The Open Collections website will be undergoing maintenance on Wednesday December 7th from 9pm to 11pm PST. The site may be temporarily unavailable during this time.

UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Gustav Mahler and his relationship to the problem of nineteenth century program music Smith, Deborah Lynn


The preoccupation, by romantic composers, with literature and philosophy, and their belief in the merging of the arts, led to the development of the program symphony and the tone poem in the nineteenth century. Gustav Mahler, whose major compositions span the years 1880-1911, could not avoid being affected by the ensuing controversy over the aesthetic value of program music. Mahler's views on many musical matters, including program music, exist in the form of letters, concert notes, and memoranda. They provide a clear and accurate picture of his thoughts and attitudes. A selection of these documents has been included in this study in order to demonstrate a number of significant aspects in his approach to musical composition. It is shown that he did not waver in his acceptance of the validity of extra-musical inspiration, whether subjective (as in emotions and feelings) or objective (as in the sounds of nature), or in his belief that all symphonies, beginning with and including those by Beethoven, contained an inner program. The use of a written program, however, was a source of uncertainty for him. He constantly questioned its ability to convey adequately the meaning of a work; whether its existence, as an aid to audiences unfamiliar with the music, was justified. Mahler did not wish to be known as a composer of program-music; he hoped that audiences would judge his music on its intrinsic merits. In his first three symphonies, Mahler approached the problem of the written program in different ways. The. genesis of each work is traced in this study in the light both of Mahler's documented comments on its meaning and of its various programs. Furthermore, this data is collaborated with the evidence of contemporary reviews of performances at which a program or partial program was provided. The Third Symphony, which demonstrates the most intimate connection between a program and the actual music, is studied in more detail, and the relationship of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche with this symphony is examined. This comparison reveals subtle yet fascinating parallels between the Third Symphony and Nietzsche's Die frbhliche Wissenschaft, which Mahler at one stage used as a title for his symphony. The underlying philosophy of the two works is similar. Mahler's concern with the matter of programs reached a high point from 1895 to 1896, when he was writing the Third Symphony, and several of his important letters on the subject date from these years. He continued to modify the programs for the early symphonies throughout the 1890s: his last written program, for the Second Symphony, dating from 1901. At the turn of the century, when embarking on a new style of composition, Mahler presumably regarded the old programs as outdated and no longer necessary. He would have had no hesitations in removing programs which he had been persuaded to write in order to comply with current trends. Hence, all traces of written programs were subsequently discarded and no new ones were devised for the later symphonies. In spite of this, evidence shows that no accurate appraisal of nineteenth-century program music can ignore the contribution of Gustav Mahler.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use