bookmark_borderOn Mahler, Google, and Romanticism

I’m listening to Mahler on Spotify. Randomly selected his 5th Symphony because it came up first.

I’m using it as background music while I’m working, but I started to wonder why I’ve never been a Mahler fan. I stop to pay more attention. It’s the middle of a movement and I probably should have started my attentiveness at the beginning, but I don’t hear classic melodies and development, not that I expected Beethoven, given Mahler’s late Romantic time frame. I hear motifs and fragments being varied and built on, like stream of consciousness writing or a particular style of jazz improvisation where the improvisor is focused on fragments and development. It’s coherent, with a string of logic, but I can’t make sense overall of it. As if someone is talking on and on in English but on a topic I have no experience with.

So I think it would help if I looked at some musical analysis that would point out key elements and how they are being used.

But instead of motifs, developmental techniques, structure, Google’s results seem as if no one understands music theory:

  • “a musical representation of the Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati”?
  • “contains every type of emotion”?
  • “This is country music, by turns ebullient, nostalgic, and a mite parodistic”?

What is this supposed to tell me?

These are like program notes for an orchestra concert. Utterly useless for my purpose.

Or maybe that’s the point; that’s what Google thinks I want for when I search “mahler symphony 5 musical analysis”. It reinterprets my search using searches from everyone else in the world.


Unfortunately, my searches are often not the same as the rest of the world. Nor do I find it useful when Google tries to “help” me.

I’m often searching for information relevant to characters in my stories. Characters in my stories often have extreme lives or are in extreme circumstances. It’s very nice that Google wants to provide help lines and counselling and self-help sites when I search “type of depression” or “extended grief characteristics” but it refuses to give me what I’m searching for, which is information or details, and not pages and pages of help. Sometimes, five pages down I find a site that is sort of useful and there I discover a word or term to force Google to be more useful, and in one of those sites I find another term to force Google closer and maybe I start to find what I’m looking for, fifteen minutes and a dozen dead ends into my search.

Duckduckgo is often better by not trying to be so ‘helpful’ and not reinterpreting my search for me, but it has the problem that enclosing words in quotation marks does not force the search results to always include that word. Quotation marks are taken as “suggestions” and make the word occur “more frequently” in the results.


Fortunately for my Mahler experience I found a two hand reduction of the symphony so I was able to do my own analysis. The first movement makes more sense to me now, yet I’m still left in with the question ‘why’. It still feels like stream of consciousness wanderings in a way that I don’t feel when I listen to Wagner or Strauss, or to works from later composers like Debussy or Schoenberg.

It’s not all so challenging. The fifth movement opens with Copland-esque (yes, I know Copland is decades later) spaces and fragments and then fugatto and I’m good, I can understand ‘why’s in this movement.

Maybe this is like when I only had a superficial appreciation for Mozart until Salieri explained him to me. Or, maybe Mahler is the epitome of late Romanticism and in my depths I’m just not a romantic, the way that I have so much difficulty reading romance genre. Mahler and Danielle Steele?