What do we really know about Mahler? He has been painted as the sickly, neurotic "victim," obsessed by early death. Not so. Mahler suffered many blows, but he was a musician of great energy and resilience. If his later works seem death-ridden, we should not blame his lifeby Jonathan Carr / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
It was like a nightmare. One moment Gustav Mahler was composing peacefully in his hut high in the Dolomites. The next moment, two birds-an eagle in pursuit of a crow-had burst in, shattering a window pane. According to the conductor Bruno Walter, Mahler sprang to his feet in horror at the intrusion and later felt deeply depressed about it. “His musical heaven had been turned into a battlefield for one of the endless fights of all against all,” Walter wrote in his memoir of the composer. Although he fell short of calling the incident a portent, Walter went on to describe how Mahler fell ill not long afterwards and died in Vienna on 18th May 1911, aged only 50.
I came across this story in 1961; I had just discovered Mahler’s music and was starting to read everything I could find about his life. In those days that was not much, at least not in English. A year earlier the London orchestras had given a series of concerts to mark the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s birth (7th July 1860). But some of the symphonies were still not available on recordings in Britain and literature about the man and his music was sparse.
I devoured what there was, sitting in a far corner of the Cambridge University library (ignoring my economics lectures). The most gripping volume was Memories and Letters by Mahler’s widow Alma, but Walter’s little book with its haunting story from the Dolomites was a close second. According to Walter and-even more firmly-to Alma, Mahler had been given a death sentence a few years earlier, when doctors diagnosed his heart trouble. No wonder, I thought, that his last works were imbued with a sense of impending catastrophe, or that he panicked that day in his Komponierh??uschen (composing hut). I even thought I had found the scene tone-painted in the last, unfinished tenth symphony. Other enthusiasts feel the same passage was born of Mahler’s shock in 1910 upon learning of Alma’s infidelity with Walter Gropius, the young architect who later founded the Bauhaus.
Some years later I discovered that Bruno Walter’s was not the only account of the Dolomites incident. Alfred Roller, a stage-designer colleague of Mahler’s in Vienna, told the tale too-this time involving a hawk and a jackdaw-but only to illustrate how deeply absorbed Mahler always was when composing. Although the hut was filled with screeching and fluttering, Roller says, Mahler did not realise what was happening until it was all over. I assumed that Roller had missed the point. After all, Walter had long been close to Mahler; he had given the premieres of the ninth symphony and Das Lied von der Erde; and had remained a devoted Mahlerian for more than half a century. Surely he would have got the story right.