Mahler and Strauss, Strauss and Mahler: the twin peaks of late, post-Wagnerian musical romanticism. That, at least, is how many people would see (and hear) them, and with justification. Of all the leading composers who emerged in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, none holds the attention to this day as consistently as these two. You might encounter an occasional performance of a work by Zemlinsky or Pfitzner, say, or an early Schoenberg piece; but the great Mahler symphonies and song cycles continue to attract audiences worldwide, as do the tone poems of Strauss and such operatic masterpieces as Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Everyone knows the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth and the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, if only from their prominent use in the films Death in Venice and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In addition to producing powerful and durable compositions, Strauss and Mahler were also among the leading conductors of their time, on the concert platform and in the opera house. The men were close contemporaries and friends, each admired (and occasionally conducted) the work of the other, and both were passionate Wagnerians. Mahler, after a series of