A Month with Gustav Mahler

“I am lost to the world.”

I spent much of my reading time this past November 2011 with a new biography Gustav Mahler (English translation 2011), written by Jens Malte Fischer. It was an unsettling, otherworldly experience.

First published in Germany in 2003, Fischer was able to draw on resources unavailable to previous biographers, including the memoirs of Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player and close friend of Mahler. I have been listening to Mahler’s music for a long time and have read other biographies of his life, but of course I remember little. I take solace that a poor memory brings the advantage of discovery. I was interested in the genesis of Mahler’s composing, his conducting, his philosophy, his relationships with his friends, family and particularly his marriage to Alma. I was less interested and perhaps skimmed much of the coverage of the politics of his various appointments and his relationships with musicians (except the singers with whom he had affairs), which were repetitiously bad.

I don’t know the massive biography by Henry-Louis De La Grange so talked about either as a work of genius or tedium (nor is it likely that I will as each of the four volumes sells for $150!), but neither will this one be definitive. Is such a thing possible for a life and character as complex as Gustav Mahler? I came upon several careless reviews of the book on the Internet. I cannot agree with Rupert Christiansen that “Fischer loses the essence of Mahler’s grandeur.” Fischer adores Mahler and leaves a strong impression of his magnitude. Where did this reviewer get the idea that Fischer implies that Mahler “was touched with the Asperger’s syndrome so common to those cursed with creative genius”? One hears the same sort of claims about Glenn Gould, but it is useless speculation and I did not find it anywhere in the book. (Freud thought he had a serious “mother fixation.”)

Then there is Norman Lebrecht, who claims that Fischer “displays no grasp of the constraints of Jewish life in central Europe.” (I thought that he does—it is a contentious, complex and critical issue not sidestepped, especially in the extensive chapter “Jewishness and Identity.”) Norman seems on shaky ground making any claim, as his book on “how Mahler changed the world” is savagely panned in reviews.

High-strung he may have been, but Mahler was also just plain resolute, able to conduct four or five performances a week, many of them three- or five-hour operas like “Tristan” and “Don Giovanni”; to rise early the next morning to orchestrate his own music; and then to walk to the opera house to deal with the myriad complications and headaches that came with his position as music director of a major opera house. He conducted with raging fevers, sore throats or, his particular curse, painful hemorrhoids—even before his heart distress.

Laid up in bed with a virus, reading the book on my iPad and wired to my iPod, I had an intense experience opening my imagination to this amazing “other,” this man of genius and intensity. Mahler conducted over a hundred operas in some years—imagine some conductor today—all from memory. Was he a genius as a composer? I guess that is more of an opinion. He was a strange one, that’s for sure. I listened to all the songs I have in my collection and all the symphonies (except #10) at least once—number 3 perhaps never again—perhaps not 8 either. The rest never disappoint and one must pay attention. The music feels profoundly autobiographical almost confessional—tender or violent, sarcastic or sentimental, trivial or idealistic. “I have written into them, in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured,” he confided to a friend after finishing the Second Symphony. (This before the hammer blows of the Sixth!)

This relationship between Mahler’s music and his personal life is nicely expressed at the end of his love affair with soprano Johanna Richter: “a sense of inexpressible anguish had arisen between us like an everlasting partition wall, and there was nothing I could do but press her hand and leave. As I came outside, the bells were ringing and the solemn chorale could be heard from the tower”

Portrait by Finnish artist Galen-Kalela. "Mahler looked like someone who had despaired in God and who in consequence had been cast down from the light into the darkness.”

Portrait by Finnish artist Akseli Galen-Kalela. "Mahler looked like someone who had despaired in God and who in consequence had been cast down from the light into the darkness.”

No artist likes to give simplistic answers to the sources of his/her inspiration and Mahler spoke less and less of this as he got older. While attending a fair in 1900, Natalie Bauer-Lechner reports that “Mahler was so taken by the combined sounds of the shooing galleries and Punch and Judy show, the military band music and the singing of a male-voice choir, that he exclaimed ‘You hear? That’s polyphony, and that is where I get it from!’”

In Mahler’s complex, sometimes contradictory philosophy, was an almost Buddhist belief “that our sufferings will be healed and smoothed away and the whole offensive comedy of human conflict will disappear like a pathetic mirage.” But he also believed that only artistic expression makes the world’s suffering endurable. It is very hard for me, at least, to disagree with Mahler’s view that “all that is most profound and most inexpressible in our lives would seem at best like a bad translation but it finds its altogether perfect interpreter in music”

Fischer portrays a fine sense of Mahler’s otherworldliness “ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” “I am lost to the world.” (Oddly, this was the self-proclaimed motto of Carlos Kleiber, who seemed to pattern himself so much on Mahler, but who would have nothing to do with his music.)

For those of us who might be tempted to respond to the fanciful question of where in the past we would like to be reborn with the answer fin de siècle Vienna, we might cite its creativity, genius and beauty, but Fischer portrays it as well as backbiting, pretentious and of course poisoned by an endemic anti-Semitism. Hugo von Hofmannsthal described something else: “ We have nothing but a sentimental memory, a paralysed will and the uncanny gift for self-duplication. We watch our lives pass us by; we empty the cup betimes and yet remain perpetually thirsty…. We have, as it were, no roots in life and wander around among life’s children like clairvoyant shades who are yet blind to the daylight.” This seems to me a perfect description of our own time, but who is there now to express it as Mahler did, while still retaining a “profound respect in the face of life’s mystery”?

Fischer cannot avoid, though he seems reluctant at times, the whole mess of Mahler’s relationship with Alma Shindler. With Alma’s revelation of her affair with Walter Gropius, Fischer writes: “The present writer admits to having difficulty with the events of these months. Rather these events depict our ‘hero’ in such a desperate and hopeless situation, a character who, for all his contradictions, was none the less a great man but who seems to fall apart.” Alma, a mendacious diarist, was likely truthful when she wrote “he said that he felt that I did not love him. He was right. After what had happened everything in me was cold.” “He lived a life of torment and inflicted torments a thousand times worse on me. Our lovely beginning had turned to gloom and misery.” (He lost interest in having sex with her.) Furthermore she could not stand his music: “his art leaves me so cold, so dreadfully cold. I don’t believe in him as a composer.” Fischer is unstinting in his contempt of Alma for lying and destroying evidence and for playing the martyr, but for the marriage, he shows sympathy: “After eight years of a frustrating marriage she believed that she deserved it [the affair].”

Against all this of course, in the background, we have the exquisite (even if overexposed) and perhaps unsurpassed love song to Alma, the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. (Fischer hates the version used, famously, in Visconti’s film Death in Venice.)

Adagietto, 5th Symphony, Sir John Barbirolli, devotion, love, sadness.

The listening and reading brings me inevitably to the 9th Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. At my age I am deeply in accord with Alban Berg, who adored Mahler: “I’ve just played through Mahler’s Ninth again. The first movement is the most glorious that he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, the longing to live on it in peace, nature, to enjoy it completely, to the very depths of one’s being, before death comes.”

Even more, and not to be morbid, is the effect of the wistful nostalgia and mystery of Das Lied von der Erde. In Fischer’s words (regarding the last movement)

“Never has the unfathomable loneliness for the human soul been laid so bare and seemed as vulnerable as it does here.” The ending staggers to an end with a sevenfold repeat of the word “Ewig” (forever).

Among many critics and scholars Fischer cites, one of the most sympathetic and influential was Theodor Adorno who wrote: “in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass by the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted…. In the debased and vilified materials of music he scratches for illicit joys.”

Fischer describes in great detail Mahler’s death. How does a genius die? “One has the impression that when he died Mahler was not at peace with himself or with the other wider questions of life and death.”

“One day people will separate the wheat from the chaff—and when his [Richard Strauss’] day has passed, my time will come,” Mahler famously remarked. That “one day” for Mahler’s music came in the 1960s. Fischer proposes a number of reasons for this surge in interest in Mahler’s music, including Adorno’s monograph in 1960 and the spread of stereo and high fidelity, which showcased his music. It was just at that time that I discovered both Mahler and Bruckner. I learned to love classical music from a dear friend, Al Hand, whose standards were Haydn and Brahms. He was appalled when I discovered Mahler in the stacks at the Music Library on Avenue Road, located beneath his attic apartment. All I knew came from the LP blurbs and the astonishing sounds I heard.

Margaret Price sings Mahler\’s \”Liebst du um Schönheit\” (Rückert #3). Farewell to the great Welsh soprano who died last year.

“How absurd it is to let oneself be submerged in the brutal whirlpool of life!” Mahler wrote. “To be untrue to oneself and to those higher things above oneself for even a single hour. Strange! When I hear music—even while I am conducting—I hear quite specific answers to all my questions—and am completely clear and certain. Or rather I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all.”

James H.Marsh is Editor in Chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia


Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required