Mahle won his first composition award in 1961. He considered pedagogical activities to be his professional priority until 1968, the year that “represented a turning point in his career since, to his surprise, he began to view himself as a composer, his works having reached a level that he considered valuable.” Mahle received other important composition awards, including those of the Composition Competition for String Orchestra (1976) with the work Suite Nordestina, the Composition Competition for Choir Arrangements (1982) with the Carimbó, and the Concurso Funarte (1983) with his Divertimento Hexagonal, among others.
Mahle’s output consists of more than 250 compositions, for many instruments and in a large number of genres, including solo and chamber pieces, concertos and symphonies, small vocal works, cantatas, masses, three operas, and three ballets. He made use of his experience teaching instruments in his compositions. If he knew students frequently struggled with certain areas on an instrument he would compose the pieces accordingly. He was known to experiment by playing the pieces on the instruments himself while he composed.
Mahle’s output has gained critical recognition and has been performed and recorded in Brazil and in other countries. A member of the Brazilian Academy of Music, since 1983 he has been the Vice President of the Brazilian Society of Contemporary Music. He occupies an important position in Brazil as composer, conductor, and pedagogue and is considered to be “more Brazilian than many other Brazilians.” The Brazilian pianist and professor Paulo Affonso de Moura Ferreira pointed out:
Mahle’s music through several decades of uninterrupted production has kept as a musical language two primary characteristics rare in music: his works offer pleasure for interpreters due to the fact that they are adequate for the instruments or voices used. Another characteristic is that the public also enjoys his works, because his music has a human and true content, exempted of the artificiality or concerns with ‘modernity at all costs.’
The composer Osvaldo Lacerda emphasized the nationalistic character of Ernst Mahle:
Besides the intense activity that Mahle carries on, as a conductor and director of one of the best musical institutions in Brazil, he is also an inspired and prolific composer. His solid technique makes possible a perfect command of all the elements of the musical composition: rhythm, melody, harmony, structure and timbre. What mostly impresses me in his works is the nationalistic character of them that revels in the love that Mahle has for his adopted country.
Mahle feels grateful to be labeled as a Brazilian nationalistic composer. He believes that it is due to his assimilation of Brazilian folk melodies, and due to the fact that he reached his musical maturity in Brazil. According to Tokeshi, “it would be erroneous to overlook European influences in his idiom however, as he did spend his first twenty years in Germany and Austria.
Moreover, as with many Brazilian-born composers, Mahle had as a mentor the foreign H. Koellreutter, who was responsible for introducing in Brazil the modern European composition idioms.”
Ernst Mahle named Béla Bartók (1881-1945) as “the most influential composer in his style and described his own music as folk melodies and modal, characteristics that at first give his works an allusion of Bartókian or even Kodálian flavor.” Mahle became familiar with Bartók’s music “while still in Europe during the post-war period, when it began to be more well-known, and recalls listening to the German premiere of the Second Violin Concerto performed by Tibor Varga. In Brazil, Mahle made use of what he called Bartók’s ‘seasoning’ the elaborate use of modes and folk material, such as is found in works such as Mikrokosmos and For Children.” Mahle used these works as models, believing that they were important for their “utilization of folk music, gathered pedagogical intentions to preserve the national identity, coupled with a more modern language.”
Tokeshi offers a summary of the European influences and the beginning of nationalism in Brazilin the context of Ernst Mahle:
In the twentieth century, the musical panorama in Brazil encountered two contradictory schools, one representing tradition through the predominance of an already established nationalism, and the other offering innovation through the search for new expressive resources with the employment of modern European techniques. Mahle arrived soon after the occurrence of several major incidents within this controversy, and these events, together with Brazil’s musical tendencies thereafter, have affected his aesthetic inclinations and the development of his idiom, as he had incursion into twelve-tone music and later turned to a nationalistic style.
In fact, the “two contradictory schools” described by Tokeshi were the Música Viva group, founded by Koellreutter in 1939, and the group led by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993). As mentioned before, Koellreutter was responsible for introducing the twelve-tone system and atonality in Brazil. On the other hand, Guarnieri developed the modernism and folk music of Villa-Lobos. The Musica Viva group attracted several young composers as members since its foundation including: Aldo Parisot, Cláudio Santoro, Guerra Peixe, Eunice Katunda, and others. Against this avant-garde movement, Guarnieri published his Carta aberta aos Músicos e Críticos do Brasil (Open Letter to the Musicians and Critics of Brazil) in 1950, which stated:
Our country possesses a musical folklore that is one of the world’s richest… Dodecaphonism seeks to achieve the destruction of the particularly national characteristics of our music by disseminating among our youth the ‘theory’ of laboratory music.
Koellreutter responded publicly to Guarnieri’s Open Letter:
Dodecaphonism is not a style, nor an aesthetic tendency, but the employment of a compositional technique created for the structuring of atonalism… Therefore the concept that Dodecaphonism “attributes predominant value to form or deprives music of its essential elements of communication; that it wrenches the emotional content from it,” is erroneous… Ardent nationalism…condemns only by the aggravation of passions that produce disruptive forces and separate humanity.
The constant conflicts between the two groups in form of letters and public manifestations contributed to the dissolution of the Música Viva group. Its members abandoned twelve-tone techniques and returned to a nationalist style. “The nationalist composers also suffered consequences while this controversy lasted, viewing themselves as restricted from expanding their compositional style to other aesthetics of contemporary music, since it might suggest to others a deviation from nationalism.”
Mahle had no public participation in these groups, since he arrived in Brazil after this controversial period of Brazilian music history. However, as a student of Koellreutter, he supported his teacher and his avant-garde techniques, which is reflected in his compositions.
According to Mahle, Koellreutter utilized a nonorthodox dodecaphonism and taught the twelve-tone technique, allowing a certain amount of flexibility in its usage. In fact, Mahle demonstrates the same tendency in works such as Peças Modais for four-hands (1955) where he does not follow the order of the twelve-tone row and becomes more expressive. While Koellreuter’s student, Mahle experimented with composing electronic music. He acquired equipment and constructed a studio in the School of Music, although he soon lost interest, considering this idiom “to be less important, especially in a country like Brazil that lacked the infrastructure for such technology at the time.”
Contact with Brazilian folk melodies and their explicit or stylized use in arrangements and compositions during the first years of the School of Music led Mahle to distance himself gradually from the avant-garde style and assume a national one. “Among works based on Brazilian folkloric materials are Carimbó (1982), from the state of Pará; Jangada de Iemanjá (1996) for eight double basses; and Suite Nordestina (1976) and Sinfonia Nordestina (1990), the latter two based on melodies collected and gathered by Mario de Andrade in Danças de Feitiçaria and Danças Dramáticas respectively.” The “purist” approach used in the titles of Mahle’s works from the beginning of his career is not present in these last works, whose titles present “descriptive qualities often indicating a folk music inspiration or musical regionalism.” In his operas and vocal works, Mahle always keeps the titles of the texts, which are from important nationalist Brazilian poets such as Mario de Andrade, Cecília Meireles, Manuel Bandeira, Vinícius de Moraes, and Jaime Ovalle, among others. Mahle often transcribes vocal works to instrumental music, preserving the title and musical ideas. This can be seen with the following compositions: 8 Ponteios para piano: Ponteio (1972), Dança em Volta do Fogo (1980), Berimbau, Trem de Ferro, Os Sapos, Couro de Boi, and As Máscaras (1998). Mahle transcribed these works for piano, due to the extreme difficulty of the original version for choir, and consequently few performances.
Mahle is currently considered by many to be one of the most important composers in Brazil. His activities as a pedagogue, conductor, and Music Director of the Escola de Música de Piracicaba required hours of hard work and a great amount of financial support. In fact, since 1955, when he and Cidinha married and he moved to Piracicaba, he and his family have been financially supporting the school. The Escola de Música de Piracicaba is a private non-profit institution. All funds that the school earns are used for the maintenance of ensembles, and for scholarships for poor students of the community.
In 1998, Mahle and Cidinha, with the continuation of the institution in mind, decided to incorporate the school into the Instituto Educacional Piracicabano (IEP), the institute that owns the Colégio Piracicabano (one of the oldest private schools of São Paulo State) and Universidade Metodista de Piracicaba (the fourth largest private university in Brazil). With the incorporation, the IEP maintains the School of Music, which changed its name to Escola de Música de Piracicaba “Maestro Ernst Mahle” (1998) in homage to Ernst Mahle.