Gustav Mahler as an Interpreter

A Study of his Textural Alterations and Performance Practice
in the Symphonic Repertoire

What are "Mahler's Retuschen"?

A performance of music conducted by Gustav Mahler often incorporated his textural revisions, including changes to the instrumentation. Mahler called these revisions Retuschen, and this German word has been retained here because of the lack of an equally elegant equivalent in English. It is a word adapted from the French retouche and is roughly translatable as "retouchings."

Summary of the Thesis

David Pickett's doctoral thesis is a study of Gustav Mahler's interpretative style as a conductor of the symphonic repertoire which focuses particularly on his instrumental Retuschen. Mahler's performance practice as a conductor is related to his own concert career, the interpretations of his close predecessors, contemporaries and successors, studies of his concert repertoire, his conducting technique and rehearsal methods.

A catalogue is included of sixty sources from public and private collections in Europe and America comprising scores and orchestral parts of works by Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Smetana and Wagner. Description, analysis and comparison of these sources is supplemented by contemporary accounts of Mahler's conducting. Both primary and secondary sources are employed to establish the relative importance of the scores and orchestral parts and to assign dates when they were used by Mahler.

The individual discussion of the works is accompanied by analyses of Mahler's treatment of each of the instruments of the orchestra, including the extensively used E-flat clarinet. Mahler's response to acoustics, his changes of dynamic nuances, tempi, attitude to repeats, and cuts are all considered in detail. His performance practice and instrumental Retuschen in Hamburg, Vienna and New York are also compared.

Copies can be found at

    University of Surrey Library, Guildford, England
    The British Library, London
    Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Musiksammlung, Wien
    Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, Wien
    Musiksammlung der Wienbibliothek
    Médiathèque Gustav Mahler, Paris
    Cook Music Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
    Music Library, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas

Sources Identified since 1989

Dr. Pickett has located additional sources used by Mahler since the presentation of his thesis in 1989, including scores and parts of works of Mahler's contemporaries, Pfitzner, Enescu, etc. These have increased our knowledge of Mahler's performance practice as a conductor and made more secure the editing of scores and parts for publication. These additional scources are described and discussed in a chapter in Peter Revers und Oliver Korte: Gustav Mahler — Interpretationen seiner Werke, Laaber Verlag, 2011 (“Ich muß aus dem Gefühl der Selbsterhaltung heraus und der Achtung vor mir selbst Konzerte dirigieren” — Über Mahlers schöpferische Aktivitäten im Konzertsaal: Repertoire und Quellen (“Out of instincts of self-preservation and self-respect I must conduct concerts” — about Mahlers Creative Activities in the Concert Hall: Repertoire and Sources).

Citations of the Thesis

The thesis has also been cited extensively in further works of research dealing with Mahler's conducting career. Most notable among these are:

    Henry-Louis de La Grange, Gustav Mahler (Vol.4): A New Life Cut Short
      Appendix 1Ca. Works Revised by Mahler: Symphonic Works
      Oxford University Press, 2008.

Prof. La Grange’s four volume work is recognized as the standard biography of Mahler. It includes detailed discussions and analyses of Mahler's compositions and conducting career.

    Bernd Schabbing, Gustav Mahler als Konzert- und Operndirigent in Hamburg
      Verlag Ernst Kuhn, Berlin, 2002.

Recordings of Mahler's Retuschen

Several recordings have been made of works incorporating Mahler's Retuschen. The following were supervised by David Pickett:

Symphony No.9 in C
Overture, zur Weihe des Hauses
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Peter Tiboris

Elysium GRK712
Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Peter Tiboris


Elysium GRK702
Symphony No.3
Overture, Leonore No. 2
Overture, Coriolan
Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, cond. Peter Tiboris

Elysium GRK710
Symphonies Nos. 40 & 41
Overture, Leonore No. 3
Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, cond. Peter Tiboris

Mahler's Retuschen in Beethoven's Works

Mahler's performances of the compositions of Beethoven provide many good examples of his Retuschen. Mahler himself wrote that in revising the instrumentation of Beethoven he was not seeking "to make arbitrary changes to a work of art, but to enhance its performance in a way corresponding as much as possible with the intentions of its creator". An analogy with the practice of the restoration of paintings is relevant; and as with that process it is possible to go too far, as is claimed by some about the most recent work done on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos. But Gustav Mahler was no musical hack. As an accomplished composer in his own right he knew exactly what he was doing; and, consequently, his attempt to bring clarity into the works of his musical predecessors is of great interest.

Mahler wrote: "...Beethoven's symphonies present a problem that is simply insoluble for the ordinary conductor... Unquestionably, they need re-interpretation and re-working. The very constitution and size of the orchestra necessitates it: in Beethoven's time, the whole orchestra was not as large as the string section alone today. If, consequently, the other instruments are not brought into a balanced relationship with the strings, the effect is bound to be wrong..." (Recollections of Gustav Mahler by Natalie Bauer-Lechner, ed. Peter Franklin, Faber Music, London, 1980, p.140)

An Example from Beethoven's Overture, Zur Weihe des Hauses, op.124

Bars 41 to 53 of Beethoven's overture Zur Weihe des Hauses contains a passage in which it is notoriously difficult to balance the instrumental voices, and of which Mahler's contemporary, the musician Donald Francis Tovey, wrote:

"...there is no doubt that the overture was calculated for performance with at least double wind... With this trumpet theme, however, the 'hurrying footsteps' certainly need four bassoons to make them audible, unless the trumpets and drums are weakened below Beethoven's manifest intention." D. F. Tovey: Essays in Musical Analysis, Oxford University Press, London, 1935, vol.2, p.159

Mahler agreed with Tovey in employing double wind for his performances of the overture, using in these bars four bassoons. But this was not enough to make the 'hurrying footsteps' audible, so Mahler reinforced the bassoons with the cellos, for the first six bars playing pizzicato, a sound which blends well with the bassoons' tone, leaving the bassoons prominent. This secures the balance sought by Mahler and Tovey, and (as they not unreasonably believed) also by Beethoven, without changing the timbre materially. The effect can be heard in the recording here by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Tiboris (from TROY089) and seen in the score below (which omits the accompanying string and woodwind chords).

Beethoven: Weihe des Hauses Ouv., b.41-48
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