When the second volume of de La Grange's monumental study of Mahler appeared, it was hailed in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications as an indispensable portrait of the great composer. Here at last is the third volume of this magisterial work.
Ranging from 1904 to 1907, it explores Mahler's final years as administrator, producer, and conductor of the Vienna Opera. It was a time of intense inner struggle, with Mahler's energy and creative powers drained by the competing demands of running the Hofoper and struggling for recognition as a composer. And they were tragic years as well, especially 1907, Mahler's last year in Vienna, when the death of his daughter and the diagnosis of heart disease forced him to leave the Opera. Throughout the book, de La Grange offers true-to-life portraits of Mahler the human being, the family man, and the composer, and he weaves in innumerable testimonies and anecdotes that throw new light on the great composer's complex personality.
The product of forty years of research, here is the definitive study of a musical giant. It is, as The Wall Street Journal said of volume two, "a work of the first importance, one that nobody seriously interested in Mahler can possibly afford to skip."
|Publisher:||Oxford University Press, USA|
|Product dimensions:||9.30(w) x 6.50(h) x 2.30(d)|
About the Author
Henry-Louis de La Grange is President of the Gustav Mahler Musical Library, Paris. He is also a chevalier of the Order of the Legion d'honneur, and an officer of the Ordre du Merite.
Read an Excerpt
Fidelio First Performance of the Fifth Symphony Second Journey to Holland Mahler as Diplomat The Third Symphony in Leipzig and Vienna
Oh! If only I could give my symphonies their first
performances fifty years after my death! ...
MAHLER'S summer holidays with his family in Maiernigg invariably ended with his returning alone to Vienna, leaving Alma and the children to enjoy further weeks away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. These separations always gave rise to a stream of letters or postcards from Mahler to Alma. There is no trace of such correspondence at the end of the summer of 1904. For once, therefore, Alma must have returned at the same time as her husband. He no doubt wanted to have her by his side while he was preparing two major events scheduled to take place in the early autumnthe new production of Fidelio, and the first performance of his Fifth Symphony in Cologne, rehearsals for which were to begin in Vienna. Fidelio was for Mahler the finest work in the entire repertory. He devoted all his strength and 'recreative' genius to this 'opera of operas', and had set the date of the première to coincide with the Emperor's name day celebrations on 4 October.
Alma watched the rehearsals from the director's box while Mahler and Roller dealt with every detail of the staging and lighting, both of which were even more elaborate and refined than those of the previous year's Tristan. After two years of operatic stage designing,Roller had now fully mastered the possibilities of integrating visual representation with the shifting moods and episodes of the music. The new production, many aspects of which were initially viewed as the height of audacity and modernism, was so often copied round the world that it came to be regarded as another major event in the history of opera production. Several of its main, and at first most controversial features, like the new positioning of the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the scene change in the middle of the first act, established a new tradition.
For the first scenes, with their domestic, workaday character, Mahler and Roller decided to provide a more intimate setting than that of the prison: they showed the interior of the jailer's modest dwelling. The subsequent change of scene to the prison courtyard thus fitted in perfectly with the change in the style of the music which, in the middle of the first act, abandons the prosaic Singspiel for the noble and tragic mood of opera seria. After the Overture, therefore, the curtain rose on a little room with worn furnishings. A few details emphasized the rustic atmosphere: a picture of a Madonna on the wall; a bunch of flowers on a cabinet; an ironing board balanced across two chairs and piled with linen; clothes over the stair rail. The setting was well suited to the domestic comedy scenes between Marzelline, Jaquino, and Rocco. Mahler, faithful subscriber to the Romantic and optimistic view of human nature, simply cut out Rocco's first-act aria in praise of gold, thus at a stroke speeding up the action and making the old jailer's character less venial. To eliminate everything which undermined the essentially tragic character of the work, Mahler gave the role of Marzellina to a lyric soprano, Berta Förster-Lauterer, rather than to a light soprano as had usually been done before. He also reduced Jaquino's 'silly teasing' to a strict minimum.
The lighting, and with it the mood on stage, changed as soon as Leonore-Fidelio entered. From the first note of the orchestral introduction to the quartet 'Mir ist so wunderbar', and on to the final note of the quartet itself, Mahler had the four singers stand perfectly still, 'because, during that time, they all have but one single thought which is expounded in glorious detail by the miracle of music. But each is thinking the thought to himself in his mind, which means that any action, the slightest movement even, during that "moment of thought", would be preposterous.'
The contrast between Mahler's conception, based overridingly on expressiveness, and that of other conductor-directors became increasingly evident after his departure from Vienna. When his successor, Felix Weingartner, came to this episode in the first act and was told about the 'sacred stillness (heilige Stille)' Mahler had imposed on stage during the quartet, he said: 'What a strange idea. Such a long instrumental episode, the introduction and even more so the Quartet, need some action on the stage, or the audience will hardly be able to stand it!' To liven things up, Weingartner had Jaquino come in with a basket of laundry just before launching into his part in the canon. In Mahler's staging, the four characters formed a trance-like tableau; the only 'action' was the ray of sunlight that fell through the bars of the ivy-covered window, illuminating the bouquet of flowers with a 'supernatural glow' from above. Charged with meaning, like everything that happened on the stage in Mahler and Roller's productions, it seemed like 'a ray of hope', a presentiment of the opera's happy ending.
The scene change that followed immediately after the trio remedied one of the worst improbabilities in Beethoven's final version of Fidelio: the ironing of the laundry in the vast prison courtyard. Beethoven had originally planned a break in his first version of the opera, Leonore. The musical continuity was not broken, for the opening bars of the March served as an interlude. Nobody missed the soldiers parading up and down the stage pounding the floor at every step with their lances. When the curtain rose again, the spectator was confronted with a massive, dark, grey-blue picture, all uniforms, frock-coats. and three-cornered hats, setting off Pizarro's black old-style military habit, red coat, black three-cornered hat with its golden rosette, and military boots. While he sang his aria, the soldiers, not daring to move, stood watching and commenting on his words.
In the second scene, Roller tried to evoke 'all the formidable tyranny of the prisons of old Spain'. A surprisingly realistic massive tower dominated stage left. 'Pallid, chilly' daylight filled the courtyard, which looked as though it had been 'hollowed out of the high walls' surrounding it. The atmosphere was dank and suffocating. The great blocks of masonry, pierced by a scattering of barred windows, seemed designed as much 'to stifle groans and conceal dreadful tortures' as to prevent escape. Upstage at left centre a broad archway opened onto Rocco's quarters which were reached by a flight of steps leading up to a small door on the other side of the stage. More steps led to a massive iron door, secured by heavy lateral bars, the entrance to the dungeons. Upstage right, another flight of stairs led up to an even larger door, the prison's main entrance. Over the wall above it a glimpse of blue sky, a cypress, and a flowering vine bathed in sunlight contrasted with the sinister bleakness below. Everywhere prison guards in uniform marched mechanically back and forth.
The traditional staging required the chorus to emerge for no particular reason from the wings and group themselves in a semi-circle under full spotlights for the hushed mystery of the prisoners' chorus, 'O welche Lust'. They then knelt as one man for the G major passage and rose to their feet for the invocation to freedom. Mahler's innovation was to have them emerge slowly from the dungeon through two small gaps between iron bars during the orchestral introduction. It was apparently Roller who wanted to have the prisoners enter haltingly from those dark holes, one by one or in small groups, stumbling 'and feeling their way along the walls', 'poor miserable earthworms', 'blinded by daylight and intoxicated by fresh air.' Because the orchestral passage was so brief and the doors narrow, Mahler decided that there was only enough time for a double vocal quartet or at the most a much reduced chorus to enter. The new staging shocked the Opera staff, especially the chorus master who had always used this most celebrated of bravura pieces to show off his singers, assembled at maximum strength. When, in similar cases, people tried to convince Mahler that he was in the wrong, they invariably invoked 'tradition' to sway him, reportedly provoking one of his best known aphorisms: 'Tradition ist Schlamperei' (tradition is sloppiness). Like many famous sayings, this one was probably never uttered, at least not in this form. According to Ludwig Karpath and Alfred Roller, Mahler's actual words on this occasion were: 'Was Ihr Theaterleute Eure Tradition nennt, das ist nichts anderes als Eure Bequemlichkeit und Schlamperei!' (What you theatre people call your tradition is nothing but your inertia and sloppiness!) Actually Mahler had already made similar pronouncements before the Fidelio rehearsals. In Hamburg, he had said several times in the presence of Ferdinand Pfohl that 'Tradition nichts anderes sei als Schlamperei' (Tradition is nothing else than sloppiness). 'Beim Theater bedeutet die "Tradition" Schlamperei!' ('In the theatre, "tradition" means sloppiness') is also cited as one of his favourite expressions in a book published by Ernst Otto Nodnagel in 1902. Paul Stefan quoted still another version more likely to have been uttered in conversation than in the theatre: 'There is no such thing as tradition. There is only genius or stupidity'. (Es gibt keine Tradition, nur Genius und Stupidität.)
Whatever words Mahler actually used, he and Roller successfully overcame the resistance of the Hofoper's traditionalists. According to some witnesses, the prisoners' appearance on stage made some of the audience 'shed tears'. At the end of the great crescendo, the prisoners lifted their arms toward the sky, symbol of the liberty they were invoking. The threatening silhouette of a sentry pacing the stage left wall made them lower their voices, and they ended in a barely audible murmur. Roller designed the first-act costumes with the utmost care. Instead of the usual knitted page's tunic the heroine wore trousers, a simple Sevillian peasant's blouse, gaiters, and a big plain brown waistcoat of the same cut as Jaquino's, though Jaquino's was embroidered in pink and mauve. Rocco, too, wore an ample waistcoat over a long greyish peasant smock and gaiters. Marzelline wore a dark blue Spanish dress with a pleated skirt patterned in red and gold, and a flowered apron. The prisoners were still wearing their former court clothes, but these were now mouldering and threadbare. Florestan's coat, for example, was 'in the old style' with a broad belt, and, after the wear and tear of long months of captivity, 'practically falling off his back'.
For the underground vault in the second act, Mahler rejected Roller's original sketch which he found 'too spacious, too much like Nibelheim'. Roller, inspired by the engravings of Piranesi, had planned a large, dark prison with staircases, catwalks, and columns, but the final project was far simpler: a huge natural vault or cistern which looked as if it 'had been formed by an earthquake'. To those who criticized its vast dimensions, Roller replied that it was meant to supply the whole fortress with water and that it was much more in keeping with the story of the opera than the spacious and brightly lit hall of the former production. The cistern's roof was a crude rock face descending obliquely from stage-left to stage-right. No masonry was to be seen except the upstage staircase which led to a small barred door halfway up in the middle of the wall. Florestan's aria was sung in oppressive, almost total, darkness, which shocked some critics who had earlier been scandalized by the dimly lit second act of Tristan. Many people, including some of Mahler's intimates. apparently felt the same way. Berta Zuckerkandl recalled that Alma, for one, was convinced that 'one should be able to see, the actors, otherwise the dramatic tension is destroyed'. Mahler sympathized with this point of view, but as usual where Roller was concerned, he pointed out that: 'I always defend my own ideas with the utmost conviction, and I would rather put up with being attacked than tie the hands of an artist who is currently responsible for a true renaissance of stagecraft.' Thus in Fidelio, at the beginning of the second act, the huge cliff-like walls on stage-right and left of the stage were barely discernible in the dim light of a single oil lamp near the prisoner. Rocco's lantern started as a small pinpoint of light at the top of the stairs, projecting ghostly shadows on the roof of the vault. At the end of the first scene, after the duet 'O namenlose Freude', Mahler restored a passage of long-discarded spoken dialogue. Rocco comes to announce that the Minister has arrived with a list of prisoners to be summoned before him. Florestan's name is not included, since his imprisonment was an arbitrary act by Pizarro. Raising his arm, Rocco asks Leonore and Florestan to follow him up the steps; it is therefore to him they will owe their freedom. These words are immediately followed by the beginning of the great Leonore Overture No. 3, whose first G carries over naturally from the one in the final chord of the preceding duet.
Beethoven's powerful symphonic poem had usually been played before the first act, an ill-suited introduction to the comedy scenes that followed. Later Otto Nicolai inserted it between the acts, establishing a tradition which Hans Richter followed in 1875. Because the E major overture (Fidelio) is infinitely more appropriate to the light comedy of the opening scenes, and since the transition from the brilliant conclusion in major of Leonore No. 3 to the slow introduction in F minor of the prison scene was rather awkward, Mahler decided to insert it on this occasion between the two scenes of the second act, where it provided a splendid introduction to the Finale. According to Berta Zuckerkandl, he justified this insertion to the orchestra musicians in the following words: 'From now on, gentlemen, we shall play the third Leonore Overture after the dungeon scene, because this work compresses the drama's whole gamut of emotions into a great climax. Only thus will the triumph of good over the forces of evil seem overwhelming.' The composer Egon Wellesz, who was soon to join Schoenberg's circle, suggested another reason why Mahler's innovation was a stroke of genius:
His interpretation of Fidelio turned a hitherto rarely performed work into the opera of operas. Anyone who has seen a production of Fidelio knows that the work reaches its dramatic conclusion with Florestan's release from the dungeon. The last scene simply enables us to share in the joy of those who have been freed and to witness the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the tyrant. It has always been a problem on the stage to transform the dungeon into the sunlit castle courtyard fast enough so that, after the curtain falls to hide the scene change, the applause, the lights and the inevitable chatter do not break the tension; otherwise the final scene would merely seem a friendly and almost conventional conclusion. Such considerations prompted Mahler's bold decision to start the opera with the short Fidelio Overture, which matches the mood of the first scene. After the dungeon scene, without allowing for a break, he inserted the third Leonore Overture, thereby allowing the spectator to relive all that he has just seen and heard, and, with the last bar of the overture, embarked on the final scene, which, with its choruses, followed the instrumental episode to become the culmination of the work. It is gratifying to note that today this version of Fidelio continues to be played in Vienna and elsewhere.
In fact, Mahler's decision to insert the Leonore Overture in that position had another, more practical reason: Roller's set was so heavy and so complicated that getting it in place took the entire duration of the overture. Some critics were shocked, but many musicians agreed with Strauss in thinking that Leonore No. 3 'had finally found its rightful place', as Strauss put it after attending one of the Vienna performances of Fidelio: 'No matter what prompted Mahler and Roller to do what they did, it was in any case exactly the right thing. The overture simply belongs where it is now and I would never again put it anywhere else.' History, proved to be on Mahler's side; until lately, many opera houses still inserted the overture in the middle of the second act and no more appropriate place has yet been found for it in the opera.
Mahler always allowed plenty of time for applause after the LeonoreFlorestan duet, but at the end of the overture he kept both arms raised in order to go directly into the orchestral introduction to the last scene. At one time he even considered cutting this introduction and moving straight from the overture's triumphant ending to the 'Heil sei dem Tag' chorus, but ultimately decided that he could not allow himself so great a liberty with regard to Beethoven's text.
In his set for the Finale, Roller tried to symbolize 'the emergence from darkness into light' by designing a broad esplanade in front of the main gate of the prison, instead of the customary banal town square with the troops parading around the king's statue. In the new set, a high, massive, crenellated rampart with an imposing baroque gateway rose at stage right; it has been described as 'ancient Egyptian in style' on account of its gently sloping wall, which distantly recalled the portals of the great temples of Luxor and Karnak. At the back of the set was a low crenellated rampart with cannon in the battlements. A terrace along it was reached by a few steps. Beyond there stretched as far the eye could see a vast resplendent plain where yellows and blues blended happily with the green of trees and meadows and the brilliant white of villages in the summer sun. In this way the painter evoked 'a free and happy life' so effectively that the backdrop seemed a further extension of the drama. Korngold said it was 'painted in C major'. The peasants wore blouses and the women brightly coloured dresses and aprons, and scarves about their heads. Don Fernando, the minister, wore a grey-blue court costume picked out in gold, a broad blue sash, lace sleeves, a flowered waistcoat, and an eighteenth-century white wig appropriate to the Age of Enlightement, as opposed to Pizarro's 'old-style' seventeenth-century costume.
As with Tristan the year before, Roller's aim had been not only to 'design suitable décors'; but to make the drama come alive visually. Similarly, Mahler wanted to make it live for the ear. His overall musical interpretation, full of subtle nuance, had all the restraint and delicacy of chamber music. He created striking contrasts between the violence and cruelty embodied by Pizarro and the great hymn to freedom of the Finale. According to Erwin Stein, he
did not try to smooth over, as is the usual practice, Beethoven's occasional oddities and abruptnesses, but made the music sound as strange as it is conceived. The purpose of Beethoven's many unexpected halts and sudden modulations was realised: they throw the drama into keen relief. To give one example of many, the motley allegro molto section of the first Finale, including Pizarro's furious entry and Rocco's apologetic stammer, was not only dramatically, but also musically plausible, because tempo and rhythms were not dictated by the bar lines, but by the music's dramatic sense which a sweeping rubato helped to secure.
One day when he was rehearsing the orchestra in the gloomy last act Prelude, Mahler told them: 'These are sighs, these are groans (Stöhnen). Later on, in a passage of Florestan's aria ('Und die Ketten sind mein Lohn', And chains are my reward), he remarked to the second violins: 'That is really a picturein music.'
Although illness prevented her from taking part in the première of the new production, Mildenburg, in subsequent performances. 'lived' the part of Leonore with intense feeling and matchless sincerity. In a lecture she gave many years later, she provided a fascinating glimpse of the way Mahler behaved when dealing with talented singers. In the first scene of the second act he became very angry and upset because she and Hesch did not share his view of a certain passage in the dialogue.
We repeated the few words fifteen times without being able to please him; we were told we were without talent, intellectually lazy, indolent and spiritless, and of course, this did not help any ... Finally he gave up, contemptuously averting his eyes from us. The rehearsal went on. Afterwards Hesch and I waited for him backstage because it seemed impossible for us to part in disagreement. At first we got a chilly reception, then we were shouted at but listened toand five minutes later it turned out that actually the three of us had meant the same thing all along.
Schmedes, as Florestan, never failed to move the audience. According to Erwin Stein, 'restraint imposed upon his heroic voice and appearance often brought his finest artistic instincts to the fore.' Hesch's 'black' voice gave breadth to the character of Rocco, while Weidemann brought to Pizarro the inexhaustible resources of his dark voice and 'demonic expression', making this character 'not a bloodstained, eye-rolling tyrant, but a courtier intoxicated with ambition to the point where he would use any means to satisfy it'. In this role, his 'sombre and authoritative voice, swollen with fury, lost its beautiful sonority and attained a raging power'. Mayr, as the Minister, was the very incarnation of goodness and justice.
As usual, the days leading up to the première were marked by quarrels and tensions. During one of the final rehearsals, Weidemann came forward almost to the orchestra pit to sing his great aria with such a troubled expression that Mahler interrupted the orchestra to ask him: 'My dear Herr Weidemann! Why do you look so worried and upset? Are you the Director of the Opera?' Mildenburg was much admired by all during the final rehearsals but she 'caught a cold' and reported sick the day before the première. Mahler reminded her that the performance was to be given in honour of the Emperor's name day, and she agreed to appear in spite of her sore throat. But for once perhaps her illness was genuine, because at about four o'clock that afternoon her doctor decided that she was in no condition to go on. As Sophie Sedlmair was also indisposed and Lucie Weidt not yet up to the role, Mahler had to resign himself at the last moment to delaying the performance for three days, even though the gala had been in preparation for several months. Embarrassing scenes occurred in the foyer, with opera-goers in evening dress vainly demanding their money back. But the majority of the audience only found out about the change of programme when Bruno Walter mounted the podium instead of Mahler, and launched into the 'majestic sounds' of the overture to Goldmark's Die Königin von Saba. The next day, rumour had it in the salons of Vienna that Mildenburg was not really indisposed, but 'had not felt quite ready'. It was also suggested that Sophie Sedlmair had refused to sing solely because she resented being a stand-in. Whatever the real reason for Mildenburg's absence, the première was postponed until 7 October, when Lucie Weidt sang the title role. Those must have been three harrowing days for Mahler!
The production had an even better reception than the Tristan of the year before, but here and there it aroused similar indignation because of its new and revolutionary features. As usual, Robert Hirschfeld savagely attacked 'this fresh sacrilege', this 'furious determination' to do something new at any price. He felt that Beethoven's spirit was 'still alive' in Vienna, and that 'one did not have the right to make mistakes like these'. He denounced as scandalous the self-centred urge merely 'to be different, to see differently, to interpret differently.... Now begins the analysis of sound, a modern activity that owes its origins to science. One hears how Beethoven's storms are made up of small particles of wind, how note upon note combine in the master's melodic arch, one can count the scale steps of every run ...'. The exaggerated staccatos resulted in a kind of 'musical goose-step'. The precision thus obtained belonged to the realm 'of the machine' and 'not to art'. Under Mahler's baton, Beethoven's music was reduced to 'a rustling murmur': 'the sounds seem to come fluttering gently from individual desks'. The orchestra was shrouded in a 'silken veil', the chorus uttered 'almost inaudible whispers' and the score became 'no more than an accompaniment to spasmodic miming'. 'Each note of this Fidelio is imbued with Mahler's spirit, a Mahlerian chiaroscuro atmosphere quivers throughout the work.' Mahler's touch shrouded and muffled much of the work, so that what remained was 'essentially a personal work of art (Sonderkunstwerk) by Mahler based on Beethoven'. What would happen if this production were entrusted to someone else? As Mahler was inimitable, the result would be the same as with Die Meistersinger: it would become a caricature.
As for the sets, Hirschfeld acknowledged that Roller had attempted and often succeeded 'in accentuating and deepening' the various moods in Fidelio. Despite this, he found that Roller's contribution to the new production attracted far too much attention at the music's expense. In Fidelio the music 'is not continually derived from the stage nor formed by it'. This striving 'to reconstruct a musical drama posthumously' and to give visual expression to 'the mood of Beethoven's music' was 'embarrassing and painful'. Since Hirschfeld always listened to the first act quartet with his eyes closed, he simply refused to believe 'that a ray of light' had fallen on to the stage. Furthermore, there should not be a change of scene in the middle of the act since this only underlined a weakness already inherent in the work. As for the new place chosen for the Leonore Overture No. 3, which was, he conceded, magnificently played, he thought it quite inappropriate.
Hirschfeld's persistently negative attitude and evident desire to denigrate Mahler make it difficult to take most of his criticisms seriously. The only other critic who was so persistently hostile was Maximilian Muntz, who at least had the excuse that he worked for an anti-Semitic paper. Like Hirschfeld, he said that Fidelio had undergone 'an extensive revision along Mahlerian lines', Mahler, 'for all his inventiveness', had in the end betrayed the spirit of Beethoven. Muntz was particularly critical of the darkness in Florestan's cell (although in fact it is called for in the libretto and suggested by the music). He also felt there had been errors in casting: Lucy Weidt lacked the heroism so indispensable to the title role, Hesch's characterization of Rocco was in itself 'a mistake', and Förster-Lauterer wasn't 'naive enough' for the part of Marzelline. In the Allgemeine Zeitung, Gustav Schönaich called Fidelio a flawed work, a series of set pieces rather than a well-constructed opera. In his opinion, Roller's 'fertile imagination and intellectual energy' had come up with both marvels and excesses, like the 'unprecedented darkness', which made the plot seem to unfold 'in a tunnel'.
On the other hand, Max Kalbeck, though essentially a conservative. lavished praise on the new production. For him clarity was the highest virtue of a musical performance. He preferred those interpreters whose 'didactic energy revealed the authentic or imagined aims of a work of art' and who, 'without misrepresentation or distortion, can reveal the work with total objectivity in its true light, with the purity and immediacy it possessed when it left the hands of its creator'. He thought the 'revival' of Fidelio was just such an achievement, a work of 'clarification and enlightenment (Klärung und Aufklärung)' in which Mahler 'at one fell swoop had banished entrenched errors and ageing prejudices', and done away with the sloppiness that had previously gone by the name of tradition'. He had shed light on the peculiar nature of the work, which even its admirers had underrated. Kalbeck approved almost all Mahler's innovations; the scene change in the first act, the placing of the grand overture in the middle of the last act, and especially the immobility of the characters and the ray of sunlight during the quartet, which linked this musical episode with the work's basic concept, anticipating not only the light which later illuminated the prisoner's cell but also the dramas happy outcome. Every scenic and musical detail contributed toward the success of the whole. The chorus and the orchestra obeyed Mahler's every gesture, and the singers surpassed themselves to meet his demands. In Kalbeck's opinion, Mahler deserved the gratitude of the Viennese public for 'having brought Beethoven's spiritualized music from its gleaming heavenly heights down through the colourful haze of our atmosphere to the blossoming earth'. In Roller's sets, that earth 'breathes love' and the air 'drinks freedom', his horizon 'stretches to eternity', 'because Beethoven leads him on, and he Beethoven'.
Julius Korngold, in the Neue Freie Presse, voiced certain reservations about the staging which he felt played too prominent a role in the production. Nevertheless he praised it for its expressiveness, which matched Beethoven's music. Inspired by Appia, Roller had developed the stage set into another element of art, which was to 'enter into a symbolic relationship with the two other moodmaking elements (Stimmungselemente), action and music'. He had 'rendered Beethoven in terms of painting', bringing, as it were, 'additional trombones or flutes onto the stage'. The first-act scene change was perhaps debatable. Mahler might have tried too hard to interpret 'a score that is inwardly dramatic rather than conceived for visual presentation on the stage'. And perhaps voices with the right singing technique (Gesangskunst) for this idiosyncratic German opera did not exist. Korngold admitted that all these points could be argued, but felt that the score of Fidelio had never been better performed or interpreted in Vienna, with the possible exception of the two finales, in which Mahler had somewhat 'restrained and fragmented the powerful flow' of the music. His genius 'had completely absorbed the hallowed score', and everywhere enhanced the dramatic element. Each bar was proof of his incredible mastery, particularly in the quartet (whispered rather than sung), the prisoners' chorus, and the RoccoLeonore duet. The importance of the production went far beyond momentary 'sensation'. It could already be included among the most precious treasures of the Vienna Opera.
In Die Zeit, Richard Wallaschek praised Roller's 'four poetic and evocative sets', whose visual beauty did not set out to seduce but was firmly subordinated by him to the essence of the music. Although he did not approve of the new positioning of the big overture, Wallaschek conceded that its effectiveness silenced all arguments. Max Graf, on the other hand, like many of his colleagues, felt that Mahler had turned Beethoven into 'Wagner's precursor' and transformed Fidelio into a 'music drama'. 'At this point,' he said, a 'Romantic semi-darkness' reigned rather than 'the full light of classic feeling'. Thus, the score's slightest measure, the libretto's slightest word revealed the work's 'dramatic soul'. Everything combined to support the drama: the sets, the lighting, and the costumes. Mahler wanted 'the stage to dominate and the music to serve it'. Most of his innovations were valid. Perhaps the work had been sung by more glorious voices, but never had it been so imbued musically and dramatically with life.
In the Austrian and German music journals opinions ranged from indignation to wonder. For Max Vancsa, critic of the Neue Musikalische Presse, who liked to consider himself 'modern', it was horror which predominated in the face of such an 'insult to tradition', an 'improvement' of Beethoven's work. He disliked and condemned all the innovations, including the change of scene in the first act and above all the insertion of the Leonore Overture in the middle of the second, which seemed to him a 'barbaric' idea, Certainly Mahler was right to underline the intimate aspect of the work, certainly he had created some moments of real magic, like the first-act quartet, but he was wrong to tone down Pizarro's wickedness and Marzelline's and Jaquino's gaiety, and to make of Rocco a lachrymose old man. Vancsa considered that every one of the roles had been miscast. But above all, Mahler and Roller had blundered in creating so much visual beauty for such an inward-looking work. In the Neue Musik-Zeitung, Armin Friedmann took a similar view. Mahler's penetrating mind had revealed hitherto unsuspected refinements; but everything which in Beethoven was great, simple, and modest had here become 'complicated and confused'. 'Each ray of Beethoven's genius, traversing the prism of Mahler's artistic sensibility, is refracted into the colours of its spectrum.' In this Fidelio, everything was 'veiled, covert, attenuated'. 'All dynamism was held back until the final jubilation in light and freedom.' All in all, the old Fidelio was 'much stronger and more profound'. In the same journal, another article went so far as to suggest that there was a fundamental contradiction between the work and its presentation.
Fortunately there were also a great number of forward-looking Viennese who admired and supported the revolution brought about by the Secession in opera production. When Roller left the Vienna Opera in 1909, Richard Specht summed up the revelation that this 'Secessionist' Fidelio had been for him and for so many others in the following words:
all the pain of enslaved, groaning humanity, a helpless prey to the cruelty of the mighty, cries outor, as I must now unfortunately write, cried outfrom this frightful prison yard with its black, dank, massive wallsinto whose gloom Pizarro's scarlet robe erupted like a brutal fanfareits mean, heavily barred vents and gloomy, sunless atmosphere pitilessly shutting out all light, air and joy. And at the end, all longing, all pent-up joy, streaming toward the light through the dark gates, was embodied in the bright ramparts, the jubilant daylight, the bright heaven and the broad, endless view over the sun-filled plain. To destroy this picture and limit the scene again to the prison yard means simply to go back to the 'opera finale' which the words of the libretto express. Whereas Beethoven's music reaches out far beyond those words. In his music we can hear all the joy of freedom, the all-embracing love that knows no barriers and liberates from shameful bondage. And that is exactly what the stage setting expresses, with an incomparable strength and clarity which have nothing to do with theatrical convention.
In a long article later included in Buch der Jugend, Hermann Bahr, the Secession's most influential theorist, emphasized what he considered to be the greatest merit of Roller's work, a merit which some seemed determined not to recognize: the beauty he created was 'significant', at its peak it 'reinforced dramatic expression', it was 'modelled in conformity with the essence of the drama'. After a long series of more or less successful experiments thanks to Adolphe Appia, Gordon Craig, Josef Olbrich, Peter Behrens, and Max Reinhardt, 'the problem of theatre design is solved'. To end his article, Bahr first used the phrase which for him best characterized Roller's theatrical work: 'stage design as expression'.
Confident that he had achieved one of the most outstanding triumphs in his entire operatic career, Mahler left Vienna on 12 October for Cologne to wage a far more hazardous battle: the launching of a new gigantic symphony, the first in fifteen years in which he had not relied on the direct appeal of the human voice. With his Fifth, Mahler had everything to fear. He knew that none of his previous works had ever been understood when it was first performed. This time, he had waited two years and had chosen Cologne, where the orchestra was excellent and the audiences appeared to be particularly interested in both him and his work. But had he chosen well? True, no one thought of him any more as an obscure composer of Kapellmeistermusik. In the preceding two years, his earlier symphonies had won over a large public, and also a small number of faithful admirers in the ranks of his profession. What would those who had 'digested' the first four symphonies think of the more abstract Fifth, and its richer, denser polyphony? Not long after the première of the Fifth. Mahler wrote to Specht: 'In spite of sporadic successes (which I owe perhaps simply to incidental and external circumstances) it seems to me that a long, hard road still lies before my works, and perhaps even more so before my future works.'
There was another source of concern: for the first time in Mahler's life he had doubts and misgivings concerning the orchestration of his new work. As usual he had planned a reading rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, but had in this case asked for two. That the musicians should have agreed to play for him is somewhat surprising in view of the spectacular break which had occurred between Mahler and the orchestra a year earlier. It was during a general meeting which took place on 16 September 1904 that Arnold Rosé had submitted a request 'that Herr Direktor Mahler be allowed two rehearsals of his Fifth Symphony, which is soon to be published and which will be performed in Cologne in October, and which for these reasons he would like to hear in advance. Naturally these services would be remunerated ...'. Nobody having asked permission to speak, the flautist Alois Markl declared in the name of the Committee that the musicians granted Herr Direktor's request, that he was free to invite the musicians he wished, and that they had agreed to play the rehearsals without fee.
The two rehearsals took place on 17 and 26 September. Shortly before the first, the Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Förster visited Mahler at the Opera. Mahler was not in his office, so Förster sat down at the piano and improvised for several minutes. Without his intending it, a theme from the Fifth Symphony. the score of which Mahler had just sent him, found its way into his improvisation. The door burst open and Mahler, without even greeting him, said: 'What do you think you're playing? That's the opening of my new symphony!' A moment later, having read the facts of the matter in the eyes of his old friend. he was laughing heartily. A few days later, Förster received from Mahler the following card: 'Tomorrow, at nine o'clock, I rehearse the Fifth Symphony in the Tonkünstlersaal. Greetings.' Score in hand, Förster went to the rehearsal and sat down after greeting Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. When Mahler appeared, Förster waved to him. Mahler saw him open his score, and called him over to tell him that he had already changed his orchestration and would soon be sending him the new version. During the rehearsal, Förster observed that he was continually making further changes.
Besides Förster, who was an invited guest, another listener attended the reading incognito: Ludwig Karpath, who that evening wrote to Theobald Pollak the following lively account of his experiences:
Think what I did today: I furtively slipped into the Musikvereinssaal to hear the Fifth. I was almost caught, because the orchestra was seated near the entrance to the hall, which was something I hadn't known about. I therefore had to revise all my original plans and try to get to the organ without being seen, something I luckily managed to do. But every trespasser must pay for his sins, and so I completely spoiled my coat by sitting down on a freshly painted step, where I remained stuck. I no sooner thought myself in safety than Mahler requested the orchestra to change its seating. I thought the gentlemen were going to come up to the organ and dislodge me from my hiding place. But again my guardian angel was watching, for they didn't come all the way up and in the end I was able to sit there completely undisturbed. I don't think anyone saw me. The symphony lasted exactly an hour and a half. That is the actual playing time, without any pauses. It is clear; without any artifice. Of course that applies only to modern ears. But even the 'older ones' will hardly be able to complain of extravagances. I haven't the time at the moment to go into detail, I'd like to say only one thing: in the symphony there is an Adagio, in F major (I don't think I'm mistaken about the key) for strings only, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard in my life. It's not only the beauty of the sound that captivates, but more the tender intimacy (Innigkeit) of a great melody that really has no end and that simply overwhelms you. So full of sweetness, exaltation and nostalgia that tears poured from my eyes. I've no reason to be ashamed of them, especially as no one saw them. Please keep this to yourself, too.
Apparently, Karpath did not notice any weakness in the orchestration of the Fifth, unlike another listener more discreetly seated on the balcony:
I, who had heard all the melodies as I copied them, could no longer hear them, because Mahler had assigned so much importance to the percussion and the snare-drum that one recognized little except the rhythm. I ran home, crying aloud. He followed me. For some time I couldn't even speak. Then, at last, sobbing, I said: 'You have written a symphony for percussion'. He laughed, then took up the score and crossed out with a red pencil most of the snare-drum part and almost half the percussion. He already knew it himself, but my passionate pleading clinched the matter. The completely altered score is still in my possession.
Alma, as usual, exaggerates somewhat. How could Mahler possibly have written such an all-important part for the snare-drum, only to cut it out later in one go? She is right, though, in claiming that the Fifth's orchestration underwent extensive revisions before and even after the first performance. Bruno Walter later claimed that most of the money advanced to Mahler by his new publisher, Peters, went towards the engraving of the new plates. Strange as it may seem, the letters written by Mahler to his publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, do not confirm either Alma's or Bruno Walter's assertions. Throughout this correspondence, Mahler shows himself to be extremely meticulous with regard to detail. He even goes so far as to request three different sets of proofs for the orchestral score and the piano transcriptions. Yet the only passages that mention revisions were written in September, immediately after the reading rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic: 'I found the percussion rather overloaded, which would have been to the detriment of the general effect', then, later: 'I am very sorry to give you all this extra trouble, but in a work which is so polyphonic it is impossible to foresee everything down to the last detail ...' To Fritz Steinbach, who was already rehearsing the Fifth in Cologne, Mahler wrote in almost identical terms: 'I've just played through my work and made a number of small changes. In particular I have decided that the percussion is overloaded, and that the whole thing lacks the desired clarity. I hope that you too will be content.'
Nor do Mahler's letters written after the premiere suggest that he had made such extensive changes. On 1 November 1904, he wrote to Hinrichsen: 'Now that everything is done, down to the last detail, we can hand over the work to the "world". We both have the time and patience to wait and see what it will make of it ...' Neither here nor anywhere else is there any allusion to changes being made to the engraved score. It is true that that the publisher's replies have disappeared, but it is difficult to imagine anything that would greatly alter the existing picture.
The fact that Mahler had so easily found a new publisher for the Fifth and that he had obtained 15,000 marks instead of the 10,000 he had originally intended to ask for suffice to show that he was now considered one of the major composers of his time. Another proof of his changed status was that he and his works were now the subject of several critical studies. The first of these was by Ludwig Schiedermair, a young musicologist who later gained considerable, renown as the editor of Mozart's letters and was the founder of the Beethoven Archives in Bonn. Entitled simply Gustav Mahler: Eine biographisch-kritische Würdigung (a biographical and critical appreciation), it was published in Leipzig in 1901. It is brief (only 38 pages) and relatively superficial, but Schiedermair should be given credit for being the first critic to write and publish a monograph on Mahler and his music. After retracing the main steps of his conducting career, he lists his early works and quotes the well-known condemnation of 'programmes', pronounced at a banquet after the Munich première of his Second Symphony. Schiedermair then very briefly analyses the works so far published, Symphonies 1 to 3 and Das klagende Lied. His comments on the symphonies are brief and superficial. Mahler felt obliged to ask him to correct one of his most glaring errors concerning the 'programme' of the Third Symphony, which Schiedermair described as 'a purification of the soul, following struggles, renunciation and suffering, and ending in victory and a positive view of life (Daseinsbejahung)'. In a letter addressed to Bernard Schuster, the director of the Berlin review Die Musik, Mahler deplores the fact that his most enthusiastic followers were often the least enlightened:
As for Sch[iedermair], who is evidently well intentioned and whom I certainly wouldn't like to denounce, I must tell you that I can't read his trite and quite uncomprehending attempts to flatter me without feeling furious. My God, many people praise me to the skiesbut I have yet to read one reasonable word about myself. Never anything but high-sounding, nebulous, self-indulgent outpourings. My natural reaction is the same as for hate and mockerysimply to ignore it. For I am profoundly convinced that great effects take time to emerge, they quietly go on maturing. What Schiedermair [has written] about my First Symphony is as lacking in understanding as the witticisms of the Berlin critics. Just to give you one examplethe third movement which he finds so overwhelmingly cheerful is heart-rending, tragic irony, and is [to be understood] as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst of despair in the last movementa deeply wounded and broken heart.
Schiedermair's comments on another of his works (the Third, no doubt) 'made my hair stand on end' and Mahler concludes: 'I would have preferred not to have to bother about such things, to have confidence in my interpreters (Mittler), and simply go on composing'. This feeling of isolation which Mahler got from the undiscerning praise of people like Schiedermair is touchingly expressed in a letter he wrote to the German composer Ernest Bloch, who had been present at the rehearsals and performance of the Second Symphony at Basle in 1903:
My dear Herr Bloch, Your letter really gladdened my heart. Please don't think that I am insensitive to such warm-hearted approval, or to the refined way in which it is expressed. I live in the world like a stranger, it's seldom that the voice of someone who thinks as I do reaches my ears. How could I not be moved by such intimate understanding and generous sympathy? If you think it would be proper and useful to express in public your opinion of me and my work, I would be delighted. For I cannot see why the right to write about me in newspapers should be reserved only for people who don't understand me and know nothing about me.
A year later, in 1902, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten music critic. Arthur Seidl, published a short book called Moderne Dirigenten (Modern Conductors) in which four pages are devoted to Mahler, his conducting and his compositions. His much publicized 'dictatorial' character and his perfectionism are mentioned (with examples), but later, Seidl praises his 'wonderful imagination (geniale Phantasie)' as a composer. The same year. Ernst Otto Nodnagel, the former Berliner Tageblatt critic, 'the inevitable Nodnagel' as Mahler called him, who had moved to Königsberg in East Prussia, published a book of 'Profiles and Perspectives' called Jenseit von Wagner und Liszt which contains two whole chapters about Mahler (about 25 pages). He recalled having received his first revelation of the music in 1894 when he attended the disastrous third performance of the First Symphony at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein festival in Weimar. He told the detailed story of the subsequent Berlin performances of the three early symphonies, took his colleagues of the Berlin press to task for their vicious disparagement of these works, summed up the 'programmes' and the titles originally appended to them, and finally gave a brief analysis of each. Mahler, who had a pretty low opinion of Nodnagel's intelligence and quickly tired of his enthusiasm, often tried to discourage him from writing his lengthy analyses. However, while Nodnagel was perhaps neither the most perceptive of critics nor the most subtle of stylists, he must be credited with having been the first wholehearted advocate of all aspects of Mahler's genius, at a time when this required courage. Here are the closing words of his article:
The passionate intensity which from the very beginning characterized the clashing opinions aroused by Mahler's art immediately suggested that something of real importance had just emerged; usually such battles break out only over something truly outstanding. Moreover, the strong fascination which his works exert on both the general public and unprejudiced professionals definitely points to the work of a great artistic personality possessed of powerful originality. His C-minor Symphony has been the most powerful artistic experience in my life up to now. I have no doubt that Gustav Mahler is a 'candidate for posterity'.
The second of Nodnagel's chapters on Mahler is an enthusiastic report of the recent première of the Fourth Symphony, in which the author contrasts Mahler's 'logic' with Strauss's 'anarchy and revolution' and describes the Fourth as 'more artistic and convincing' in its simplicity than any work by Strauss. For Nodnagel, the slow movement of the Fourth is one of the greatest ever written. (He ranks it with those in Schumann's Second, Brahms's First, and Bruckner's Seventh.) These judgements show that, despite Mahler's low opinion of him, Nodnagel was a man of courage and insight, a true pioneer. Nevertheless, the first truly important monograph on Mahler appeared only in 1905 and was written by Richard Specht, a 35-year-old Viennese critic who deserves a place in musical history for this and even more for his later full-length study of Mahler's personality, works, and theatrical career. Specht's 1905 essay is a manifesto, a pamphlet written to defend Mahler's music against virulent criticism. But it is also the first publication, after Schiedemair's brief monograph, which, though not comprehensive, was devoted entirely to him. It is obvious that most of the material of this small monograph was provided by Mahler himself. Thus its importance far exceeds its length. Some of Specht's statements on sensitive subjects, such as the influence of Bruckner, folk music, and military bands, as well as the exact date of his discovery of the Wunderhorn anthology, can be taken as reflecting Mahler's own statements.
After analysing the early symphonies in some detail, Specht draws a parallel between the Second and Fifth Symphonies, both of which move from funereal gloom to powerful, optimistic affirmation. Specht does not hesitate to make some negative criticisms: for instance, he considers the Klagende Lied an uneven work, especially in the second part, which he feels 'needs the stage and decorative art of a Roller'. While admitting that Mahler's compositions are undoubtedly controversial, Specht concludes: 'Mahler's art is striding forward with such wonderful maturity (köstliche Reife), completely "lost to the world" (der Welt abhanden gekommen); his art for me is an incomparable experience and discovery. (Erkenntnis). I may be wrong. But I would rather support this music for the wrong reasons than attack it for the right ones.' These brave words undoubtedly touched Mahler. After he received a typescript of Specht's text, he wrote to thank him: 'I am very pleased with the whole thing. I am amazed to see how deeply you have penetrated the very essence of my being. Your understanding is doubly precious to me since it approaches the man through the works.'
Another result of the recognition Mahler had by then gained as a composer was C. F. Kahnt's plan to publish the Sixth Symphony and the Rückert-Lieder. Kahnt also considered for a time reissuing the score of Die Drei Pintos, which in the previous years had been performed in Weimar (November 1899, under Rudolf Krzyzanowski), Prague (November 1900), and Frankfurt (October 1901). Kahnt pleaded with Mahler to compose a new overture, but he refused: 'It is impossible for me to plunge myself back into the atmosphere of the work after so long an interval.'
Table of Contents
Fidelio; First performance of the Fifth Symphony; Second Journey to Holland; Mahler as Diplomat; The Third Symphony in Leipzig and Vienna (August-December 1904)
Mahler in Vienna (XVIII) Das Rheingold; Mahler and Viennese Society; Première of the Kindertotenleider; Meeting with Webern End of the Vereinigung; The Fifth in Dresden, Berlin, Prague, and Hamburg (January-March 1905)
Mahler in Vienna (XIX) Pfitzner in Vienna Die Rose vom Liebesgarten The Strasbourg Festival (March-May 1905)
Mahler in Vienna (XX) The Graz Festival; Correspondence with Cosima Wagner Completion of the Seventh Symphony; The Battle for Salome The Second Symphony in Berlin: Oskar Fried The Fifth Symphony in Trieste, Vienna, and Breslau Preparation of the Mozart Year (June-December 1905)
Mahler in Vienna (XXI) The Mozart Year Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni; Die Entführung and Figaro The Magic Flute Antwerp and Amsterdam Concerts; Mahler and the Theatre (December 1905-April 1906)
Mahler in Vienna (XXII) Salome in Graz Première of the Sixth; Composition of the Eighth Salzburg Festival Mahler in his Maturity (May-August 1906)
Mahler in Vienna (XXIII) Caruso in Vienna Le Juif polonais The Barber of Seville The Taming of the Shrew The Sixth in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna The Third in Breslau and Graz (September 1906-January 1907)
Mahler in Vienna (XXIV) The Third in Berlin Encounters with Strauss; The Fourth in Frankfurt The First in Linz The press campaign against Mahler; Die Walküre and Iphigenie en Aulide Messchauert's recitals Schoenberg premières (January-March 1907)
Mahler in Vienna (XXV) Grete Wiesenthal and La Muette de Portici; Roller and the ballet Journey to Rome Final opera productions; Mahler's resignation Putzi's death Diagnosis of heart disease (March-August 1907)
Mahler in Vienna (XXVI) Weingartner is appointed; The Vienna Opera after Mahler Opening of the new season; Journeys to Russia and Finland Farewell to Vienna (August-December 1907)
Catalogue of Mahler's Works
Detailed history and analysis of works composed between 1904 and 1907 (Sixth Symphony; Seventh Symphony; Eighth Symphony).
A. The Vienna Opera in Mahler's Time. Characteristics of the auditorium in 1907.
B. Repertoire of the Vienna Opera under Mahler
C. Mahler's singers at the Hofoper
D. Alfred Roller: Theatre Reform? Bühnereform?
E. The theatrical works of Alfred Roller
Two letters of Siegried Lipiner addressed to Mahler
Analysis of Alma Mahler's handwriting
Mahler as a performer of his works