The act of performance as Mahlerian topic

Samuels, Robert (2011). The act of performance as Mahlerian topic. In: Bernhart, Walter and Halliwell, Michael eds. Word and Music Studies: essays on performativity and on surveying the field. Words and Music Studies (12). Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 35–52.



Although Mahler never wrote an opera, his experience as an opera director informs his use of performance as a ‘topic’ of his musical discourse. Mahler’s use of theatrical effects is the first method of foregrounding performance as an act. Examples are found in the First Symphony (the introduction) and the Second Symphony (the use of offstage instruments). The physicality of performance is deliberately exposed by Mahler’s choices in instrumentation and the demands he makes of the players. The use of the ‘hammer’ in the percussion section of the Finale of the Sixth Symphony shows physicality exploited in a violent gesture. Performance can also be represented by the music. Examples are found in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. In the song cycle In diesem Wetter, Mahler represents the human voice through his use of the singer’s voice. This leads to the subject of the incorporation of song within Mahler’s symphonies, which ranges from the incorporation of voices to the quotation of Mahler’s own or other songs, to more elusive and general reference to song. In conclusion, performance as a topic demonstrates an emergent category of meaning within Mahler’s symphonies in the moment that they are themselves performed.

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