Narrative form and Mahler’s musical thinking

Samuels, Robert (2011). Narrative form and Mahler’s musical thinking. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 8(2) pp. 237–254.



The close relationship between music and other art forms is a well-established feature of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Interdisciplinary study since the 1970s, of the relationship between literature and music, reflects among other things a recovery of nineteenth-century concerns. This article equates Mahler's development of symphonic form with a development of narrative form within his works, by linking three phases of his symphonic output with his literary interests. The first phase links the early symphonies with the early nineteenth-century author Jean Paul. His novel Titan provides the subtitle of Mahler's First Symphony, and correspondences can be discerned between the character of Albano, the hero of the novel, and Mahler at this stage of his career (1888). The opening of the Finale of the symphony shows narratological similarity to the opening of the final volume of the novel. The second phase links the middle-period instrumental symphonies with Dostoevsky, who became Mahler's greatest literary and moral hero. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies exhibit narrative structures different from those of the earlier symphonies; rather than ending with indivdualistic triumph, after the manner of Jean Paul, they pose the Dostoevskian question of whether some sort of redemption of their material is possible. The third phase links the late works with Mahler's contemporaries Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. In this context, the ending of Mahler's Ninth Symphony can be seen as a adaptation of musical narrativity analogous to the Modernist extension of the lengthy novels of these two authors.

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