It was Gustav Mahler who famously said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything,” all of which makes him the perfect subject for a really deep musical dive. In a time of shrinking soundbites and attenuated attention spans, it’s refreshing to come across Embrace Everything – The World of Gustav Mahler, a new multi-season podcast that aims to examine each of the composer’s symphonies in a chronological journey through his life and times.
Gustav Mahler in 1909
The series is the brainchild of radio producer (and former oboist) Aaron Cohen, currently Director of On-Air Operations at New York Public Radio. “Mahler’s music is especially rich in extra-musical meanings, so there’s a lot going on that the general listening public might not be aware of,” explains Cohen, who has previously created award-winning radio features for, among others, WQXR, the Metropolitan Opera and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “It requires a good deal of musical detective work to track down all the details and present them as part of the programs. Additionally, Mahler is the composer that speaks to me more than any other. It’s very much a personal project, a labour of love.”
In four parts, Season One examines Mahler’s 1888 First Symphony. With an engaging blend of musical examples, informed narrative – Cohen makes for a genial host – and expert interviews from some of the biggest names in the business, it makes for addictive listening. Each 20-minute episode is devoted to one of the four movements of a symphony that owes its inspirations to the street songs, folk tunes, and martial bugle calls of Mahler’s childhood in semi-rural Bohemia. It was recently released gratis across a raft of major streaming platforms – appropriately enough on Mahler’s birthday, July 7 – and the plan is to complete and post a season a year over the next decade.
As a young man, Cohen got to know the works gradually, starting with the purely orchestral ones and working up to the symphonies that include voice. Then, in his thirties, he became absolutely obsessed. “All of sudden it became very important to go to performances of his symphonies because I was going to get a powerful musical lift unlike anything else,” he explains. “It’s like a musical jet engine, catapulting me so far above myself and the normal experiences of daily life. It had something to do with being at exactly the right stage in life. I was open to the full experience Mahler reaches for in his music. And now my forties have been occupied with this project.”
Aaron Cohen (right) interviews Kent Nagano
Cohen likens experiencing Mahler’s music to the Finnish habit of steaming yourself in a sauna and immediately afterwards plunging yourself into the Baltic Sea. The sense of euphoria produced by such intense sensory contrasts is, in his words “wildly invigorating” and finds its musical parallel in Mahler’s music. “By taking us to the extremes as only he can, by visiting so many aspects of human experience side by side, the listener comes away euphoric. I know I certainly do,” he writes in his introduction to Embrace Everything.
As a radio producer, Cohen is no stranger to the deep dive. He’d worked previously on major programs to accompany a Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle and to celebrate Richard Strauss turning 150, but his Mahler podcasts are the first time he’s really asked himself what he personally would like to do. “I didn’t actually know how I was going to examine the subject at first. I had some instincts of who to interview, but the overall format has taken shape during the drafting process,” he admits.
One thing he was certain about, however, was that a look at Mahler the man would be as important as an examination of the music. “For me, the music and the man are one and the same,” he says. “Mahler had a very special gift for taking the experiences of his daily life and transforming them into music. And when you understand that, you immediately understand these symphonies are autobiographical works. They are towering works of art, and you certainly don’t need to know the details of Mahler’s life to enjoy them, but undoubtedly the two are linked, and it was definitely important to discuss both within the series.”
The Bohemian countryside that inspired Mahler’s First Symphony
With expert commentary, a group of actors to read comments made by Mahler and his contemporaries and, of course, all that enthralling and frequently lengthy music, boiling things down into 20-minute episodes has involved a lot of trial and error. Cohen started interviewing way back in 2015 and had a first draft of Season One by May 2018. Feedback led to further tweaking across 2019 before coming up with a finished product by early 2020. “Once the interviews are concluded, I go through the tape and see what’s going to work,” he says. “The challenging aspect is making the commentary fit with Mahler’s music. My narration comes last, after I’ve got all the interviews edited and the actor’s dialogue – Mahler’s words – recorded.”
Inevitably there have been agonising decisions about what goes in and what doesn’t, with an entire fifth episode to Season One ending up on the metaphorical cutting room floor. “It was about the literary influences on the First Symphony, the books Mahler was reading and how those might’ve influenced the musical choices he made,” Cohen explains. “But what I learned during those listening sessions was that it’s too big a diversion from the musical journey of the symphony. One person said, ‘It’s very interesting, but it sounds like a whole different show.’ It just didn’t fit. Hopefully, down the line, I can put it out as some kind of bonus episode.”
Figuring out who he wanted as expert commentators was a project in itself, but it’s fair to say that the roll call involved in Cohen’s end product is pretty impressive – a mix of distinguished maestros, performing musicians, scholars, and the voice of Mahler himself in there as well. “I’d heard Michael Tilson Thomas and Kent Nagano speak about Mahler previously, and I knew I wanted to talk to them,” says Cohen, who also liked the idea of speaking to orchestral musicians. “I approached a few orchestras and said, ‘Do you have any musicians who adore Mahler?’ or, ‘Can I speak with members of your brass section about Mahler?’ Someone at Columbia University recommended Marilyn McCoy as a great Mahler expert, so I went to hear her give a lecture, and immediately knew she’d be wonderful in the program.”
Mahler around the time of the First Symphony
It was during the interviews, when they were supposedly talking about the music, that it proved impossible not to talk about the man, too. Much of the biographical information in the programs cropped up organically to be set alongside investigations into the ways Mahler drew, not just from the world of music, but from literature and painting, from nature, and from life itself.
Cohen is fairly encyclopaedic on Mahler and his music, but even he was surprised by some of the insights his interviewees offered up. In fact, a lot of what he learned from others helped inspire the structural elements he would put in place within the episodes. “All of the guests told me things I didn’t know,” he admits. “Marilyn McCoy spoke about how Mahler will create a little musical idea, something you don’t think is that significant when you first hear it, but then it comes back a few times, changing a bit each time, and finally it explodes at the end of the movement. This was a revelation for me, and I ended up structuring the first episode around this idea.”
“I had no idea of the history of the Ländler, the dance form Mahler used for the second movement of the First Symphony,” he continues. “Phil Bohlman and Christian Glanz told me so much interesting history about it that I decided to add a five-minute discussion of the Ländler at the opening of the second episode.”
The hut in Steinbach am Attersee where Mahler composed every summer from 1893
Like the rest of us, Cohen found himself in lock down as the Season One launch date approached. Originally intended to come out during the Amsterdam Mahler Festival in May 2020, he had to do some rapid rethinking. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d launch the Mahler series during a global pandemic,” he says. “Once the festival got cancelled, I wasn’t sure whether to still release it or delay another year. It’s amazing the number of people who told me, without any hesitation, ‘Oh, you must put it out now. You must!’ And I realised that during this time of such tragedy and difficulty, a series about getting lost in a great work of art, a series about pure musical joy, was something many people would welcome.”
At any given moment in time, assuming his music is your cup of tea, most of us have our “favourite” Mahler symphony. So, what is Cohen’s current pick of the bunch? “I adore them all, but I tend to have one or two that I’m meditating on for extended periods,” he explains. “Obviously, the last few years I’ve been consumed with the First Symphony. Before that I was spending a lot of time with the later symphonies. The Seventh Symphony has a special place in my heart, probably because it was one of the first symphonies I fell in love with as a teenager (and one of the first I heard live). And the Eighth Symphony went from being one of my least favourites early on, to being one of my very favourites now.”
As we speak, Cohen is immersed in the Second – the mighty Resurrection Symphony – editing the audio in preparation for Season Two. “You’ll recognise many of the same voices you heard in Season One, plus some new ones, including orchestral musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra,” he says. “And the Second Symphony changes people’s lives. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. People hear this symphony, and it gives them a type of peak experience, a kind of musical ecstasy. So, I’m very excited for Season Two.”
More information is available here, with Season Two to be released in 2021