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  • Mahler on DVD:An Overview of Art Films, Documentaries, and Concert Videos
  • James L. Zychowicz

Several recent releases on DVD concerning Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) call attention to the ways this medium has in disseminating his music not only to the current audiences, but also to future audiences who will benefit from the perspectives found in recent documentaries and various recorded performances. In fact, such an effect is not unique to DVDs, but forms a continuum with the ways in which recorded sound is a longstanding part of Mahler’s legacy. The composer’s strong presence in early twenty-first century culture relies in many ways on the film and broadcasting culture of the twentieth century, the renaissance of interest in Mahler occurred at the centenary of his birth.

While the renewed enthusiasm for Mahler in the mid-twentieth century benefits from the composer’s champions at the podium, interpreters like Leonard Bernstein brought the music to audiences beyond those in attendance through telecasts that took Mahler’s name to viewers who might not attend live concerts. Bernstein was not alone in this regard, since other conductors were also known for their broadcasts. For example, the televised performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf include Mahler’s First Symphony in a concert from 1963, which is preserved on DVD.1 Several years later the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony received national attention when Bernstein conducted it at the funeral of the assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy on 8 June 1968.2

Events like these brought Mahler’s music to various audiences in their homes, without involving the cost of concert tickets to hear these works. Beyond such televised images, film became a vehicle for presenting the composer’s life and works through motion pictures, documentaries, and concert DVDs. If postmodern culture is familiar with Mahler, it is important to discern the ways in which film popularized the music by making the composer’s works accessible outside the concert hall. While Mahler reception has been documented in various ways,3 the focus is often on the critical literature. Yet it is important to emphasize the [End Page 507] ways in which film has served in Mahler’s legacy as the medium for conveying some images of the composer to a large international audience and also documenting performances for future generations. These efforts also gave Mahler’s work a sense of currency, as his art remains part of the music culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and endures on DVD.

Biography and Biopics

While references to Mahler occur in various art films of the twentieth century,4 two works deal directly with the composer: Ken Russell’s 1974 retelling of Mahler’s life in the eponymously titled motion picture Mahler; and Lucchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1971).5 While the latter putatively serves as a film of the famous story, the director brought Mahler into the main part of the story through the transformation of Gustav Aschenbach from an author to a composer whose fictional life resembles in some ways that of Gustav Mahler. Beyond the use of the same given name Gustav, the connection between Aschenbach and Mahler is not unique to Visconti, but part of Mann’s intention to memorialize the composer in the description of Aschenbach’s face.6 In his film Visconti made Aschenbach a composer, who resembles Mahler. Visconti also supported the association with music, by using Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony throughout the film. The prominence of the latter made Mahler’s music popular in film audiences, who might not have encountered the piece in motion pictures or even link it to Mann’s novella. In a film which reached an international audience, the use of both Mahler as a surrogate for Mann’s protagonist, with the music underscoring this characterization, Visconti gave prominence to the composer whose legacy was then being rediscovered, and made Mahler’s name known to audiences beyond concertgoers. Many who might not have heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in concert or through recordings heard the Adagietto in the sound track. Even so, Visconti’s insinuations about the...


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