Jeffrey Dane profiles Gustav Mahler - a man of paradoxes and genius, and of contradictions and complexities that were in keeping with the magnitude and character of his work.
When still a child, he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His arresting reply: "A martyr." He was about five years old.
He was instrumental in altering musical history. He did this almost single-handedly, not in concert with others, wrenching the realm of his work from one era into the next. The orchestral and harmonic innovations he introduced, especially in his later works, belonged to the dawn of 20th-century music. He foreshadowed those who followed him, and what he left posterity had a dramatic and lasting impact. Aware that much of his work was misunderstood in his day, he said, "My time will yet come" - and it did.
The regard in which Gustav Mahler is still held so long after his death is surrounded by an atmosphere that may be impossible to define and difficult to explain, but it's very easy to recognize: his tenure as the Director of the most prestigious musical entity in Austria is even now, a century later, called the Golden Age of the Vienna Opera. This bespeaks an astounding degree of reverence and is a reflection of his professional and personal impact.
He earned his livelihood as a conductor, but his life's work was as a composer. The musical public-at-large saw him as a superb opera and orchestral conductor who also wrote symphonies of gargantuan scope, while Mahler saw himself as a composer forced into the role of conductor. His home of choice was Austria, and of necessity late in life, New York, where he spent three seasons. In those days, his yearly salary in Vienna for nine or ten months' work had amounted in Austrian currency to the equivalent of about $4,000, a handsome sum at the time. When he was invited to America, to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall at a salary, for three months' work, of $30,000 - an astronomical sum at that time - he agreed to the proposal. (His eventual successor, Josef Stransky, was offered only half as much).
His single-mindedness and powers of concentration were, in a word, phenomenal, and manifested themselves early. As a very small boy, he was taken for a walk in the woods by his father. Suddenly remembering something at home, the father placed the boy on a tree stump and told him to remain in that spot until he returned for him. Unexpected guests had arrived at the house and it was several hours before the father realized he had totally forgotten about the boy. He rushed back to the woods - only to find his son still sitting in the same spot, "...but as though in a trance, with eyes full of wonder, fixed upon some marvelous fancied vision."
To say he made a unique contribution to his art would be understatement epitomized. What characterized his personality would today be called eccentricity in the wealthy (often actively encouraged), artistic temperament in the artist (often amusedly tolerated), and insanity in the layman (often dangerously ignored).
Born a Jew, in his maturity he underwent a formal conversion to Christianity
According to Gabriel Engel in his book, "Gustav Mahler: Song-Symphonist" (The Bruckner Society of America, 1932), even when a conservatory student "...His mind had...lightning-like grasp and analytic power...Thus a mere hint was sufficient to whirl him unerringly through a whole chapter of complicated musical theory ... In spite of his desultory application to technical details, the quality of his performance on the piano was excelled by none in the Conservatory. The orchestral power of his playing attained an almost legendary fame among the reminiscences of his fellow-students ... The conservatory records show that owing to the great knowledge displayed in his compositions, Mahler was excused from the further study of counterpoint after his first season. However, he is said to have regretted this lapse of training in after years - leading us to suspect that the release took place perhaps at his own request ... The friends who heard him play the piano during those days (for he was then still a willing performer) report that...he took particular delight in performing colossal piano arrangements from scores, like Wagner's 'Meistersinger' Prelude ... he poured a magnificent despair into his interpretation of Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues, as though he were about to take leave of them forever ... He had the reputation of being a brilliant and eager conversationalist ... He was a little below average height, but a wiry, slender figure of perfect proportions obviated any impression of shortness. He had flowing black hair and dark brown eyes which under the stress of great emotion would take on an almost fanatic gleam, and later in life, when he was conducting, his ascetic face would assume every nuance of emotion, from the bliss of the transfigured to the agony of the damned."
Like us, Mahler had a full set of human weaknesses, and his personal frailties make him more, not less, of a human being. The colorful nature of a divergent thinker precludes black and white judgments or descriptions. He was so far above us in his art that the only things we may have in common with him are human form and the ability to read and write. While most of Beethoven's letters deal with practical matters and as a rule offer little insight into his own nature or the creative process, Mahler's letters, like those of Mendelssohn and Schumann, are small literary gems and reveal an astonishing awareness and a brilliant clarity of mind.
One of these letters gives an essence of his artistic conviction: "...misunderstanding...is the inevitable result when one is handed a program-book that asks the audience to see instead of to hear! ... The understanding of a musical work can be attained only through an intensive study of it; and the deeper a work, the more difficult and gradual is this process. At a 'first performance' it is most important for the listener to allow only the general human and poetic qualities of the work to play freely upon the emotions. If these qualities seem to make an eloquent appeal, then the work deserves more detailed examination. To draw an analogy, how are we to proceed in fathoming the true nature of any human being, a mystery certainly deeper and greater than that of any of man's accomplishments? Where can we find the 'program-book' to explain him? The solution is similar -- we must study him incessantly, with devoted attention. Naturally, man is subject to constant development and change, while a work remains ever the same; but analogies are doomed to lameness at some point or other."
His ideas, in his youth especially, were lofty and noble - so much so, that they approached prudishness. A lady acquaintance made it clear to him she was amenable to more than just camaraderie. When she got no further display of affection from him than some sound but disappointing advice, she sought friendship elsewhere.
He was once asked to conduct an opera that very night - without a rehearsal. Arriving at the theatre early that afternoon, he found that the work being performed that evening was an opera of which he had never heard a note. In lesser men this would have raised consternation, or in the faint of heart might have prompted thoughts of suicide. He calmly asked to borrow the score until the evening's performance, on the pretext of wanting to refresh his memory. He went to his hotel room, and during that afternoon he learned the entire opera. This is not the mark of the average musician. He is sometimes credited with having said, "Have the score in your head, not your head in the score."
On another youthful occasion, he found himself faced with an absent singer at a performance of Flotow's opera, "Martha." Again according to Gabriel Engel, at the appropriate point in the performance "....he found it necessary to render 'The Last Rose of Summer' himself. This he did good-humoredly, being a very tuneful whistler."
In the early 1880s, the young Mahler heard Wagner's opera "Parsifal" in Bayreuth, Germany. It's said that Mahler was so in awe of Wagner that he had neither the courage to approach the older composer, nor even the presence of mind to assist him as he struggled to get into his overcoat after the performance.
Early in his career Mahler applied for a principal position at a theatre in Austria. Though eminently qualified, he was refused the appointment. He later learned - unofficially but from reliable sources - that the rejection was because of his "Jewish nose." Some time afterward, when he had become well-known, he was offered the same position by the same theatre. He sent them a telegram reading, "Cannot accept position. Nose the same."
Though not combative in the usual sense, he knew how to stand his ground. A conversation between him and a critic took the following turn:
An adversary (he had many) once actually challenged him to a duel. He wisely declined this absurd invitation by saying, "I do not believe in the healing powers of dueling."
He feared nothing and no-one, it would appear. As Director of the Vienna Opera, he found it necessary to pension off an elderly singer who was well past his prime and no longer in good voice. The singer had been a traditional favorite of the Imperial family and Mahler was instructed by the Emperor himself to reinstate the singer. Though he had little choice but to comply, Mahler announced in the programs that the singer was appearing in the performances "...by command of the Emperor."
Engel reports, "He didn't mind being called a lunatic because of his devotion to the Masters. Usually his frantic efforts to rouse the performers' enthusiasm met with hostile stolidity ... He tended to engage in exhausting rehearsals of interminable length. Accustomed to the easy-going carelessness of every-day provincial conductors, they now suspected the over-zealous Mahler of malicious intent. So fanatic a devotion to art...was far beyond their broadest conception of sincerity. Increasing rage brought them the courage to rebel, and they decided to teach the offending upstart a much-needed lesson. Early one morning a friendly musician burst into Mahler's room in great excitement and implored him to remain away from the theatre that day. Chorus and orchestra had pledged themselves to welcome with sticks and clubs the incorrigible nuisance who inflicted upon them such nerve-racking rehearsals. With a smile of disdain, Mahler donned his coat and went at once to the theater. He entered boldly and walked swiftly to the piano. Then with the energy of a demon he began a rehearsal more exacting than ever. Only after eight hours of merciless driving - during which his unerring musicianship converted animosity into wondering admiration - he shut the piano with a bang, rose, looked about him furiously midst awed silence, and, without so much as a single parting syllable, left the hall."
Still, hostility took its toll. Mahler wrote, "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed."
In January 1888 Mahler conducted in Leipzig the premiére of his own performing version of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera, "The Three Pintos." Engel writes: "Mahler...had to respond to repeated calls from the delighted audience. Next day the newspapers showed... an orgy...of critical stupidity. Parts of the opera to which Mahler had not contributed a single note were attacked by the press on the grounds of being 'un-Weberish' - while some episodes, which were entirely Mahler's work, were hailed as fine samples of the typical Weber genius." Evidently, despite the passage of time and the opportunities for the progress of human wisdom, some things don't change very much.
Mahler was Director of the Budapest opera from 1888-1891. In January, 1891, toward the end of Mahler's tenure in Budapest, Johannes Brahms, the dominant musical figure in Austria, an icon in his own lifetime, visited the city. Brahms agreed - but only reluctantly - to see a performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," conducted by Mahler, claiming, "Nobody can interpret 'Don Giovanni' for me! That is music which I can enjoy only if I sit down and read the score." But the performance softened Brahms' stubbornness. "Splendid!" "Remarkable!" "At last, that's just the way it ought to be done!" and "What a devil of a fellow that Mahler is!" were some of Brahms' comments. When the first act had ended, he went backstage, took Mahler by the shoulders and told him, "That was the best 'Don Giovanni' I've ever heard. Not even the Imperial Opera in Vienna can rival it." No musical endorsement could have had more value than a sincere one from Johannes Brahms.
From 1891-1897 Mahler conducted the Hamburg Opera. Gabriel Engel gives a superb account of Mahler's personal routine in Hamburg. "Retiring late he would rise at seven. While taking a hasty, cold bath he would ring impatiently for his breakfast, a cup of coffee, which he drank a few moments later, completely dressed, smoking a cigarette between sips. He read no newspaper in the morning, preferring to start his day with...some Goethe or Nietzsche. Then he worked hard at his own music until 10:30, this labor consisting mostly of the preparation of legible final copies of symphonic compositions feverishly set down the preceding summer. Then followed a brisk walk of three quarters of an hour to the opera house where he was due at eleven for rehearsal. At 2:30, returning also on foot, he would signal his approach from afar with the cheerful, whistled opening notes of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, so that his sister Justine would have the soup ready on the table as he entered. During this hearty meal (he had a splendid appetite in those days) he would engage in what was to him the most fascinating of all his daily occupations: reading the mail. In these sealed messages he saw his only hope of release from the hated rut which Hamburg had grown to be for him...Occasionally some operatic composer would accompany him home to dinner, but Mahler's financial limitations made it difficult for him to entertain guests as often as he would have liked. Dinner over he would take a short nap, after which he would hurry to the copyist, ever busy on some important work requiring Mahler's personal supervision. Then came a long walk about the quiet outskirts of Hamburg until six when he departed for the evening's performance. He would arrive home late at night, invariably in bad humor, hissing that the opera is an Augean stable which not even a Hercules could clean."
The entire corpus of Mahler's work is a kind of secular litany on human existence. He was a man of paradoxes and genius, and of contradictions and complexities that were in keeping with the magnitude and character of his work. His wife, Alma Schindler, considered a great beauty of her time, was dumbfounded during a disagreement with him: he was a convert to Christianity, a man born a Jew, here defending Christ against a Christian.
They were married in Vienna on March 10, 1902 at the Karlskirche (Charles Church) on Karlsplatz - directly around the corner from the building (demolished in 1907) at Karlsgasse 4, where Brahms himself had lived for the last 26 years of his life. By design and for the sake of privacy, they secretly arranged to have their wedding one day before the date announced in the newspapers.
The death from scarlet fever of their young daughter Maria intensified Mahler's fixation with the concept of eternity. Though fully aware he was not responsible for it, he felt he had somehow unknowingly anticipated her end - or that he had perhaps tempted providence, by composing a work he titled "Kindertotenlieder" (Elegies For Departed Children). That he felt as he did is entirely understandable. A more tangible manifestation of his virtually lifelong preoccupation with death is that every one of his nine completed symphonies contains, in one form or another, a funeral march. This was first pointed out by his artistic descendant, Leonard Bernstein, who was largely responsible for the Mahler renaissance in the 1960s.
With Bernstein, Mahler shared a geographical proximity that was both prophetic and providential. Mahler, who died seven years before Bernstein was born, lived during his first stay in New York at the Hotel Majestic at 73rd Street and Central Park West, where he, his wife and his young second daughter, Anna, had a suite overlooking the park. Bernstein ultimately, perhaps even inevitably, spent the last 16 years of his own life living directly across the street, in the now-famous apartment house known as the Dakota.
At the end of each operatic season Mahler fled the city, usually to some relatively isolated Austrian location, and spent the all-too-short summer composing, which his work as an opera conductor made virtually impossible during the winter. He was loyal to certain locations, like Brahms before him on his own creative summer holidays.
The unique way in which Mahler composed for the symphony orchestra is best
explained by Engel: ". . . all the instruments of the orchestra are for him
solo-instruments and hence of equal importance. Each one is exploited not
merely for the clearest musical effect of which it is capable, but even more
for its most striking emotional accents. . . The prodigal profusion of his
unexpected usages in instrumentation was the strange feature that accounted
(and still accounts in great measure) for the conservative music-lover's misunderstanding of his works.
Mahler was such a master of orchestration that even in passages where every instrument is playing, the listener often feels the intimacy of a chamber ensemble: "Less is more" is advice often given to aspiring writers, while "More is less" seems the result at the hands of Mahler.
Mahler joined the Imperial Opera in Vienna (now the Vienna State Opera) in 1897 and led it for ten years. Engaged in May of that year as Conductor, he was named Director in July, and appointed Artistic Director, with complete autonomy, in October. What set him apart from others, according to Engel, soon became clear to everyone: that his dominating professional nature "was that of a fanatical idealist and not that of a mere bully glorying in his power." When some performers' vanity was compromised by his uncompromising manner, he was questioned about the "Skandál" his severity was causing. Mahler's response not only put the matter to rest but also reveals a certain irony and especially his own kind of humor: "When the standards of a great opera house have declined to such a shameful depth as here, tyranny is the only cure. Please don't put any stock in these petty complaints, unless -- I cause at least two Skandáls a week."
He had a marked tendency to ignore commercial considerations in artistic matters. "This...was particularly characteristic of the idealist Mahler, who unhesitatingly dashed his head against an opposing wall in an effort to make his way beyond it." Some would call this stubbornness. Others call it integrity. Late-comers to his orchestral concerts would be subjected to burning glances from Mahler, who saw fit to make them uncomfortable when they had seen fit to make his audience wait: standing on the podium, his body facing the orchestra, he'd look over his shoulder, glaring at the late arrivals through his spectacles until they were seated. (It was from Mahler that Toscanini and other conductors learned to do the same thing). At the opera house, however, he was even more severe: late-comers were altogether barred from entering the main hall until after the first act had already finished, unless a specified pause after the overture or prelude allowed for tardy entrance without disturbing the performance. Though taken for granted today, this innovation was surprising - and to some, even disturbing - when Mahler introduced it.
Composer Gustave Charpentier was invited to the preparations for Mahler's Vienna premiere of his opera, "Louise." He found fault with everything, including Mahler's conducting. Mahler unhesitatingly withdrew the opera from performance -- in order to spend more time studying the piece with the composer. Charpentier, born the same year as Mahler, 1860, lived until 1956.
Gabriel Engel perhaps best explained Mahler's humanity, integrity, and sense of justice. "At the rehearsal in the morning he had expended much care and time over an important passage for the kettle-drums in the last act, the significance of which had apparently never before been clear to the drummer. At the proper moment during the performance that evening, Mahler gave the necessary signal confidently, but instead of the rehearsed volley of sound only a feeble, insignificant tapping greeted his expectant ear. Gazing angrily at the culprit, he saw to his amazement that a different drummer was now sitting in the orchestra. After the final curtain he demanded an explanation, and learned that it had become customary for musicians living in the suburbs to leave before the close of the longer operas. Though it was already midnight he telegraphed the first drummer to report to him early in the morning. From this man he ascertained how hard was the lot of the opera-orchestra with its daily rehearsal and performance. Though Mahler had always been of the opinion that the perfect opera and the daily performance were hopelessly incompatible, he could do nothing to change that condition -- but hearing how low was the pay of the musicians, he succeeded at least in having this increased. Just as at Budapest, he ruled over the musicians with absolute tyranny, but the moment he put down the baton he would treat them as his equals, missing no opportunity to show them the kind heart beneath all this necessary despotism. Every sign of their devotion to art met with a personal expression of appreciation from him. A particularly touching instance of this is recorded in one of his published letters. The occasion was a silent act of heroism on the part of the first clarinetist, who realized that he was absolutely indispensable at an important premiere then in preparation, and kept reporting loyally at his post - all through a period saddened by the mortal illness and subsequent death of his child. `Dear Professor, I learned at the rehearsal today of the misfortune that has befallen you, and am most deeply grateful to you for the sacrifice you have made in an hour of great suffering. Rest assured I understand how much self-denial and courage it required to attend to duty at such a time. Please accept my deepest sympathy and most heartfelt gratitude, dear Mr. Bartolomey. I shall never forget this fine deed of yours. Most sincerely, Gustav Mahler.`"
It seems paradoxical that in Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, not one Mahler symphony premiere ever occurred there during the composer's own lifetime. One critic, reviewing a performance elsewhere of one of Mahler's own works, "fell upon the symphony with a destructive fury which entitles him to the distinction of having inaugurated a newspaper opposition to Mahler's works." That hostility to Mahler's own music continued flourishing, and kept his position in musical history problematic for decades.
Behind the otherwise ordinary objects we find the revealing stories about him, many with their specific and persuasive anecdotal richness. Remainders and reminders of the great can affect and even inspire the devoted. Even daily objects of no intrinsic value are considered sacred relics - including, at a museum exhibit, his spectacles, the fountain pen he used in correcting the proofs of his Eighth Symphony (called the "Symphony of a Thousand," because of the size of the ensemble), and the baton he had used when conducting his last concert with the New York Philharmonic on February 21, 1911. (He also conducted concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to which he preferred taking the subway from Manhattan, even though an automobile had been provided).
Mahler also conducted opera at New York's Metropolitan Opera House but declined its actual directorship. During his New York Philharmonic tenure he performed the Third Piano Concerto in d-minor by a young Russian named Sergei Rachmaninoff, with the composer himself as soloist. Rachmaninoff later told of how the rehearsal extended well past lunchtime. When Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, Rachmaninoff expected shouts of protest from the orchestra - but heard not a word of complaint. It should be remembered that Mahler worked in the pre-union era.
Besides being a superb singer, the great Enrico Caruso was also a skilled caricaturist who did renderings of many he worked with. His caricature of Mahler can be viewed at http://www.metopera.org/history/week-990816.html. Caruso always made a point of showing his caricatures to everyone in the opera company - except to the subject himself. Those of us who have seen our own caricatures will understand why.
He died at 51 at the Sanatorium Loewe, Mariannengasse 9, Vienna at 11pm on May 18, 1911. His wife, two decades younger, later said, "He was as virginal at 40 as I was at 20." She outlived him by 53 years, spending the autumn of her life at her brownstone home at 120 E. 73rd Street in New York, where she died in 1964. Their daughter, Anna, a sculptress specializing in the human figure in massive form, died in 1988 at age 84. She was seven years old when Mahler died, and although she remembered him, she admitted she had no memory of having been called in to say goodbye to him during his last days.
Mahler's impact corresponds to the 19th-century views characterized by the late Romantic era's perceptions of genius and historic greatness. The concept of the supreme authority of an artist, and the conviction that his word was definitive, were some of the notions of history that evolved during that age. The image of the creative mind was then respected and in some cases even enhaloed, with The Composer and the aura that surrounded him an object of reverence, and his persona being seen as something bordering on divinity. This was the Romantic view, "romanticized" now but quite real then.
An entire literature has grown up around Mahler. The intervening decades since his death have only deepened his seemingly impenetrable mystique and character. He enriched posterity with creations that outlived him and which will outlive us. Some who had met Brahms lived even into the later decades of the 20th century, but there is virtually no one left alive today who knew Mahler.
Some people, like Melville and van Gogh, became legendary posthumously. Others, even before the era of mass media coverage, became artistic and even cultural icons during their own lifetimes. Strangers acknowledged Mahler in the streets of Vienna and his music was heard on other continents. Autograph hunters are not an exclusively 20th-century phenomenon prompted by the theatre or cinema: Brahms himself was often plagued by them even in his younger years, and they existed even as far back as Beethoven, who once wrote: "Two young ladies wanted to kiss my hands, but as they were both decidedly pretty, I preferred to offer them my mouth to kiss."
Auguste Rodin did a bronze bust of Mahler, which is displayed today in Avery Fisher Hall at New York's Lincoln Center on a marble pedestal sized to represent the composer's actual height. The distance of time renders some contradictions and confusion about him almost impenetrable. He effectively became a kind of legend so early in Europe generally, in Austria specifically, and in Vienna in particular that the records are congealed with invention, fiction and fantasy, creating nearly insurmountable obstacles to the human features behind the mystique, if not clogging access to the man altogether.
We admire those we can't emulate but would like to. We also tend to invest martyrs with heroism and heroes with martyrdom: those who left life prematurely, at whatever age, prompt the most intriguing conjectures. His dramatic life and untimely death exemplify this: posterity was robbed of treasures we can now only try to imagine, but we're thankful he lived well into the photographic era. His 51-year life contributed as much to legend as to historical fact.
Gustav Mahler seems to have accomplished more in a single year than most others do in their individual lifetimes. What's most obvious, by its nature, can easily escape our attention: he was just as alive then as we are today.
JEFFREY DANE is a historian and researcher whose work is widely published in the USA and abroad, and in several languages in both print and online publications. His most recent book is "Beethoven's Piano," and another is in preparation. He has several times paid his respects at Mahler's grave in Grinzing, outside Vienna, where the composer rests beside his daughter. Though most of Dane's writing has a musical focus, as a pleasant and relaxing diversion from the norm of routine he researches and writes about other historical subjects as well, ranging from Goethe to George Washington, from antiques to the Alamo.
He contributed the Foreword for "The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts" by Western historian J.R. Edmondson (Wordware / Republic of Texas Press, February, 2000). He has contributed to other books as well, including "On The Crockett Trail," and "An Illustrated History of Texas Forts" (Rep. of Texas Press, Feb.2001), both by artist and author Rod Timanus, and to "Leonard Bernstein - A Life" by Meryl Secrest (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1994).
Many of the 1,000+ articles on Frugal Fun and Frugal Marketing have been gathered into magazines. If you'd like to read more great content on these topics, please click on the name of the magazine you'd like to visit.
Global Travel Review - Global Arts Review - Peace & Politics Magazine
Frugal Marketing Tips - Frugal Fun Tips - Positive Power of Principled Profit
Site copyright © 1996-2011 by Shel Horowitz