Mahler's popularity today can probably be attributed, ironically enough, to his megalomania and self-importance. He believed that each of his symphonic works should create its own world, and their enormous dynamic and expressive ranges seem to appeal to modern audience members, who enjoy the "larger than life" aspect of his hyper-romantic music. Most of Mahler's music fell into relative obscurity in the years following his death, but interest in it was revived by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950's. Bernstein, hardly short on ego himself, detected in Mahler a kindred spirit. Well acquainted with Mahler's letters as well as his music, Bernstein showed the concert-going public that Mahler, through overwhelming personal energy and commitment to his work, used his music to address universal themes. Mahler's continued presence in the concert hall is ensured by the programming decisions of conductors, most of whom eagerly claim a special affinity for his music.
During his lifetime, Mahler was better known as a conductor than as a composer. His profound understanding of orchestration, rivaled among the great composers only by that of Maurice Ravel, grew out of his broad conducting experience, his creative ear, and his tireless pursuit of clarity in the orchestral sound. Mahler had the conductor's perspective clearly in mind when working on his own compositions, not only because he figured to be the one conducting his own music most of the time, but also because the highly individualized personality that comes across in the music presupposes a strong podium presence. The composer/conductor lived and died (in some cases, almost literally) with the triumphs and tragedies represented in his music, and so modern conductors, when performing his music, have a particular obligation to identify with Mahler as fully as possible.
His earliest compositions were sets of songs for solo voice and orchestra, but he began writing symphonic music while still in his twenties. The Totenfeier, completed in 1888, was his first work for orchestra alone, but it apparently did not receive a performance in Mahler's lifetime. In its original version, the piece is relatively unknown: it lay dormant after Mahler's death until 1983, and the score was not published until 1988. But Mahler had hardly discarded the piece. After getting his Symphony #1 (then called Symphonic Poem) introduced in 1889, he went back to the Totenfeier, revising the orchestration, making some minor adjustments, and re-fashioning the work into the first movement of his breakthrough composition, the Symphony #2 ("Resurrection"). The Symphony #2 demonstrates how rapidly the scope of Mahler's compositions was expanding: to the lengthy Totenfeier were added four more movements, two vocal soloists and a full chorus, and roughly an hour's worth of additional music.
Thus, while we might be tempted to regard the Totenfeier as merely the early draft of the opening movement of a massive choral symphony, Mahler originally intended the piece to stand on its own. Given the expanse and drama of the piece, this is easily believed. A furious tremolo opens the piece, giving way to an angry motive in the cellos and basses that will make its presence felt several times throughout the work. The central conflict in the piece is between two opposing thematic ideas: the first, a heavy death processional, introduced by the oboes and clarinets (after the cellos and basses finally give way); and the second, a serene call to nature, presented by the violins accompanied by the horns.
As the piece is essentially pessimistic, the "nature" music generally gets little chance to sing before the dark feeling returns, in one guise or another. Part of Mahler's genius, however, was his ability to project a "blending" of dissimilar characters. The "death" music contains episodes that sound optimistic or even triumphant, representing either gritty, desperate determination in the face of tragedy or (perhaps more simply) grotesque irony. Similarly, the "nature" music often finds itself wandering through fairly hostile territory, underscoring its inherent vulnerability, but also revealing the composer's personal need – even at this early age – to seek restoration, in times of turmoil, through contact with nature.
Comparing the score of the Totenfeier with that of the corresponding movement in the Symphony #2 shows how much Mahler had learned about indicating exactly what (as a composer) he wanted. In the Totenfeier, comparatively little is provided in the way of interperative suggestions, but the score of the Symphony #2 is amazingly specific in terms of the instructions provided to the conductor, from showing where an expressive slide should connect two melodic notes to asking that the tempo get "gradually but imperceptibly faster." Becoming more aware of (or, at least, optimistic about) the possibility that his music might outlive him, Mahler became very conscientious about getting as many details of interpretation as possible "in writing."
Accounts of Mahler's conducting confirm that his sense of tempo (for instance) was flexible, even when he was conducting music of other composers – and he surely approached the Totenfeier with the assumption that he would be able to achieve the desired nuances himself, as the conductor, through gesture and rehearsal. Accordingly, subtle tempo modifications in the Symphony #2 have no equivalent in the Totenfeier, even where the music is virtually identical. Similarly, we now know that Mahler would often adjust dynamics and articulations during the course of rehearsing a piece, and only later get around to "updating" the score according to the adjustments. The Totenfeier itself has no second version, which means that the finer details of the score – particularly in terms of what is not indicated – cannot be taken as definitive. Mahler had not yet reached the point of obsessively controlling the conductor's every breath, but it can hardly be doubted that he already imagined that his music would be performed with full emotional commitment and artistic imagination. The Totenfeier is not the awkward experiment of a composer yet to assume command of his craft, but instead the earliest indication of genius from a composer who has become one of the giants in the symphonic repertoire.