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Matthew Mugmon

Boston, “Cheers,’’ and Gustav Mahler

By Matthew Mugmon
July 30, 2011

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TO UNDERSTAND just how significant a cultural phenomenon Gustav Mahler’s music has become in the 100 years since the Austrian composer died, look no further than Boston’s own Frasier Crane and Rebecca Howe, the psychiatrist and bar manager beloved by fans of the classic sitcom “Cheers.’’

In a double episode from the show’s final season in 1993, Mahler looms large. Frasier sets the stage, reporting on a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of Mahler’s Third Symphony - the piece is “one of my absolute favorites,’’ he declares. Rebecca grumbles, “Mahler’s Third takes over an hour and a half by itself. The Adagio alone is endless.’’

Hilarity ensues, much of it at Mahler’s expense. Rebecca feigns passion for Mahler in order to attract Mr. Gaines, a wealthy Mahler fanatic who hires German baritones to furnish evenings of Mahlerian entertainment. The show even features excerpts from Mahler’s tragic Songs on the Death of Children, which are duly interrupted by the outbursts of a bored and inebriated Rebecca.

That Mahler could serve as the unifying thread in a story line of one of the most popular prime-time programs in history makes abundantly clear his status as a modern cultural giant. Mahler’s searing melodies, staggering climaxes, and haunting lulls, along with his theatrical flair for humor and tragedy, captivate new admirers every year. And it’s fitting that the proof of Mahler’s latter-day relevance arrived courtesy of “Cheers,’’ a Boston institution.

That’s because the current wave of excitement about Mahler owes a big debt to this city. The 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death on May 18, 1911, has triggered concerts and other commemorative events worldwide. Locally, the BSO features two of his symphonies, the First and the Fifth, at Tanglewood this weekend. Last week, the Cambridge-based Mercury Orchestra performed Mahler’s Sixth, and last month, the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra brought Mahler’s Ninth on a tour across Eastern Europe.

But the roots of Boston’s relationship to Mahler’s posthumous success extend far back in time - well before this year’s concerts, and even before Sam Malone started flipping bottles at a Beacon Street bar.

Conductor and Massachusetts native Leonard Bernstein was Mahler’s most visible champion in the 20th century, introducing Mahler to millions. Bernstein’s interest in Mahler was deeply linked to Boston. We know Bernstein heard the BSO perform Mahler here before his own career took off; in a 1942 letter housed in the Library of Congress, Bernstein - then working out of a studio apartment on Huntington Avenue - told his mentor Aaron Copland that he had just heard some of Mahler’s music at Symphony Hall.

The next day, in a review of that concert that appeared in this newspaper, critic Cyrus Durgin proclaimed that Mahler “had much to say, and he has been misunderstood. We can do with a lot more of his music.’’

Whether or not Bernstein read that review, he got the message. He became especially well known for his arresting performances of Mahler’s Second, the “Resurrection’’ Symphony. Early in his career, in 1948, Bernstein conducted it with the BSO in the group’s first performances of the work in 30 years. The concerts were so compelling that Bernstein repeated the piece with the BSO the next year.

Another Bernstein mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, helped bring Mahler’s music from Boston into the national spotlight even before Bernstein arrived on the scene. Koussevitzky directed the BSO from 1924 to 1949 and programmed Mahler often, leading the American premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony 80 years ago at Symphony Hall.

A number of Boston musicians over the last 100 years or so have nurtured a tradition of performing Mahler’s music in this city. In 1906, Wilhelm Gericke - one of the BSO’s first conductors - led Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a concert whose preparations and results Mahler himself followed closely from Europe. Karl Muck, Richard Burgin, Charles Munch, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, Benjamin Zander, and others followed in Gericke’s footsteps to grant Mahler a prominent place in the city’s symphonic repertory.

And although New York was Mahler’s American home base toward the end of his life, he nearly wound up in Boston - a musical prelude to the 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees. In 1908, Mahler seems to have been offered the job of BSO conductor. But any negotiations to bring him here didn’t pan out. If they had, it might have been representatives from the BSO, rather than the New York Philharmonic, who laid a wreath on Mahler’s grave in Vienna earlier this year.

Despite that missed opportunity to sign Mahler to Boston’s team, today’s Frasier Cranes and Mr. Gaineses can take heart. While the Yankees and Red Sox contend for the first spot in the AL East, Boston holds a clear advantage in the battle for one piece of the Mahler pie: two episodes of “Cheers’’ centered on Mahler, but his name was never even mentioned on “Seinfeld.’’

Matthew Mugmon is studying for his PhD in music history at Harvard University.