hamburg Opera. Says Walter, “the possession of which gives me great joy” (quoted in Mitchell 378f). Conductor Walter, who led the first performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and other Mahler “disciples,” conductors Willem Mengelberg and Otto Klemperer, would continue the tradition of presenting Mahler’s works and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion into the second half of the 20th Century. Their recordings of Bach’s monumental Passion are still available.

Walter directed the abridged version of the Matthew Passion, annually on Good Fridays as Bavarian Music Director in Munich (1913-22) and in an uncut performance with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s. (See “Notes on (performing) Bach’s St. Matthew Passion,” in Walter’s Of music and Music Making (New York: Norton, 1961, 170-190).

Bach cantatas Mahler probably performed include Nos. 48, “Ich elender Mensch,” and 78, “Jesu, der du meine Selle,” as well as Cantatas 19 and 65, all in Peters music publishers performing editions scores. The motet, “Jesu meine Freude” may have been performed and the eight-voice Motet No. 1, “Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied,” is documented on a program with the first performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in Vienna with the Philharmonic on 7 December 1905. Part of Mahler’s concert repertory in Vienna and New York were the Bach Clavier Concerto No.1 in D Minor and the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major

Mahler’s direct involvement with Bach is documented in his arrangement of the Orchestral Suites (with progressive harmony and concertante keyboard) that he directed from the harpsichord with the New York Philharmonic c.1910. Mahler received a $500 fee from the G. Schirmer publishers. It is listed as “Suite for string orchestra, harpsichord & organ - re-orchestration and re-arrangement into four movements of six original movements from the Orchestral Suites of J.S. Bach, using:

  • Ouverture from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067.
  • Rondeau & Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067
  • Air on a G string from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
  • Gavottes Nos. 1 & 2 from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Instrumentation: 1200/0300/timp/pf/str; Duration: 18 min; [G Schirmer Inc]