Mysterious Mahler

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 life
August 19, 1997

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.

Later still I came across a third version (no doubt there are more), this one from Marianna Trenker, a daughter of the man who owned the farmhouse where the Mahlers stayed during those last summers. According to her, a vulture was chasing a raven-a sinister variation more fitting to Walter's tale-but she gives the story a humorous twist. Mahler, irritated at the slightest disturbance, went to "old Trenker... and complained about the impudent intruder. Trenker laughed in his face and Mahler had to laugh with him."

One incident, three versions-of which Walter's, not surprisingly, is the one most often told. It fits the now familiar picture of the dying composer. But what of the other stories? That Mahler, aware that Beethoven and others had died after writing nine symphonies, tried to cheat fate by giving his own "ninth" a name (Das Lied von der Erde) instead of a number? Or Alma's famous tale about the three hammer blows that Mahler composed into the final movement of his tragic sixth symphony? According to Alma, these blows foretold the disasters which in 1907 would spell his early doom-his heart trouble, the death of his daughter Maria and his removal, after ten years, as director of the Vienna Court Opera. It was from a superstitious attempt to save himself, Alma claims, that Mahler deleted the third hammer blow after conducting the premiere of the sixth in 1906.

Really? Mahler nearly always revised his works heavily after their first performances. Moreover, Richard Strauss had attended the premiere of the sixth and told Mahler he found the work ?berinstrumentiert (over-orchestrated). Mahler was piqued-but Strauss was a respected friend as well as a rival. Might not the deletion of the third hammer blow, along with much else, have owed more to Strauss's remark and Mahler's own critical ear, than to superstition?

Such stories raise a difficult question. What do we really know about Mahler? Most people would reply "quite enough, thank you." A three-volume international bibliography published a decade ago listed more than 2,500 Mahler books and essays. The total, thanks to zealots such as myself, must be a lot higher now. A 1995 discography revealed nearly 1,200 recordings of Mahler's works (nine and a half symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, the cantata Das klagende Lied, several dozen songs and a string quartet fragment). There have been films: Ken Russell's Mahler and Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, the latter responsible for turning the Adagietto from Mahler's fifth symphony into "classical pop" to rival Bach's Air for the G String. There are Mahler symposia, Mahler tee shirts, Mahler internet sites. The word "Mahlerian" has passed into many languages.

Yet after ploughing through much of the material, I feel sure that the Mahler whom many music lovers think they know is as much of a myth as the Mozart of Peter Shaffer's bogus Amadeus. Hence my new Mahler book from which this essay is drawn.

it is easiest to start, not with Mahler the composer, but with the conductor and opera director. Whatever the disputes about Mahler's music, the details of his career seem straightforward. It is generally accepted that Mahler was a very fine conductor. After creating a "golden age" at the Vienna Court Opera between 1897 and 1907, Mahler was driven away by a bitterly anti-Semitic campaign. He retreated to New York where his career flopped because of poor health, second-rate musicians, unscrupulous managers and unjust critics. He was also up against the younger and overweeningly ambitious Arturo Toscanini, who bounced him out of the Metropolitan Opera after only two seasons.

Those are taken to be the facts. But the truth is that Mahler left Vienna neither because of anti-Semitism nor for health reasons. He left because after ten years he had become sick of repertoire opera; he wanted more time to compose (almost all his creative work was squeezed into holidays); and he was offered much more money in the US to do much less. No doubt there were attacks (not only anti-Semitic ones) on him in early 1907-as often before. His critics claimed that he had lost control of the opera's finances and increasingly deserted his post to conduct his own works. The records show that he did badly overspend in 1905 and was rapped over the knuckles for it by his royal court employer; but in 1906-his last year in charge-takings were up and costs were cut. As for desertion, during his last three years at the Opera, Mahler conducted more often (145 times) than in the previous three (127 times). And all the while he was fulfilling his other duties as director, negotiating with singers and stage workers, choosing new works and fighting (not always successfully) with the court censor. No wonder he wanted a change. But he could have stayed if he had wanted to. His allies in Viennese cultural life and at the court were more influential than his foes. Moreover, he revealed his intention to leave Vienna in a little noted interview in the summer of 1906, before the final attacks which, it is claimed, led to his departure.

It is all too easy to see Mahler as a perpetual victim, a refugee genius who was, in his words, "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." Mahler suffered many hard knocks but he was not shunted about the world willy-nilly. He usually moved because he fought for and got better jobs. He was a tough careerist who could be ruthless towards his rivals. He would never have won the Vienna Opera directorship otherwise; he was only 37 at the time and his talent was by no means universally acknowledged. A year later, in 1898, he took over the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra too, thus holding simultaneously the two top posts in music in the Habsburg empire. To reach that height he had formally to renounce Judaism (although that did not stop anti-Semites attacking him) and show a talent for pulling strings unsurpassed even in intrigue-ridden Vienna. Nearly a decade later, when he had already decided to move on from Vienna, Mahler successfully played hard to get to squeeze a better deal from Heinrich Conried, the managing director of the New York Met. Once in the US he negotiated a rise in his already handsome living allowance. This is not to say that he acted from personal greed. Early in his career he needed all the money he could get to provide for his siblings; later he was keen to "stock the larder," as he put it, for his wife and their surviving daughter, Anna.

Mahler spent the best part of four seasons in New York, from late 1907 until his fatal illness in early 1911, first at the Met and later as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Was he really a flop? Plough through the scores of press articles (greater New York had more than 30 newspapers in those days, many carrying well informed music criticism) and you will get a clear answer. His first season at the Met was a big success and his second was bigger still. Stage designs were often poor and the orchestra not as good as in Vienna, but Mahler drew results from the players which impressed most critics, and his casts-which included singers such as Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti and Feodor Chaliapin-were unsurpassed anywhere.

So why did he leave the Met? Because he got an offer he could not refuse. A committee of rich ladies, enthralled by his opera performances, proposed that he take over an orchestra of his own-as it turned out, a reorganised New York Philharmonic. Mahler was overjoyed. He always claimed to loathe the drudgery of the opera house and loved freeing himself, whenever possible, to conduct symphony concerts.

In her readable but error-ridden memoirs, Alma writes that the "ladies' committee" offer came in the winter of 1908-09, shortly after Toscanini had arrived at the Met. But in fact the offer was made in March 1908 and Mahler accepted it well before Toscanini arrived. The details of the Philharmonic offer were not finally settled until early 1909 and in the meantime Mahler went ahead with a second season at the Met. He and Toscanini did not get on, but that was largely irrelevant to Mahler's career.

Compared with his Met triumphs, Mahler's subsequent one and a half seasons with the New York Philharmonic were-a few highlights apart-disappointing. Mahler expected too much too soon from his ensemble; he initially scheduled over-ambitious programmes and he ran foul of one particularly pugnacious critic, Henry Krehbiel of the New York Daily Tribune, whose ego Mahler was unwise to slight. More balanced critics were often unhappy too, charging that Mahler retouched scores-even those of Beethoven-without justification, and favoured extremes of tempi and dynamics. Similar complaints had been made about his concerts in Vienna and, before that, during his years in Hamburg. My hunch is that Mahler really was at his most convincing in what he claimed to despise-conducting opera.

All in all, during a conducting career which spanned three decades, Mahler gave more than 2,000 opera performances and some 300 concerts. That he was also able to produce a series of gigantic symphonies in his "spare time" is incredible. Only someone of boundless energy, strength of purpose and resilience could have managed that. And yet, thanks to Alma's distortions and the powerful images of Russell and Visconti, the view most people have of him is very different. Mahler is perceived as the sickly, superstitious, neurotic composer, brought up in dire poverty, brutalised by his father and so in love with his mother that he imitated her limp; the ascetic who, according to Alma, "feared women." (In fact he had affairs in almost every town he worked in.)

The late compositions and the myth of the dying composer highlight the danger of forging too close a link between the life and the work. The conventional wisdom states that in a sudden burst of inspiration in the summer of 1906, Mahler composed his biggest and most joyful work: the Symphony of a Thousand (no. 8). In 1908 he wrote Das Lied von der Erde, by turns grim and elegiac, and over the next two years followed it up with one and a half more symphonies in similar vein. Why the abrupt change of mood after 1906? The answer seems obvious. In 1907 he suffered those famous "three blows" which forced him to prepare for death. And death, it seems, is what those last three compositions are all about.

That seems plausible, until you look at the evidence more closely. As we have seen, the first "blow," Mahler's departure from the Vienna Opera, was nothing of the kind. The second, Maria's death from scarlet fever and diphtheria before she turned five, did indeed hit him hard. But intense though it was, the pain was familiar. Child mortality in those days was high and Mahler had seen many of his 13 sisters and brothers carried off in coffins. No doubt that influenced some of his works (he wrote his Kindertotenlieder-Songs on the Death of Children-well before Maria perished). But Maria's death was not of itself responsible for a change of character in Mahler's final compositions. For immediately after Maria's death, Mahler was dealt the "third" blow. Doctors told him that his heart had "hereditary, although compensated, valve defects on both sides."

Curiously, the reference to "compensated" defects is omitted from English editions of Alma's memoirs, although it appears in the German one. But whichever version you take, Alma clearly suggests that Mahler was given a death sentence. He was not. The diagnosis meant he could live with the problem if he took care of it. Evidently he had had it for a long time and it had not stopped him leading a hyperactive life.

A letter he wrote to Alma on 30th August 1907 shows that he well understood what he had been told: he could "lead a normal life, apart from avoiding over-fatigue." This letter has been misinterpreted because it was long thought to have been written in March, when Mahler was already under scrutiny for heart trouble, but before his condition had worsened in the summer. The August date is now beyond doubt; but another letter dating from January has been misread. It seems to suggest that Mahler is worried about his heart, but a closer reading shows he is in fact concerned about Alma's. (He need not have been. She had all sorts of aches and pains, but lived until 1964.)

What really bothered Mahler was that, deprived of vigorous exercise, he might no longer be able to compose. He was used to combining creative work with long hikes in the summer. In an anguished letter to Bruno Walter in July 1908-a year after the diagnosis-he claimed that if Beethoven had had his legs amputated he would not have been able to write "even one movement of a quartet." But Mahler's fears proved groundless. A couple of months later he completed Das Lied von der Erde and gradually he began to ignore the medical advice he had been given. By the summer of 1909, when he was composing the ninth symphony, he was going tramping daily in all weathers. And in 1911, shortly before he died, he was planning an intensive season with the New York Philharmonic-up to 100 concerts instead of 60.

Perhaps Mahler drove himself so hard that he weakened his immune system and thus picked up the "streptococcus viridans" which killed him. Perhaps the shock of Alma's infidelity played a role in his final illness, too. The only certainty is that right to the end he was working and planning for the future. That does not mean that during his last years the thought of death was far from his mind. Death was no stranger. It had taken many of his family and friends, and he himself had barely escaped it twice, long before he knew about his heart problem. It haunts most of his work from the beginning, not just after 1907. Death was an obsession, but not more so for Mahler than for other great artists.

That still leaves one important question unanswered. If the "three blows" do not account for the change in Mahler's style after the Symphony of a Thousand, what does? I can only suggest the following. First, the change to a more daring tonality and starker, sparer orchestration is not as comprehensive as it seems. The seeds of it can be found in works such as the Kindertotenlieder and R?ckert Lieder. Moreover, after composing an eighth symphony for about 1,000 performers, Mahler faced a practical problem. Where could he go from there? Hardly to something bigger. The solution he found was Das Lied which, despite a huge range of orchestral colour, often has a chamber music delicacy.

In fact, Mahler had done something similar before. After the third symphony-his longest-he produced the much shorter and deceptively simple-seeming fourth, one of his sunniest works. How did Mahler come to write the easeful fourth symphony at a time of great stress and the nihilistic sixth during what seems to have been one of the happiest periods of his life? There is no dead child or heart diagnosis to "explain" the latter. Lamely, after nearly four decades of trying to get behind the myths about the man and his work, I can only say that what remains is the mystery of genius. n

"The Real Mahler" by Jonathan Carr is to be published by Constable in September (?19.95)