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Mahler and Strauss: In Dialogue

Mahler and Strauss: In Dialogue

by Charles Youmans


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A rare case among history's great music contemporaries, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) enjoyed a close friendship until Mahler's death in 1911. Unlike similar musical pairs (Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Schoenberg and Stravinsky), these two composers may have disagreed on the matters of musical taste and social comportment, but deeply respected one another's artistic talents, freely exchanging advice from the earliest days of professional apprenticeship through the security and aggravations of artistic fame.

Using a wealth of documentary material, this book reconstructs the 24-year relationship between Mahler and Strauss through collage—"a meaning that arises from fragments," to borrow Adorno's characterization of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Fourteen different topics, all of central importance to the life and work of the two composers, provide distinct vantage points from which to view both the professional and personal relationships. Some address musical concerns: Wagnerism, program music, intertextuality, and the craft of conducting. Others treat the connection of music to related disciplines (philosophy, literature), or to matters relevant to artists in general (autobiography, irony). And the most intimate dimensions of life—childhood, marriage, personal character—are the most extensively and colorfully documented, offering an abundance of comparative material. This integrated look at Mahler and Strauss discloses provocative revelations about the two greatest western composers at the turn of the 20th century.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253021595
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/05/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Charles Youmans is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Penn State University and author of Richard Strauss's Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism (IUP, 2005).

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Mahler & Strauss In Dialogue

By Charles Youmans

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Charles Youmans
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02166-3



THOUGH WE KNOW a good deal about the childhoods of Strauss and Mahler, the topic has yet to inspire much serious interest. With the memoirs of relatives and a few early associates, and the inside information of La Grange and Schuh, biographers can choose from a healthy supply of colorful anecdotes and throwaway lines. Putting these to critical use has been mostly an unaccepted challenge, however, which may explain why in comparisons of the two artists almost every commonly held assumption rests on misconception and exaggeration, regarding material circumstances, family relations, early study of music, basic educational development, introduction to religion, social maturation, and so on.

As adults, Strauss and Mahler explicitly requested something different. Both stated categorically that their early lives determined their mature personalities, artistically and otherwise. For Mahler this feeling intensified as he got older: "each day I become more conscious of the degree to which the impressions and the spiritual experiences of that period gave to my future life its form and its content." Strauss focused as always on the practical, calling his adult accomplishments a product of the discipline imposed on him by his parents. (He believed firmly that if a skill had not been mastered by age nineteen, the window had closed.) A fair assessment of the grown artists, then, demands that we reflect on their formative years with some degree of sophistication, asking how the conditions of youth might have determined the course of life and creative activity.

The socioeconomic backgrounds of the young Strauss and the young Mahler have been reduced over the years to a simplistic tale of privilege and deprivation. On one hand, Strauss is seen as a child of plenty: the grandson of Georg Pschorr, Strauss enjoyed the protection of a master brewer in the beer capital of the world. On the other we have Mahler, whose family too made its money from alcohol but on a smaller and less secure scale, leaving one of his grandmothers to scrape out a living as a peddler until the age of eighty, lugging her basket of wares from one house to the next (or so the tale goes).

In fact neither of these accounts tells us much about the circumstances and daily lives of the immediate families. Strauss's father supported his wife and children on the salary of a principal player in the Munich opera, which meant, as the composer later described in painful detail, endless work for a wage that rarely covered the bills without assistance from the in-laws. In a private rant from the 1940s, Strauss laid out the fifteen-hour workday of the average nineteenth-century orchestral musician, calling the salary equivalent to that of streetcar coachmen, stenographers, and uneducated factory workers. The family lived in a small apartment on the fourth floor of the brewery where Strauss was born, a sizeable building on Neuhauserstrasse in the heart of Munich. That accommodation provided no special luxuries. Strauss's younger sister Johanna, who improved her position by marriage to a military officer, remembered growing up in "very modest" circumstances: "to make ends meet was a hard job for father, who was neither paid too well nor cared too much for money." Johanna had one Sunday dress, and she did not own a ball gown until Richard bought one for her after he became an assistant conductor at Meiningen. Not surprisingly it was the mother who kept track of the family ledgers, and who bore the responsibility and psychological burden when they did not balance. Once a year she allowed herself to buy chocolate for the children; when the young Richard broke the family mirror (by flinging his one-year- old sister into it), Franz paid for a replacement by going without a new winter coat.

If, as is widely reported, Bernhard Mahler cared a good deal for money, it was not simply for its own sake but as a means to his family's social and intellectual improvement. His efforts might have yielded a better result had he been the father of two children instead of fourteen. In any case the family did not live in poverty, and, along with the well-known brutality of this apparently fearsome individual, one must bear in mind his devotion to goodness as he understood it. A distiller, and the son of a distiller, he allowed no alcohol in his house; the making and selling of spirits was one of the few financially promising businesses open to Jews in Moravia, and he made what he could of it. When in 1873 after thirteen years of successful business activity in Iglau he was made a citizen of the town, he hung the certificate on his velvet-covered living room wall, where the teenage Gustav could see it as he practiced on the family's grand piano (figure 2). Although destined for a career in music from early childhood (by virtue of a talent obvious to all), the first-born son attended the gymnasium at the insistence of his father (as did Strauss) and had no choice but to fight through his academic difficulties. As La Grange has observed, Mahler never once spoke of his father with affection; he did owe him some important debts, however: an education, a fanatical sense of discipline, and the unfailing support of a large family that organized itself around the collective goal of advancement for its most gifted member.

How different were these families, in the areas that would have mattered for a young musical genius? The father modeled industry, self-reliance, and intolerance of mediocrity. The mother offered love and servitude, and otherwise got out of the way. Devotion to music was encouraged and facilitated, at a level that left open the option of professional activity. The insistence on a strong general education imposed a requirement beyond, and many would have said extraneous to, what a musician needed in order to find employment. In a household with little disposable income, no financial concern interfered with the family's best hope of future achievement. Mahler did not live in a home with a trained musician, but this lack seems to have motivated (as Donald Mitchell has suggested) Bernhard's decision to send Mahler for his ill-fated stay with the Grunfelds in Prague, where he received daily contact with current and future professional musicians but little food and clothing. At bottom, it is evident that in both cases talent was recognized early and fostered with every means available.

Along with similarities of family background, the gymnasium represents an area of common experience for Mahler and Strauss that must not be undervalued. In the cultural milieu of Munich, as in towns within striking distance of Vienna, Bildung reigned supreme in the 1860s and '70s as a bourgeois ideal of education and indeed of existence. It defined the personality as no religious or social experience ever could. The habits formed during the forbidding trial of a gymnasium education became a worldview in adulthood, especially when reinforced by a family atmosphere linking all manner of reward and punishment to disciplined intellectual endeavor. In the school years the various domains of contemplation — spiritual, historical, aesthetic, philosophical, social, comic — were stamped by a consistency of approach, a technique of thought that would unite adult peers in mutual recognition regardless of specific opinions. According to his namesake grandson, the elderly Strauss forthrightly declared this preparation essential for a civilized modern European, "or else he's not a fully qualified human being." Former Gymnasiasten could disagree on virtually everything and still feel in one another a common type, a kindred spirit.

Likewise, grasping the meaning of "maturity" in the late nineteenth century requires a healthy dose of historical imagination nowadays. The average bourgeois twelve-year-old living in Austro-German lands ca. 1870 had — was forced to have — a stronger sense of intellectual purpose and self-control than many a present-day college student. Childhood as we understand it was shorter, if in fact it existed at all; Thomas Mann's Hanno Buddenbrook found death through typhus an "escape" from a hated premature adulthood. Complaints of a stolen childhood abound, for example in Stefan Zweig's unvarnished account in The World of Yesterday, where he complained that "what every young person secretly longs for was entirely lacking" and declared of the gymnasium in particular that "the one real moment of elation for which I have to thank my school was the day when I closed its doors behind me forever." Mahler echoed the sentiment in a biographical sketch for Max Marschalk in 1896, writing "[I] spent my youth in the gymnasium — nothing learnt." But such comments disregarded a positive side that in the long run the victims obviously treasured. However cruel the existence, it meant that the survivors would acquire in their teenage years a lifetime's worth of learning across the full spectrum of humanistic disciplines — the kind of learning that could allow a Zweig to go from high school student to feuilleton writer for the Neue freie Presse. Mahler could thank his broad learning for the ease with which he was folded into the "Pernerstorfer circle" of student intellectuals in Vienna; Strauss's analogous group in Munich included friends who would go on to positions of distinction in the world of letters, and who for the rest of his life remained his most intimate confidantes.

Establishing this basic common ground allows a closer examination of subtle differences that had a real impact on Strauss's and Mahler's artistic personalities. Richard Specht reported, for example, that as a teenager Mahler considered giving up music for a life as a poet. Such a flight of fancy would be unthinkable without Mahler's lifelong attraction to romanticism, already manifesting itself when, as an eighteen-year-old piano tutor to a wealthy family in Hungary, he waxed poetic while climbing a tree:

When I go out on to the heath and climb a lime tree that stands there all lonely, and when from the topmost branches of this friend of mine I see far out into the world: before my eyes the Danube winds her ancient way, her waves flickering with the glow of the setting sun; from the village behind me the chime of the eventide bells is wafted to me on a kindly breeze, and the branches sway in the wind, rocking me into a slumber like the daughters of the Erlking, and the leaves and blossoms of my favorite tree tenderly caress my cheeks. Stillness everywhere! Most holy stillness!

The year of 1879 seems late to be reveling in romantic clichés, even when one finds, in the next sentence, a typically Mahlerian fly in the soup: "Only from far away comes the melancholy croaking of a toad, sitting mournfully among the reeds." Strauss would have scorned effusions of this sort in any of his nine decades. He knew the romantics, obviously, but he sought artistic inspiration in every direction but that one, including some of dubious aesthetic value, such as the vapid sentimentalism of Hermann von Gilm and the quirky modernist socialism of John Henry Mackay. These divergent tendencies of the young composers, which manifested themselves outside of music and long before the arrival at intellectual maturity, speak to a basic difference in what each person sought from art.

Mahler's soft spot for the romantics must have had some connection to his performing background. If not a full-fledged virtuoso as an adult, he nonetheless followed the path to virtuosity as a child; after his first public concert, given at the age of ten, the Iglau newspaper Der Vermittler called him a "future virtuoso" whose "success with his audience was great." Two years later he performed Liszt's variations on the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and enjoyed "an interminable and wildly enthusiastic ovation." His entrée to the Vienna Conservatory was Julius Epstein, the city's leading piano pedagogue, who admired Mahler's youthful compositions but accepted him with the understanding that he would study to be a pianist.

Strauss, on the other hand, had no aspirations to the public glory of performance at any time of his life, even if he could play Weber's Invitation to the Dance at the tender age of eleven, and notwithstanding his onetime appearance as soloist in Mozart's relatively demanding Piano Concerto in C Minor, K. 491 under Bulow. Thus while Strauss could not have identified with the mindset of a young Liszt or a Thalberg — especially given the strictures of the classicist musical environment imposed by his father — Mahler clearly did, at least until the experience of hearing Liszt play the "Emperor" (on March 16, 1877, in Vienna) caused him to hurl aside his score and declare that he would never play again.

We can also learn much from the contrasts between what drew the two adolescents to the piano. Mahler treated it as a means of intensifying the daydreams in which he so frequently indulged. The "silent reveries" of an introverted child remained the habit of a young man who spent every available hour alone in a room with a piano, and who would rage at anyone who dared listen through the door, including his mother. (Mahler's brother Ernst cleverly won the privilege of occasional listening by agreeing to serve as a valet of sorts.) The "Wagnerian" qualities that Epstein heard in the early compositions recall the weltfremd improvisations of Hanno or the adolescent Nietzsche: forays into the beyond, motivated by depression. Here again, one cannot imagine Strauss abandoning himself for even a minute to chromatic pessimism. For him the piano was a tool, for learning about music and for sharing it with others. Curiously, the experience of music during the apprentice years was more "absolute" for Strauss than for Mahler; he appreciated music's expressive capacity in something like a Mendelssohnian way (as an art emotionally specific beyond the capacity of words), but he loved the art for the specifically musical inner workings to which his mind was so exquisitely sensitive. Where Strauss spent his young life rejoicing in his innate musical capacity, and sharing it with anyone who would listen, Mahler used his gift as self-administered therapy for a psyche disposed against rejoicing.

When seeking out musical friends, the young composers understandably looked for people who shared their predilections. Mahler did not have the opportunity of friendship with a Ludwig Thuille — a born theorist with a penchant for doing things by the book and with enough creative talent to produce competent and interesting original works. Interaction with this "more experienced" musician (he was three years older than Strauss, and well trained from earliest youth) offered Strauss not just a model of discipline and knowledge but a generous helping of pedantry. The scandalous antics of Strauss's creative maturity owe something to his experience as a musical younger brother who entertained himself by antagonizing a role model obsessed with correctness. At the same time, friends such as Arthur Seidl and Friedrich Rösch, trained musicians but a future essayist and a future lawyer respectively, encouraged the freer sides of Strauss's nature while keeping him grounded in the real world.

Not until his Conservatory years (1875-78) did Mahler find such friendships; the Grünfeld brothers, in whose home he lived in Prague during the fall of 1871, might have fit the bill but they were interested only in persecuting him. With Rudolf Krzyzanowski and Hugo Wolf, fellow students at the Conservatory, Mahler found companions for a thorough exploration of Wagnerian profundity: in the Vienna Academic Wagner Society (which they joined in 1877), in late- night read-throughs (such as a rendition of the trio for Gunther, Hagen, and Brünnhilde from Götterdämmerung, Act II; we do not know who played the Valkyrie), and in personal encounters with Wagner himself (whom Wolf, but not Mahler, dared to approach at the Opera in 1875 and 1876). Wolf eventually served as a cautionary tale of romanticism run amok, but no more so than Hans Rott, who on the evidence of Mahler's own remarks might reasonably be called his artistic soul mate. An organ protégé of Bruckner, and the other leading member of Franz Krenn's composition class, Rott elicited from Mahler a kind of admiration that over the next thirty years only Strauss would duplicate. And that love was not without narcissism: "We felt ourselves to be two fruits from the same tree, growing from the same earth and breathing the same air ... We could have done great things together in our new musical epoch." When Mahler took a composition prize at Rott's expense, the former complained vehemently enough that his own mother railed at the injustice. The tragedy of unfulfilled genius played out for Mahler even more vividly in this man than in himself, and later, as Rott languished in an asylum, using his own manuscripts as toilet paper, he suffered the calamity Mahler feared most.


Excerpted from Mahler & Strauss In Dialogue by Charles Youmans. Copyright © 2016 Charles Youmans. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on Translation
Introduction: Friends
1. Children
2. Conductors
3. Husbands
4. Wagnerians
5. Businessmen
6. Literati
7. Autobiographers
8. Programmmusiker
9. Imports
10. Allusionists
11. Ironists
12. Metaphysicians
Epilogue: Individuals

What People are Saying About This

Bryan Gilliam

There has never been a book-length study of Strauss and Mahler, and the reasons are manifold and—now—mostly unnecessary. This book considers the parallel lives of the two greatest Austro-German composers of the late-19th and early-20th century, and does so with great eloquence.

Bryan Gilliam]]>

There has never been a book-length study of Strauss and Mahler, and the reasons are manifold and—now—mostly unnecessary. This book considers the parallel lives of the two greatest Austro-German composers of the late-19th and early-20th century, and does so with great eloquence.

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