Mahler and Program Music

by sstavis

Our textbook mentions the complicated process that Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 went through to reach the place it is today. It was once published with an extra movement and with various titles prefacing each movement. Mahler believed this would lead to an “accessibility” of the symphony that had not previously existed. Using descriptive titles such as “From the Days of Youth” and “Funeral March after the Manner of Callot”, Mahler strove to involve as many people in the arts as possible. Though this original work did not have an extremely successful debut, Mahler continued to improve upon it. After adding, removing, and re-working various sections of the piece, Mahler’s work was finally complete and ready to be published with an accompanying program. The program was concerned with “the disillusion and distress of disappointed love, with the hero pulling himself together in the finale”. The textbook mentions that Mahler ultimately withdrew this program.Upon looking further into this I found one of Mahler’s quotations: “There exists no modern music which hasn’t its inner program. But no music is worth anything when the listener must be instructed as to what is to be experienced in it.” This resonated with me. Even though we’ve grown up without program music and without any clearly laid out explanations of music, I did not even flinch the first time I was handed a program during this class. Some may see the idea of program music as outdated and irrelevant, but think about a website like There are pages upon pages of user comments interpreting various songs. Once again I find myself returning to the changing value of music in conjunction with the widespread use of the Internet. When people can create and properly voice their own “programs” for music, the act of pre-creating a program seems unnecessary. There’s definitely merit in not being instructed to listen for something exact in some music, but I also see a side to music that is enhanced by discussion and guided listening. For example, although Mahler may have withdrawn his program, the symphony is still presented with some form of program in many productions today. Is it truly possible that music be listened to without any instruction? Does all music have an inner program?