Gustav Mahler, just out of curiosity

would anyone like to hazard a guess as to why he only wrote symphonies and not any grand opera? I’m puzzled because I believe he directed operas, he was a devotee of Wagner and his main contribution to serious music was his emphasis on singing and the human voice within the symphonic context. Seems strange he never gave writing an opera a shot. Any guesses?

Maybe he found opera to be too cheery?


Don’t care for Mahler?

Not exactly a “whistle a happy tune” kind of guy, was he?

I don’t care for Mahler but would guess, notwithstanding the fact that he conducted opera, that he didn’t write opera because it’s different than classical symphony. With opera, you are putting a story to music; with symphony, you are “writing” the story

That was his thing. Only in a symphony can you have those monstrous ensembles. You have to keep in mind that his music was orchestra-dominated. In opera, the orchestra comes second.

It’s a good question. :smiley: It’s a shame he’s not here to ask because I bet he would have composed some kick-butt operas - his symphonies are are so awesome and his songs are beautiful. Although, he’s not my favorite composer.

That all said, some composers stay within what they do best. Beethoven only wrote one opera and he wasn’t really good at it, yet he wrote some absolutely beautiful music outside of the operatic realm. Perhaps Mahler felt he was better writing in the symphonic genre than in opera. He spent many years conducting opera, so I doubt he disliked it. You don’t get into conducting opera for that long if you don’t like it. That said, even if Mahler may have not minded opera, he may also have not cared as much for the structure of writing an opera like he did for symphonies. For operas you have to sometimes write music for certain parts which really aren’t that interesting. Take recitatives, for example. Most composers during the time when recits were popular absolutely HATED them, yet they had to write them in. Now, when Mahler was composing, they didn’t have recits, but there are still parts which he probably didn’t care about. Another guess, too, is that operas, especially during his time, were really, really long. Like three hours long or longer. Look at how long-winded Wagner’s operas were. I love opera, but I do not have the patience to sit through a Wagner opera. You get a few minutes of pure, sublime beauty in between hours of music. (Basically, I only enjoy the highlights of Wagner.) Maybe Mahler didn’t want to compose like that.

Anyway, these are all guesses. Who knows why.

Mahler didn’t *just *write symphonies, but he also composed song cycles, among which are “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’)” and "Das Lied Von Der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’).

Not to mention, Symphony No. 2 and No. 8 contain highly structured choral parts which, while not operatic, surpass the emotion of any opera I’ve ever heard.

EDIT: Not to mention, Elliott Carter, who turned 100 last year, didn’t compose his first opera until his 90s…and he’s been composing since, at least, the early 1940s.

Mahler’s music ranged all over the human spectrum of emotions. While his lows aren’t the lowest i’ve ever heard (that honor might belong to Anton Webern) and i must confess i have not yet heard his 6th symphony (the tragic one), his highs are higher than no other music composed by mere mortals. The entire Finale Movement of Symphony Number 5 is the most impeccably sunny piece of music i have ever heard.

As to the OP, that’s a good question! When Mahler did introduce vocal parts into his symphonies he did well with them. Perhaps he felt the music itself should appeal to the emotions and the actual vocal portions were just the icing on the cake. That’s the impression i get.

Mahler’s 8th has long been one of my favorite pieces of music. I think it covers the gamut of human emotions and is a most sublime composition. I also like his 6th for the same reasons.

You can just as easily ask why Mahler didn’t write anything for HMC after his conversion. Surely he could have adapted the Veni Creator Spiritus in the 8th for liturgical use.

Dunno. He remains one of my favorite composers.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit