Mahler: A Life

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"An elegant book that shines a powerful light on both Mahler and his music." -The New York Times

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Overview

"An elegant book that shines a powerful light on both Mahler and his music." -The New York Times

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Carr, a British journalist living in Germany, has been researching Gustav Mahler's life and attending performances of his music since 1960. His concise, caring portrait turns flinty (and more captivating) whenever Mahler's wife, Alma, is the subject. By turns Carr describes, quotes, argues with, dismisses, apparently mistranslates, and yields to her, making plain his conflicting feelings toward her. Catalogers of this book should add a subject entry for Alma, for just over half the book focuses on Mahler's life and music after marriage. A popular, opinionated treatment using new evidence from a postcard here, an item "tucked away" in an archive there, this book ends with a useful bibliographic/discographic essay. A good choice for biography collections.Bonnie Jo Dopp, Performing Arts Lib., Univ. of Maryland Lib.
Booknews
Reexamines the composer's life and work and challenges widely held myths about him, concentrating on his last decade but also offering background on his earlier career. Looks at his marriage to Alma Schindler, his achievements as director of the Vienna opera, his love of oriental mysticism, and his final years in America. Includes b&w photos, a chronology, a list of works, and suggestions for a CD collection. Draws on material previously unavailable in English. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590205143
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 774,916
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

From Province to Promised Land

The scene: a forest in early morning. The mist is starting to lift and sunlight to flicker through the trees, but still every shape is indistinct. Only sounds seem half-way real; a cuckoo's call, a distant flourish of trumpets, a burst of laughter and what could be a folk tune. It might be just a dream--of Arcadia perhaps. Then the locals give the game away with a rumbustious, thigh-slapping dance. We are surely in Austria, or thereabouts.

With this nature tone poem Mahler begins his First Symphony. Parts of it so far might have been composed by contemporaries like Antonin Dvorak or Bedrich Smetana, but Mahler goes on to shatter the idyll in his own unique way. Groans and squawks from instruments playing at their limits parody a funeral march on the theme 'Bruder Martin' ('Frere Jacques'). Snatches of Jewish melody slide in, then fade into a resigned lullaby which brings no real rest. The last movement storms in without a pause, sweeping away idyll and parody with a triumphant, at least implacable, march. Dall' Inferno al Paradiso Mahler called it; then, as he often did, withdrew the title. If people could not grasp what he meant from the music itself then words would not help.

Many people could not. 'One of us must be crazy and it isn't me,' wrote Vienna's most influential critic Eduard Hanslick, baffled by the symphony's apparent lack of form and mish-mash of styles. Others were still less charitable, snarling about a 'cacophony', a 'monstrosity', even 'Jewish gibberish'.

It is easy to tut-tut such lack of insight now that the work is firmly entrenched in the repertoire. Perhaps too firmly. Frequent repetition can dull the shock-effect of this revolutionary symphonic debut; and Mahler certainly did mean to shock. He took it as a small triumph when, at the Budapest premiere, a lady listener jumped with alarm at the finale's first fortissimo crash and scattered her belongings on the floor. Searing pain and wry humour, dreamy introspection and animal high spirits, a will to emerge on top come what may; there are already plenty of clues in this First Symphony to its creator, especially to his complex and often misconstrued early life.

The complexities start with a definition problem. Leonard Bernstein underlined it when he called Mahler 'a little German-Czech-Moravian-Jewish-Polish boy'. He was wrong about the Polish part and he might have said Austrian rather than German but the rest is quite correct. Mahler came from the very centre of volatile central Europe. He was born to Jewish parents on 7th July 1860, in a poor Bohemian village called Kalischt (Kaliste) roughly midway between Prague and Vienna. As a child he got to know dozens of Czech folk melodies, some of which strayed into his music, and as a man he still seems to have understood the Czech language passably well. But when he was only a few months old the family moved to the nearest town of Iglau (Jihlava) in neighbouring Moravia.

A move to the next province as such was not an enormous upheaval. Bohemia and Moravia shared much common history. They had once been linked as the so-called 'lands of St Wenceslas' crown' and the border between them was never sharply defined. But Iglau itself was a largely German-speaking enclave, thanks to an inflow of Austrian and Bavarian workers which had begun centuries before. There Mahler began to devour the classics of German literature and first heard German music. Iglau was not, strictly speaking, German all the same. Like the rest of Moravia and Bohemia, Hungary and Galicia, Croatia and Transylvania, even Lombardy in north Italy, it was part of the polyglot Austrian empire, ruled for centuries from Vienna by the Habsburg dynasty and, in Mahler's time, on the decay. In 1866, a few days before Mahler's sixth birthday, Bismarck's Prussian army smashed the imperial Austrian forces near Koniggratz in Bohemia, less than 100 miles north of Iglau. Indeed, for a few months Iglau became a Prussian-occupied town. A year later the Habsburg empire split into two unequal halves, a Hungarian and an Austrian one, though with the same painstaking, well-intentioned Franz Joseph I as their common sovereign. Four years after that a united German empire, excluding Austria-Hungary, emerged under Prussian leadership as the dominant power in Europe.

Paradoxically the kind of Europe into which Mahler was born seems closer these days than it did in the Iron Curtain era, when East and West were brutally divided and the so-called 'People's Democracies' were held under Moscow's thumb. Now Germany (albeit a very different one from Bismarck's) has reunited and the two halves of the continent are trying to come together, despite signs of resurgent nationalism, in a rather fuzzy European Union. Franz Joseph's empire was hardly less fuzzy than the present European club centred on Brussels. What had mainly held its millions of Germans and Magyars, Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Serbs and Slovenes together was loyalty to a single ruling house. That loyalty began to crumble as the empire's peoples sought to realise a growing sense of cultural and national identity. The Germans, the biggest and most powerful group, felt torn two ways--to Franz Joseph in Vienna and to Bismarck's Reich.

Mahler can have known little in detail about this when he was a child and later he showed only a very fleeting interest in politics. But he surely sensed the strains of a world in upheaval, of growing national feeling all around, of battles fought almost on his doorstep. Much more directly he felt the tension of being born a Jew.

In later life Mahler claimed to be '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.' That oft-quoted statement is somewhat disingenuous. Mahler was not a refugee shunted willy-nilly from one spot to another. Most of the time he chose to move because he received offers of better jobs. But it is true that from early on he was aware of being part of a minority which did not fit in, and into which, moreover, he did not fit. In Bohemia and Moravia, easily the most advanced part of the empire with good communications and fast-developing industry, Jews made up less than two per cent of the population. Hard-working and relatively well-educated, most of them prized German as the language of a great culture and of the empire's elite, as something you had to master to get ahead. They saw towns like Iglau and, above all, Vienna as a promised land, but one which long stayed a mirage because Jews were not allowed to move about the empire and settle at will. That was changing when Mahler was born, thanks to liberalisation steps decreed by Franz Joseph. The Jews, among them the Mahlers, began a long march into the towns. However hard many of them tried, they did not become truly German in the eyes of the native Germans. But they tended to be seen as a kind of Germanic fifth column by, among others, the increasingly assertive Czechs.

It was against this background that Mahler grew up although Iglau itself, where he spent his first fifteen years and many holidays afterwards, was a tolerant spot. Some accounts suggest it was not so much tolerant as stultifyingly dull (a 'hick town' the composer Ernst Krenek called it) but they are too harsh by half. Back in the Middle Ages Iglau was one of Europe's main silver-mining centres and for a time housed the royal mint. Later it became a leather and textiles centre important enough to have the main imperial post route from Vienna to Prague rerouted through it. In Mahler's time it was a thriving community of more than 20,000 people, famed for good schools, a strong choral tradition and, not least, for its huge square, more than 1000 feet long, surrounded by brightly decorated houses and dotted with fountains.

Most of the spots Mahler knew best were either on the square or within a minute or two's walk of it. One was the German Gymnasium (high school) where Mahler later claimed to have 'learned nothing'. That remark was made tongue-in-cheek although it is a fact that Mahler tended to dream over his books and picked up more outside the classroom than inside it. Also nearby was the municipal theatre, accomplished (or at least ambitious) enough to put on operas like Mozart's Don Giovanni and Bellini's Norma. The ten-year-old 'Maler', as a local paper called him, gave his first reported piano recital there and won an ovation despite the ropy instrument on which he had to play. By that time he was already something of a veteran. He had first begun thumping on a dusty old piano he found as an adventurous little boy in his maternal grandparents' attic. The next day the instrument was trundled round to Gustav's home by ox-cart and from then on he never looked back. More musical input came from the local Roman Catholic church of St James (Jakobskirche). Although Jewish, Mahler was allowed to sing in the choir there and had some private lessons in harmony from the choirmaster, Heinrich Fischer.

Around the corner from the theatre was a barracks from which Mahler must first have heard the sound of trumpet calls and marches. Perhaps he even saw troops setting off for the slaughter at Koniggratz or the wounded returning with the Prussians at their heels. At any rate from very early on martial music filled him with mingled fascination and fright. When he was about three he trotted out of the house, dressed only in his shirt, and clutching an accordion, and was drawn away Pied Piper-like by a passing military band. He got lost and bystanders agreed to take him home only when he played them the tune he had heard from the soldiers. Around the same time his fine ear won Mahler a less admiring audience at the newly built synagogue (razed by the Nazis in 1939). Vexed by what struck him as the ugly noise made by the congregation, he bawled for silence and, to his mother's horror, broke into his favourite street song--a ditty partly in polka rhythm about a wayfarer dancing wildly at an inn. Meanwhile he was beginning to compose. His first known piece was a polka preceded by a funeral march.

Just off the lower end of the square are the two houses where the Mahlers lived, the first rented on arrival in Iglau, the second bought twelve years later. They are solid, spacious, buildings with two upper storeys--far more prepossessing than the long, low dwelling lacking glass in the windows from which the family had moved in Kalischt. Upstairs Mahler's father, Bernard, built up quite a library and later proudly displayed in a glass frame a certificate showing he had been made a freeman of Iglau. A servant, a nurse and a cook were employed to help out with the huge family--fourteen children in all, although around half died young, including Gustav's favourite brother Ernst. Downstairs Bernard established his business, mainly making and selling liquor with a bakery on the side. As trade grew he set up branches elsewhere in town.

Bernard has sometimes been called 'an assimilated Jew' but clearly he did not turn his back on Judaism altogether. He was elected a committee member of the local Jewish community and his wife and children, at least, attended the synagogue. How often Bernard went along too is unclear. Probably he was far more dedicated to his business than to religious observance, or indeed anything else. The Mahlers never became rich and as a student in Vienna Gustav was always strapped for cash, but the evidence does not show he was brought up in squalor. He was possibly a little ashamed of the way his father earned a living, although that does not mean he was ashamed of his father. In 1904 he asked a biographer, Richard Specht, to call Bernard simply 'a tradesman'. That may look like a cover-up but then Specht had proposed writing that Bernard ran 'a pothouse'. Arguably Mahler was more accurate.

Does it matter much whether he was or not? The issue may seem dangerously close to the world of How many children had Lady Macbeth?, that fine satire on fanatics for detail whose labours add not a jot to our understanding of Shakespeare. But 'the impressions of Mahler's youth', as one close friend put it,'run like a scarlet thread through his whole life.' And, one should add, through his whole work. Mahler once compared composing to playing with building blocks gathered in childhood. Identify those early impressions wrongly and the 'scarlet thread' will lead to an absorbing caricature of a composer, but not to Mahler.

Mahler's home life is often said to have been sheer hell. His widow, Alma, set the pattern in her hugely readable but error-ridden memoirs. According to her, Mahler 'dreamed his way through family life and childhood. He saw nothing of the unending tortures his mother had to endure from the brutality of his father, who ran after every servant, domineered over his delicate wife and flogged the children.'

If Mahler had really seen nothing of the tortures it is unclear how Alma knew about them. But she has naturally been treated as a prime source and the few early photos available seem on the face of it to confirm her dire picture. Here is Bernard, fist clenched on a table and glaring out over his walrus moustache as though warning, 'Just wait till I catch you.' And there is Gustav aged about six, wide-eyed and lip-biting, evidently poised for flight. How easy to put two and two together--and make five. In a passing remark years later Mahler recalled the photo session. He had been scared to death because he thought that he was about to be scooped up, stuffed inside the camera and then stuck on a piece of cardboard.

Bernard was certainly no saint but the evidence does not show he was a devil either. He was blunt and ambitious, energetic and overweeningly persistent. Much of that he inherited from his mother, a stubborn old bird who was still peddling drapery from door to door in a heavy box at the age of eighty. One tale has it that when given what she felt was an unjust fine, she tramped off to Vienna, won an audience with Franz Joseph himself and the fine was dropped. No doubt the story is apochryphal but because it fitted her so well it was often retold.

Bernard had a travelling sales job too but he went one better than his mother and got hold of a horse and cart. Reckoning that knowledge was power he read books voraciously, even studied French, in spare moments on trips. It was no love match on either side when in 1857 he married Maria Hermann (usually called Marie), daughter of a soap-boiler and, at nineteen, ten years his junior. She limped and had a weak heart but arguably it was a step up socially for Bernard and he would have got a dowry. The first child, Isidor, died soon after birth in 1858. The second was Gustav.

An authoritarian father, a suffering, constantly pregnant mother, brothers and sisters borne off regularly in coffins; that, alas, was still an all too familiar picture in the nineteenth century. It did not necessarily mean that children grew up psychologically maimed, still less that the pressures turned them into great creative artists. All the same, Mahler's family background makes it sorely (for many irresistibly) tempting to try to fathom him and his music via the psychiatrist's couch. None other than Sigmund Freud did just that; at least, he made a stab at analysing Mahler during a few hours' stroll round the Dutch town of Leiden in 1910. The outcome was predictable. Freud concluded that Mahler had a Holy Mary complex (mother fixation) and unearthed an early incident which seemed to explain much about the character of Mahler's work. Mahler is said to have remembered that after a 'specially painful scene' between his parents, he ran out of the house and heard a passing barrel organ grinding out a popular tune, 'Ach, du lieber Augustin'. Hence, we are told, the stark contrast between the tragic and the banal became fixed in his mind for life. According to Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones, Mahler even 'suddenly said that now he understood why his music had always been prevented from achieving the highest rank through the noblest passages ... being spoilt by the intrusion of some commonplace melody.'

This is absorbing but dangerous stuff. The barrel organ tale comes from a summary by Jones of an unpublished letter which Freud wrote to a confidante in 1925 and which may not fairly reflect what was said at the Leiden meeting fifteen years earlier. True enough, the tragic or noble and the banal are often juxtaposed in Mahler's work. That is one important reason why it is so intense and, for Mahler's fans and foes alike, memorable. But it is hard indeed to believe Mahler really identified this as something involuntary which kept his music 'from achieving the highest rank'. He was certainly a self-critical composer, constantly revamping his orchestration and even urging conductors to do the same after his death if they felt something sounded wrong. But there is no sign either before or after the alleged revelation in Leiden that he tried to revise out of his work intrusive 'banalities'. On the contrary there is a great deal of evidence that he knew just what he was doing when he put them in.

Freud's comment about a 'Holy Mary complex' has helped sustain a distorted view of Mahler's relations with his parents. Despite the 'dreaming' which Alma reports, Mahler was under no illusions about how things really were between Bernard and Marie. 'They were as ill-suited as fire and water,' he told a lady-friend when he was in his mid-thirties. 'He was all obstinacy, she was gentleness itself.' Blunt words but not enough to justify the frequent claim that Mahler hated his father and so identified with his mother that throughout his life he unconsciously imitated her limp. Demonstrably there was much of both his parents in Mahler, of Bernard certainly no less than of Marie. He needed no barrel organ incident to fix the pain of stark contrast in his mind. It was already there. The battle between fire and water, as it were, was implanted in Mahler at birth and it never ceased to rage.

Mahler always referred to his mother with love and claimed that in his Fourth Symphony's bitter-sweet Adagio, perhaps his loveliest, he pictured her smiling through tears. Still, when told in 1889 that she was at death's door he neither pulled out of the performance he was down to conduct that evening nor, it seems, did he get to her funeral a few days later (though he had attended his father's earlier the same year). He was surely grief-stricken but he bottled up his feelings because his duties came first. That does not prove he was callous but nor does it suggest a 'mother fixation'.

As for imitating his mother's limp, that too belongs in the bulky file of 'great Mahler myths'. Mahler did have a very odd, jerky walk which no one who saw him could fail to notice. Some called it a nervous tic but this was denied by his daughter Anna, who as a little girl often went strolling with him. She said Mahler simply changed his rhythm every few steps. Why he did so is unclear. Perhaps his mind was full of those passages with abruptly shifting pace and beat so characteristic of his work. At any rate this oddity of rhythm was not confined to his gait. One exasperated rowing partner reported that Mahler constantly changed his stroke without warning, then blamed others for the resulting confusion.

Mahler's feelings for his father were surely quite different, but it is debatable whether they amounted to hatred. During his spell as a conductor in Hamburg, after Bernard's death, Mahler showed a visitor round his flat and told him, 'On that chair my good father used to work.' Perhaps 'good father' was just a form of words. The Mahler children often referred to 'dear father' in their letters, even when they were seething over some real or imagined paternal misdeed. But if Mahler had despised his father, would he have been carting that battered armchair about? It must have been a sign, if not of love, at least of a certain gratitude and respect. After all, it was Bernard who had encouraged Gustav to pursue the piano, no doubt hoping his son would become a money-spinning virtuoso, and who later let him study at the Vienna conservatory, though evidently not helping him much to pay the fees. When young Gustav was mistreated by a family with whom he had been sent to stay in Prague, a wrathful Bernard descended, packed his son's things and took him straight home. He had unwittingly got Gustav into the jam in the first place, but he acted with typical dispatch once he heard what was going on.

From his father Mahler inherited, among other things, voracious ambition and unshakeable will. If he had not he would probably have got little further in life than conductor of the Iglau choral society. Like his father too he was not squeamish in his methods. At six or seven he was already giving piano lessons for about 5 crowns an hour and boxing his pupils sharply on the ears whenever they played a wrong note. Later as a piano accompanist he gave warning kicks to the victim employed to turn the pages of his score. The page-turner decided to kick back. 'You Schweinehund,' shouted Mahler when the piece was over.

Mahler also had traits Bernard lacked--a sense of diplomacy, an ability to pull strings behind the scenes and a readiness to flatter obsequiously when he felt this would serve his cause. He would have gone far in politics, had he wished. He might also have made his mark as a writer. Early on he began poking into his father's Iglau library and later became a real bookworm, weeping with laughter over Cervantes' Don Quixote, devouring Dostoyevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov, and ploughing through the German classics. Throughout his life he shot off thousands of letters. Hundreds survive, often thoughtful, vivid, funny. When in his twenties, he was advised by a scholarly friend to drop composing for writing because he had 'such a sovereign command of words and so penetrating an insight into human psychology'. 'I can't help it,' Mahler replied. 'I just have to compose.'

It was not all an indoor life of books and music. Although he was small and rather pale, young Gustav had plenty of friends and spent a lot of time out of doors. When his comrades came round to his house to play in the courtyard and cellars, as like as not it was Gustav who led the pack and suggested new games. In summer he spent long hours with them splashing around in the municipal baths and hiking through the surrounding Bohemian-Moravian highlands--full of beauty and mystery with their thick forests, streams, castles and ancient burial mounds.

They were full of music too. It is hard to fathom just why an area within a radius of only about 150 miles from Mahler's birthplace should have produced so rich a harvest of composers; Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek and Suk in the nineteenth century, Krommer, Dusek and the Wranitzky brothers in the eighteenth and dozens of others, often hugely productive. The reasons are many, from the backing of music-loving aristocrats to the special skills of teachers and instrument-makers. But part of the answer must lie in the mystery and beauty of the landscape itself and of the sounds which belonged to it. In Mahler's case there is no doubt about it. 'Nothing but the sounds of nature' is how he once (over-simply) defined his work. He should at least have added 'and the sounds of man in nature', like the distant call of the post-coachman's horn which he heard so often as a child. Sometimes two coaches would pass and each virtuoso aboard would try to outdo the other, sending one brilliant fanfare after another resounding across the countryside. Mahler recalls such episodes above all in the Scherzando movement of his Third Symphony. He does so with a deep nostalgia. The world was soon to have no more need of post-coaches and their ebullient musicians.

More input for a budding composer came from the little country bands, usually just a few strings with clarinet, trumpet or bagpipes. Mahler often trekked off to hear them. Friedrich (Fritz) Lohr, a close friend who went with him on one such outing, recalled that 'there was dancing, there was rhythm, causing heart and senses to vibrate as though intoxicated. There was the zest for life and sorrow too' as girls dressed in bright petticoats and with heads bowed to their partners' chests circled as though in a solemn ritual. Zest and sorrow together: Lohr might have been describing so many ambivalent passages in Mahler's work.

The picture of Mahler the solitary dreamer is not wrong, but merely incomplete. Alma tells how Bernard once took Gustav on a walk in the woods, then had to pop home for something. He got involved in other matters and temporarily forgot he had left his son behind. Hours later, after nightfall, he found Gustav sitting unafraid in the same spot, lost in contemplation. There is no reason to doubt Alma here since so many other witnesses over the years tell similar tales; of the absent-minded Mahler who stirred his tea with his cigarette; of the self-absorbed Mahler who sat studying a score for ages in a motionless train, unaware the engine had been uncoupled; of the moody Mahler who would switch from eloquence to silence in a trice for no apparent reason; of the creative Mahler who shut himself away in isolated country huts and who wrote 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' ('I am lost to the world'), one of his--or anyone's--finest songs.

Even if we knew none of these tales, Mahler handily supplies quite a rounded self-portrait in just three early letters. One of them, very long and histrionic, was written to a student friend when Mahler was not quite nineteen and giving piano lessons to a family in a village in Hungary. It was a lonely spot. At sunset Mahler would climb a linden tree on the heath, gaze out over the Danube and listen to the melancholy croaking of a frog in the reeds. In his letter he sadly recalls his dead brother Ernst (Mahler had been sketching, but then abandoned, an opera called Herzog Ernst von Schwaben) and rails against 'modern hypocrisy and mendacity' in art and life, asking, 'What way out is there but self-annihilation?' He ends: 'Oh my beloved earth, when, oh when, wilt thou take the abandoned one unto thy breast? Behold! Mankind has banished him from itself, and he flees from its cold and heartless bosom to thee! Oh, care for the friendless one, for the restless one, Universal Mother!'

Few of Mahler's letters are quoted as often as that one. It is held to reveal even at that early stage so many features of the mature composer--uprooted, solitary, introspective, nature-intoxicated, near-suicidal. Some commentators find in it uncanny links with Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), one of Mahler's farewell works written three decades later. None of that is wholly off target. But a few months later Mahler, in the throes of an unhappy love affair with Josephine Poisl, daughter of Iglau's chief telegraphist, writes to another student friend. This letter is less well known.

'My dear friend, I have got myself quite badly entangled in the silken chains of the darling of the gods. The hero "now sighs, now wrings his hands, now groans, now entreats", etc., etc. I have really spent most of the time, indulging in every kind of bitter-sweet daydream; I have said "Ah" when I got up and "Oh" when I went to bed ... My eyes are like a couple of squeezed-out lemons, and there is not a single tear left in them.' Having unburdened himself of that Mahler adds a PS, 'If you can, lend me a fiver, but only if this is absolutely convenient,' and then a PPS, 'I have now been carrying this letter around in my pocket for two weeks already. Reply immediately!'

How different the tone; more to the point, how intentionally different. In the second letter Mahler writes that 'I have forced myself into a facetious pastoral style so as not to fall into the old, trite lamentations.' However intense the pain, and no doubt unrequited love in Iglau hurt him just as much as his Weltschmerz in Hungary, Mahler compels himself with a strong dose of irony to snap out of it. Evidently his self-discipline did not extend to posting the letter promptly but maybe in the mere writing of it he achieved his main, cathartic purpose. Perhaps, too, three songs he dedicated to Josephine at around that time had a similar effect.

When he wrote those letters Mahler had already passed out of the Vienna conservatory. Four years earlier, in 1875, he was still pining to go there and looking for allies who would help persuade a doubtful Bernard. He struck gold with Gustav Schwarz, manager of an estate in Morawan north of Iglau, who heard Gustav play the piano and said he should study music. Knowing that an estate manager was just the kind of person his father would listen to, Mahler wrote Schwarz a letter which, for a fifteen-year-old, was a masterpiece of diplomacy. Couched in the politest terms, Mahler said his 'dear father' was hesitating to agree to 'our plan' because he feared Gustav would neglect his academic work and get into bad company if he went to Vienna.

'Even when he seems to be inclining to our side,' Mahler wrote, 'you must remember that I ... have only myself to rely on in my struggle against the superior power of so many "reasonable and mature people". That is why I beg you to be kind enough to call on us on Saturday, 4 September, for you are the only person who can really win my father over.' Schwarz called and Bernard gave in, though he insisted that Mahler pursue his schoolwork as an external student in Iglau as well as music in Vienna.

There are two versions of what happened next. One is that Bernard took Mahler to Vienna to seek expert advice from Julius Epstein, professor of piano at the conservatory. Epstein is said to have come out of lectures, heard Mahler play for five minutes at most and announced, 'Mr Mahler, your son is a born musician ... I could not be wrong.' It is an engaging tale told by Epstein himself, albeit nearly four decades later when he was nearly eighty. The other version comes from Schwarz who says he took Mahler to see Epstein at Baden, near Vienna. According to Schwarz, the professor was not at all impressed by Mahler's pianistic skill but recognised his talent when the boy finally played some pieces of his own.

Whichever account is right (perhaps there were really two visits, one by a still sceptical Bernard following up one by Schwarz), the result was the same. Mahler enrolled at the conservatory on 10th September, two months after his fifteenth birthday.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

List of Illustrations xi

Map of Mahler's Europe xiii

Introduction 1

1 From Province to Promised Land 5

2 On the Road 29

3 To the Summit 51

4 Vienna - Digging In 76

5 Alma 99

6 Maiernigg 117

7 Triumph and Tragedy 137

8 America 156

9 Das Lied von der Erde 178

10 Inferno 197

11 Finale 210

Epilogue 221

Recommendations 225

Chronology 231

Works 237

Index 243

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 5, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Gustav Mahler's meeting with Sigmund Freud remains a mystery, (2 of 2)

    (1 of 2 is in HARDCOVER edition)<BR/><BR/> Yet one described Mahler's dynamite conducting `'Like a cat with convulsions"' He had many clashes with fellow conductors, theater directors, and even composers; something else, early on Mahler had a row with Brahms .While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with the cantata Das klagende Lied. The work was entered in a competition where the jury was headed by Johannes Brahms, but failed to win a prize. (Did he feel the brunt of Jewish curse?? It could be!!) <BR/><BR/>(In later years, however, Brahms was greatly impressed by Mahler's conducting of Don Giovanni.). Similarly Mahler had noisy discussions with Richard Strauss on Strauss's tone poem `'Sinfonia Domestica'', Mahler simply couldn't hold his row. <BR/><BR/>Now, the author pinpointed inscriptions that go: To the `'holy Gustav Mahler'' and the `'immortal example of his works and deeds'' dedicated on one of the hundreds of wreaths lay beside the route between church and graveside. ""It came from Arnold Schonberg, often helped Mahler with cash and counsel, and other pioneers of the atonal school, including Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Arnold Schonberg was one of those who, huddled under the umbrellas, trudged slowly behind the coffin as it was borne away from the church. So was the conductor Bruno Walter, destined to fight for wider recognition of Mahler's music on two continents over the half a century. So was Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Mahler's greatest love before his marriage and transformed by him from a promising young singer into a dramatic soprano without peer. "" <BR/><BR/>Many more attended, there too was Mahler's revolutionary stage designer Alfred Roller, the poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the painter Gustav Klimt, one of Alma's old flames. Alma herself did not attend - on doctors' orders, it was said. How cruel of Mahler's wife not to attend her husband's funeral! Had she really loved him? Had she really respected him despite all his flaws? Alma wrote two books (memoirs) - My Life, My Loves, and My Diaries 1898-1902) - and their impact on Mahler's studies was great for at least some 40 years. <BR/>Alma was a graceful, well-connected and influential woman who outlived Mahler by more than 50 years. <BR/><BR/>Enigmatic, though, was Mahler's meeting with Freud: <BR/>Gustav and Sigmund were Jews by birth. They had much more in common. Their thoughts had no relation to religion and did not oppose it. They were very strict, thoughtful and rigorous in observance of moral matters, often excessively so; rigidly austere Viennese gentlemen - by adoption. <BR/><BR/>Freud's comment about a `Holy Mary complex'' has helped sustain a distorted view of Mahler's relation with his parents. Despite the `dreaming'', which Alma reports, Mahler was under no illusion about how things really were between Bernard and Marie. (His father and Mother) `'They were as ill-suited as fire and water", he told a lady-friend when he was in his mid thirties. ""He was all obstinacy, she was gentleness itself". Blunt words but not enough to justify the frequent claim Mahler hated his father and so identified with his mother that throughout his life he unconsciously imitated her limp. Demonstrably there were much of both his parents in Mahler, of Bernard certainly no less than Marie. He needed no barrel organ incident to fix the pain of stark contrast in his mind. <BR/><BR/>Can anyone unravel the threa

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  • Posted November 5, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Gustav Mahler's meeting with Sigmund Freud remains a mystery, (1 of 2)

    The Author describes, at appreciable length, why Gustav Mahler was widely misunderstood both as man and musician. More than 50 years after his death his works were left apart until, restored to life prompted by interest and performance, Mahler took his deserved place in the repertoires. <BR/><BR/>Mahler's tempestuous marriage to Alma Schindler is of particular interest. Alma claimed she was for decades the main authority of Mahler's works, values, character and his day-to-day actions and movements. <BR/><BR/>For many years, Alma's various publications quickly became the central source of information and references for Mahler scholars and music-lovers alike. <BR/>But, unfortunately, many writers have treated her accounts as unreliable, false, misleading and often impaired soundness. It is a fact that these imperfect accounts have nevertheless had a great influence upon several generations of music-lovers, hence the legend: "Alma's Problem"". <BR/>Mahler's youth, as described in the first two chapters is fascinating, like the reader's watching a live short resume cast by History Channel. There begins Mahler's occupation as summer composer "" in isolated huts in the country, and his revolutionary achievements as director of Vienna Opera. In 1907 Mahler resigned his post, many claimed he was driven from it, and went with Alma to America. Four years later his health in ruin and his marriage crumbling, he returned to Vienna and died there on the 18th of May 1911, a few weeks before his 51st birthday. He was buried four days later in Grinzing cemetery next to his daughter Maria (died in 1907)"" <BR/>""On the day he died, that teeming rain on that blustery Monday afternoon, hundreds of ordinary Viennese crowded outside the little church where the service was held and the coffin blessed. Only minority had come to pay tribute to Mahler the composer. His gigantic Symphonies had rarely gone down well in Vienna and not a single one had been premiered there. But Mahler -the Opera Director- that was another matter. In a few stormy years he had lashed the institution at the heart of the city's cultural life to a peak of excellence it might never reach again. Many Viennese had acknowledged as much while Mahler was still at the helm. Now some erstwhile critics were starting to do so too. As one contemptuous Mahler fan put it, `'the same sneering somebody's'' who had attacked every Mahler production were now `'keen to belong to the exclusive circle of Mahlerites'"" <BR/><BR/>The talented, ambitious and ruthless conductor is often degenerated in Alma's memoirs as a sickly and cerebral recluse; Arnold Schoenberg called him a `saint'. For some of Mahler's friends and disciples, he was a great creative artist. Mahler was even suicidal, often called `the Jewish Monkey'' because he was committed to his interpretations of Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, even Georges Bizet and many more. His violent conducting gesticulations had been subject to laughter from his peers, pupils, viewers and musicians. The man was simply very absorbed (committed) in his work; for instance he believed he made-up for Beethoven's deafness by offering interpretations that he felt was necessary in the Ninth Symphony which Beethoven must have had in mind. <BR/>Yet one described Mahler's dynamite conducting `'Like a cat with convulsions"' ........

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