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Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 766
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    Gustav Mahler
    Book Description:

    A best seller when first published in Germany in 2003, Jens Malte Fischer'sGustav Mahlerhas been lauded by scholars as a landmark work. He draws on important primary resources-some unavailable to previous biographers-and sets in narrative context the extensive correspondence between Mahler and his wife, Alma; Alma Mahler's diaries; and the memoirs of Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player and close friend of Mahler, whose private journals provide insight into the composer's personal and professional lives and his creative process.

    Fischer explores Mahler's early life, his relationship to literature, his achievements as a conductor in Vienna and New York, his unhappy marriage, and his work with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in his later years. He also illustrates why Mahler is a prime example of artistic idealism worn down by Austrian anti-Semitism and American commercialism.Gustav Mahleris the best-sourced and most balanced biography available about the composer, a nuanced and intriguing portrait of his dramatic life set against the backdrop of early 20th century America and fin de siècle Europe.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17219-5
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 What Did Mahler Look Like? An Attempt at a Description
    (pp. 1-11)

    It is one of the many curious aspects of Alma Mahler’s reminiscences of her husband that she never attempts to describe his physical appearance. In her own memoirs she deals with Mahler in a remarkably cursory manner, and yet even in the volume nominally devoted to her recollections of her husband we are not told what he looked like. True, she lacked the art of physical description, although she was certainly capable of highlighting certain features, notably in her thumbnail sketch of Alexander Zemlinsky: ‘He was a hideous gnome. Short, chinless, toothless, always with the coffee-house smell on him, unwashed’¹...

  5. 2 Small Steps: Kalischt and Iglau (1860–75)
    (pp. 12-41)

    At the end of the eighteenth century the border between the margravate of Moravia, with its capital in Brünn (modern Brno), and the kingdom of Bohemia, with its capital in Prague, ran only a few kilometres north of Iglau (Jihlava), a situation that was still unchanged by the middle of the nineteenth century. A century earlier, both countries had been members of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, whose Habsburg emperor resided in Vienna. To the south, Moravia was bounded by the archdukedom of Austria, to the east by the kingdom of Hungary. Some twenty-five miles to the...

  6. 3 Studies in Vienna (1875–80)
    (pp. 42-89)

    The Vienna of 1875 that greeted the fifteen-year-old provincial youth who, bashful and proud only of his talents as a musician, had fallen out of the family nest in Iglau at an unusually early date, was completely unlike the Vienna of 1897, when, confident of his coming victory, Mahler arrived in the city from Hamburg to take up one of the leading posts in the musical life of Europe and, hence, of the world. Just as Mahler’s own situation in 1875 could hardly have been more different from that in 1897, when the thirty-seven-year old was unrivalled as a conductor...

  7. 4 The Summer Conductor: Bad Hall (1880)
    (pp. 90-98)

    Bad Hall is a health resort in Upper Austria, about twenty miles to the south of Linz, between Kremsmünster and Steyr and, as such, in the northern half of the Traun. As with Hallein, the name is derived from the Celtic word for ‘salt’ and reflects the fact that this tiny town has one of the highest concentrations of iodine bromine in any salt-water springs in Central Europe. As early as 1873 a local physician, Hermann Schuber, proudly published a pamphlet on the town’s merits. Schuber was a man of many parts: not only a doctor of medicine and a...

  8. 5 Emotional Ups and Downs in Laibach (1881–2)
    (pp. 99-107)

    A glance at a map of the area covered by Mahler in the course of his peregrinations between school, conservatory and vacation shows how surprisingly close all these places were. Mahler’s birthplace of Kalischt lies eight miles to the south of Ledetsch and twenty miles to the north-west of Iglau. The village from which his father came, Lipnitz, lay four miles to the east of Kalischt, while his mother came from Ledetsch. Prague, where the young Mahler was particularly unhappy, lies some eighty miles to the north-west, Vienna a little further to the south-east. Iglau lies almost halfway between the...

  9. 6 For the Last Time in the Provinces: Olmütz (1882–3)
    (pp. 108-113)

    The third and final stage on Mahler’s painful journey through the world of late nineteenth-century provincial music-making began in Olmütz in January 1883. It had been clear from the outset that he was able and willing to remain in Laibach for only a single season, for he had accepted the appointment knowing that it was a temporary one. In spite of this, he chalked up a number of successes in the town, both as a conductor and as the soloist at a concert by the local Philharmonic Society. In March 1882 he was able to conduct a benefit performance at...

  10. 7 Presentiment and a New Departure: Kassel (1883–5)
    (pp. 114-124)

    For the first time Mahler was now able to work continuously in a theatre over a period of years rather than just for months or even weeks; for the first time, too, he was employed by a theatre in which his talents and ambition could be given free rein, and for the first time he at last had a passionate affair with a woman. This love affair fired his imagination as a composer, and he wrote hisLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the earliest of his works to have remained in the repertory. When Mahler arrived in Kassel, he had just...

  11. 8 The Avid Reader: Mahler and Literature
    (pp. 125-139)

    The son of the ‘coachman scholar’ Bernhard Mahler enjoyed books as others enjoy food: ‘I am “devouring” an increasing number of books! They are, after all, the only friends that I keep by me! And what friends! Heavens, if I had no books! I forget everything round about me whenever a voice from “one of us” reaches me! They become ever more familiar and more of a consolation to me, my real brothers and fathers and lovers.’¹ Thus Mahler ends one of his letters to Friedrich Löhr, probably written in Hamburg during the winter of 1894/5. In using the phrase...

  12. 9 Becoming Mahler: Prague (1885–6)
    (pp. 140-147)

    The months that passed between the premature end of Mahler’s Kassel engagement in the summer of 1885 and the start of his new appointment in Leipzig in the autumn of 1886 seemed initially as if they would be no more than an embarrassing but necessary interlude in his life, and yet in the event they turned out to be an exceptionally important year in his career. ‘I am on the point of, as they say, making a name for myself,’ he told his friend Friedrich Löhr in early July 1885, following a brief trip from Iglau to Prague to sort...

  13. 10 The First Symphony
    (pp. 148-156)

    Although we know exactly when the First Symphony was finished, it is unclear when Mahler first thought of writing it and when he began to plan it in connection with his fourLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, two of which are quoted in it. But it could have been in 1884 or 1885. The bulk of his work on the score, however, dates from the early months of 1888. By now Mahler was working at the Leipzig Opera. He wrote to his best friend, Friedrich Löhr, at the end of March 1888:

    Well! My work is finished! Now I should like...

  14. 11 Life’s Vicissitudes: Leipzig (1886–8)
    (pp. 157-167)

    And so we come to Leipzig. It was Mahler’s first visit to a city whose geographical location and urban landscape could not remotely compare with those of Prague, but as a centre of music it was infinitely more important. Even so, its importance had little to do with Johann Sebastian Bach, whose activities as Thomaskantor anddirector musicesfrom 1723 to his death in 1750 were too remote to have had any deep or lasting influence on the city’s musical life, at least beyond the world of religious music. And even by the 1880s the Bach revival still had a...

  15. 12 Notes on Mahler’s Songs
    (pp. 168-177)

    Mahler was a composer who did not just write lieder on the side, as Strauss or Wagner did. Nor did he compose only lieder, as his student friend Hugo Wolf did. His emotionally powerful songs stand somewhat apart from those of his contemporaries and of his immediate predecessors such as Brahms, Wolf, Pfitzner and Reger, for all that they reflect his attempts to gain a firmer foothold with his audiences than he was able to achieve with his symphonies. In this he was only partially successful, his songs enjoying a hierarchy of popularity extending from the much-lovedLieder eines fahrenden...

  16. 13 Lowland Dreams: Budapest (1888–91)
    (pp. 178-190)

    Until now, Mahler had never managed to remain for as long as two and a half years with a single company and in a single town or city. Either he himself failed to stay the course, or others failed to stay it with him – generally the first alternative occurred with such speed that the second had no time to take effect. Budapest marked a new departure in his life as a conductor and director. It was also his most turbulent and eventful period to date, qualities that it acquired not least because in retrospect it may seem like a...

  17. 14 The Conductor
    (pp. 191-201)

    As a lyrical poet, Franz Werfel has been almost completely forgotten. If German scholars still mention him at all, it is in the context of German Expressionism, but a poem like the one that he wrote in 1938 under the title ‘The Conductor’ continues to lie undetected in complete editions of his writings. And yet this sonnet is a masterpiece of gentle irony aimed at the typical maestro. There are hardly any poems about conductors in German literature, the only two that come to mind being Werfel’s and one by Stefan Zweig that is directly connected with Mahler. It would...

  18. 15 The Second Symphony
    (pp. 202-207)

    In Mahler’s mind, there was an extraordinarily close link between his First and Second Symphonies, at least as far as the opening movement of the later work was concerned. In 1896 he left Max Marschalk in no doubt that the hero who is borne to his grave in this movement is the same person as the one who dies at the end of the First Symphony, where he is still attended by victory fanfares. Now he is retrospectively laid to rest, and in the course of the next four movements questions about the meaning of life and suffering are posed,...

  19. 16 Self-Realization: Hamburg (1891–7)
    (pp. 208-250)

    On an inclement January day in 1894 a still relatively young Czech composer set off for 14 Fröbelstraße, a street in Hamburg with a view of the as yet undeveloped marshland on the outskirts of the city. Josef Bohuslav Foerster was a few months older than Mahler and had already written two symphonies and aStabat Materbut without achieving his breakthrough as a composer. If he had moved from Prague to Hamburg, it was because his wife, the dramatic soprano Berta Lauterer, whose career was moving faster than his own, had taken up an engagement at the Hamburg Opera....

  20. 17 Jewishness and Identity
    (pp. 251-273)

    Let me begin with a quotation:

    All [i.e. all Jewish composers] have assimilated the style that exists all around them, all have produced an oeuvre that is personal in style …, and yet it cannot be said of any of them that they have changed the course of history or made a creative contribution in terms ofstyleorform. … This transcendence of style, which is a transcendence of the second degree, seems to be beyond the scope of Jewish composers, because the Jew cannot break free from himself except in the abstract – and music is not an...

  21. 18 The Third Symphony
    (pp. 274-281)

    Even committed Mahlerians have always had difficulty with the Third Symphony, the opening movement of which seems immoderately distended – the slowest performance on record takes no fewer than thirty-seven minutes, more than the length of an entire symphony by Beethoven. And then there is the final movement, an affirmative-sounding Adagio lasting some twenty-five minutes, pursuing its leisurely course with its seemingly unshakeable belief in truth, beauty and goodness. Between these two extremes are four movements that could hardly be more heterogeneous. There are writers on Mahler who, for all their sympathetic response to the piece, regard it as a...

  22. 19 The God of the Southern Climes: Vienna (1897–1901)
    (pp. 282-320)

    ‘Meanwhile I am telling the town a story of how to become president’ – Ferdinand throws down this challenge to his father in Schiller’sCabal and Love. Our own challenge is to provide a dispassionate account of Mahler’s rise to the position of opera director. It is worth examining the background to this episode in some detail as his rise to the head of what was then the most famous opera house in the world was a tactical masterstroke and a product of the workings of the most sophisticated cabal on the European arts scene at the end of the...

  23. 20 Mahler’s Illnesses: A Pathographical Sketch
    (pp. 321-332)

    This is how it is with typhus.’ Thus begins the brief penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann’sBuddenbrooks, after which the author describes in detail the aetiology of a typhoid sufferer, a description which, gleaned from scientific textbooks, was typical of Mann’s whole methodology. By the end of the chapter, the reader knows that even though no patient is mentioned by name, it is young Hanno Buddenbrooks who is being described. At the end of the previous chapter we were told that while rhapsodizing so ecstatically at the piano, the boy was very pale and weak-kneed. It is Hanno whose death...

  24. 21 The Fourth Symphony
    (pp. 333-339)

    When the DÜsseldorf conductor Julius Buths informed Mahler of his decision to perform the composer’s Fourth Symphony in the city in November 1903, Mahler wrote back to express his delight:

    So you mean to try to do the Fourth? This persecuted step-child that has so far known so little joy in the world.Iam tremendously glad you like the work, and I can only hope that an audience educated by you will feel and understand as you do. My own experience in general has been that humour of this type (as distinct from wit or good humour) is frequently...

  25. 22 Vienna in 1900: Alma as a Young Woman (1901–3)
    (pp. 340-384)

    Mahler has far less in common with fin-de-siècle Vienna than is generally assumed to be the case, a remark that may surprise the reader, but one that is none the less prompted both by the need for accuracy and as a way of justifying the relative brevity of what follows. If the ensuing sketch turns out to be less detailed than expected, this is not so much because our picture of turn-of-the-century Vienna is now so clear and varied but because the list of famous names that is rattled off more or less automatically in this context – it includes...

  26. 23 The Fifth Symphony
    (pp. 385-391)

    With the Fifth Symphony we enter a new part of Mahler’s symphonic world. He himself justified this statement by describing his first four symphonies as a tetralogy, and there is no doubt that they belong together, not least because of their links with variousWunderhornpoems. As a result they are often bracketed together as theWunderhornsymphonies and as such distinguished from the instrumental symphonies of the middle period – the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. The Eighth is in any case set apart from the others, while the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth are understandably classed as late works....

  27. 24 ‘Nothing is lost to you’: Faith and Philosophy
    (pp. 392-408)

    For Alma, it was all very straightforward: ‘He believed in Christ and had certainly not been baptised purely out of opportunism in order to get the job as director of the Vienna Court Opera.’ As proof of Mahler’s Christian faith, Alma cites a polemical remark of her own in which she had preferred Plato to Christ, prompting Mahler to write a letter in which he had vigorously opposed this view. He also, she went on, was deeply attracted to Catholic mysticism.¹ Although Alma herself had been brought up as a Catholic, her reading of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche meant that during...

  28. 25 The Sixth Symphony
    (pp. 409-415)

    Mahler was distinctly uneasy as he set off for Essen on 20 May 1906 to prepare for the first performance of his Sixth Symphony. It was clear to him that the work once again placed extreme demands on its interpreters and listeners, even if those demands were different from those posed by its predecessor. From a purely superficial standpoint, the work is extraordinarily conventional: it has only four – classically ordered – movements, it has neither a chorus nor vocal soloists and,horribile dictu, it includes a repeat in its opening movement indicated at the end of its exposition (at...

  29. 26 Opera Reform – Early Years of Marriage – Mahler’s Compositional Method (1903–5)
    (pp. 416-457)

    Were it not for Alfred Roller, we would have no proof that Mahler never said ‘Tradition is slovenliness’, even though this phrase – or its German equivalent, ‘Tradition ist Schlamperei’ – is regularly cited in writings on the composer. The phrase must in any case seem strange coming from a composer as supportive of intellectual and artistic traditions as Mahler, a man who was a lynchpin in the development of music between two other composers no less aware than he was of the tradition within which they were operating: Brahms and Schoenberg. But Roller worked with Mahler on frequent occasions...

  30. 27 The Seventh Symphony
    (pp. 458-463)

    If it had not been for its final movement, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony might have been the firm favourite among audiences and performers of his music. He wrote it during two particularly happy summers in Maiernigg in 1904 and 1905, but by 1908 it had still not been performed, and so he turned to the impresario Emil Gutmann to ask whether the work could be given as part of a tour. Omitting to mention the cowbells and glockenspiel, he explained that it was scored for modest forces, the only unusual instruments being the guitar and mandolin in the fourth movement. ‘It...

  31. 28 The Administrator – Contemporaries – Signs of Crisis (1905–7)
    (pp. 464-518)

    If we wish to gain an overall view of Mahler’s administrative responsibilities as director of the Vienna Court Opera, we need to take a step back before examining the final phase of his work for the company, a phase overshadowed by manifold problems.

    Alma’s claim that her husband had complete control over the Vienna Court Opera and was given a totally free hand by Kaiser Franz Joseph and his deputy comptroller, Prince Alfred Montenuovo, is difficult to sustain.¹ Above all, the impression that Mahler was allowed to do as he pleased by the general administrator of all the imperial and...

  32. 29 The Eighth Symphony
    (pp. 519-526)

    Mahler had a very clear idea of the quality of his music, and at no point in his life was he assailed by self-doubts on that score. And yet he was never tempted to insist on his own importance in a spirit of self-celebration. All the more remarkable is it, therefore, that in the case of his Eighth Symphony he abandoned his usual reserve. In mid-August 1906, for example, he wrote to Willem Mengelberg, a letter that also helps us to identify the work’sterminus ad quem:

    I have just finished my Eighth – it is the grandest thing I...

  33. 30 Annus Terribilis (1907)
    (pp. 527-561)

    In spite of appearances, the foregoing is not a philippic directed at Mahler by critics such as Reinhardt, Hirschfeld and Liebstöckl but is taken from a memorandum that Wagner published in the VienneseBotschafterin 1863, his aim being to nudge the Court Opera closer to the goal of ‘ennobling the nation’s morals and taste’, a goal already pursued by the Emperor Joseph II. Like Mahler, Wagner had learnt all about the opera industry from the inside, working his way up through the ranks and, on the basis of experiences not dissimilar to Mahler’s, proposing concrete suggestions for improving the...

  34. 31 Das Lied von der Erde
    (pp. 562-567)

    In early September 1908 Bruno Walter received a letter from Toblach inviting him to meet Mahler for lunch in Vienna on the 5th: ‘I have been hard at work (from which you can tell that I am more or less “acclimatized”). I myself do not know what the whole thing could be called. I have been granted a time that was good, and I think it is the most personal thing I have done so far. Perhaps more about that when I see you.’¹ The work to which Mahler was referring here wasDas Lied von der Erde.

    The first...

  35. 32 Starting Afresh: New York (1908–11)
    (pp. 568-610)

    In Mahler’s day the crossing from Cherbourg to New York lasted a whole week. The couple put up at the Hotel Majestic, a huge conglomeration of six tower blocks arranged in parallel in two groups of three, overlooking Central Park West on the corner of Seventy-Second Street. A postcard to Mahler’s mother-in-law indicates that they were staying on the eleventh floor. The hotel seems not to have been entirely to the Mahlers’ liking, for on their next visit they stayed at the Savoy on Fifth Avenue at the corner of Fifty-Ninth Street and the south-eastern corner of Central Park, where...

  36. 33 The Ninth Symphony
    (pp. 611-619)

    Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is shrouded in the myth of the late work – in this case the last work that the composer completed. By the time that Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic gave its first performance in Vienna on 26 June 1912, Mahler had been dead for over a year, although respect for the dead certainly did not prevent some of the critics in the audience from dismissing the piece as inferior to the Eighth and complaining that it was shallow and threadbare. In the case of the Eighth, Mahler had been surprisingly forthcoming, making his silence in the...

  37. 34 Crisis and Culmination (1910)
    (pp. 620-661)

    Mahler’s final summer began in the best of all possible moods, at least as far as he himself was concerned. He seems to have been oblivious to the fact that Alma was dissatisfied with her life as a wife and mother, although his eyes were about to be brutally opened. The couple arrived back in Europe on 11 April, looking forward to a week in Paris that would see a performance of the Second Symphony at the Châtelet with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. They were particularly keen to see their old friends and forge closer links with Mahler’s French...

  38. 35 The Fragmentary Tenth Symphony
    (pp. 662-665)

    With the release in 2000 of a recording of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle in what the packaging described as ‘a performing version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke, in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews’, a debate that had been going on for eighty years appeared to have been settled: Mahler’s Tenth Symphony had finally come of age. And now that a leading Mahlerian such as Michael Gielen has overcome his initial scepticism and taken this version into his repertory, its widespread acceptance is assured, ensuring its victory over...

  39. 36 ‘My heart is weary’ – The Farewell
    (pp. 666-690)

    ‘How gentle and calm as the sea were your life and death, Wutz, you contented little schoolmaster!’ one of Mahler’s favourite authors, Jean Paul, writes at the start of the ‘kind of idyll’ that constitutes his life of Maria Wutz of Auenthal. ‘The calm and mild sky of a late summer surrounded your life not with clouds but with fragrance: the stages of your life were the fluctuations and your death was the plucking of a lily whose leaves flutter on standing flowers – even outside the grave you slept gently!’¹ Mahler’s life and death were anything but gentle and...

  40. 37 Mahler and Posterity
    (pp. 691-706)

    Do you have to be there in person when you become immortal?’ This was Mahler’s answer when he was asked by a friend why he did not do more to ensure that his works were performed and better known: ‘Sooner or later, they themselves will do whatever is necessary.’¹ Rather more famous are two other remarks by Mahler: first (and it is doubtful that this originated from Mahler himself), that he was homeless three times over and, second, ‘My time will come.’ But, as so often, we need to take a closer look at the context from which this sentence...

  41. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 707-708)
  42. Notes
    (pp. 709-733)
  43. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 734-739)
  44. Index
    (pp. 740-764)
  45. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 765-766)