10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Gustav Mahler

Of Gustav Mahler we keep the image of a man with his gaze lost in the distance, eyebrows frowned. Post-romantic composer and inclined towards melancholia, Mahler was also a pragmatic and very strict man.

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Photo prise dans le hall de l'Opéra de Vienne en 1907, © Gallica

A man who wanted to compose an opera, who became an orchestra conductor 

The Opus No. 1 of Mahler is an opera, Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation). He presented it at the Beethoven Prize in 1881 but the jury refused it, it was a failure – the composer would later turn it into a cantata. Mahler was twenty at the time and had one goal: to become a composer. This rejection was a hard blow. As a young musician without money, he decided to become a conductor to provide to his needs.

That was the starting point of a long career. He made his debut at the Hall in Austria and during his life, conducted the orchestras of the operas in Ljubljana, Vienna, Hamburg, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, New York… His composing activities were pushed aside: his role as an orchestra conductor took so much of his time he could only compose during the summer.

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la maisonnette où Gustav Mahler s’isolait l'été pour composer, à Tolbach (anciennement en Autriche, la ville s’appelle aujourd’hui Dobbiaco, et est en Italie)
la maisonnette où Gustav Mahler s’isolait l'été pour composer, à Tolbach (anciennement en Autriche, la ville s’appelle aujourd’hui Dobbiaco, et est en Italie), © Gallica

Victim of anti-Semitism, he converted to Catholicism

In 1897, the composer and conductor was offered the office of musical director for the Royal Opera in Vienna, cultural heart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But Mahler, as a Jew, was confronted with the anti-Semitism that prevailed at the time in Austria-Hungary. Even though the government was not explicitly anti-Semite, it was nevertheless unthinkable that a Jewish person would be given such an important office. 

Mahler, who was not very practicing but pragmatic, decided to convert to Catholicism – the main religion in Austria. He would stay ten years as the Opera director and doubled up this office with the one of director of the Philharmonic concerts of Vienna. His conversion did not protect him of the stigmas due to his Jewish origins, though. His music would be prohibited under the Third Reich.

He was a very authoritarian man

Under Mahler’s conducting, the Royal Opera of Vienna reached a very high level of artistic quality. Director of the opera and of the philharmonic concerts, Mahler was at the time the unquestioned master of music in Vienna. Even Cosima Wagner, fierce anti-Semite, daughter of Liszt and widow of Richard Wagner – she managed her husband’s heritage with an iron fist – addressed him with respect. She would force him though to play her son Siegfried’s operas.  

However, the musicians didn’t really appreciate the authoritarian manners of Mahler. The tensions between the conductor and his musicians would increase so much that Mahler quit his office.

He composed a symphony for 1000 interprets

The Symphony No. 8 of Mahler is called “Symhony of a thousand”. Why? Only because, to be interpreted properly, it needs in theory 850 choristers (two choirs of adults and one of children), 8 soloists and a symphonic orchestra with 8 trumpets and 7 trombones (distributed all around the room). 

The night of the premiere in Munich, a special stage was built in the new concert room of the World’s Fair in order to welcome all of the musicians. Inside the room, many celebrities were spotted: all the Bavarian Royal Family attended the show, the composers Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Anton von Webern, Camille Saint-Saëns as well and the writers Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig. Everybody wanted to witness the event.

Répétition de la Symphonie des Mille, en septembre 1910
Répétition de la Symphonie des Mille, en septembre 1910, © Jaeger & Goergen / Wikimedia Commons

He had a preference for married women

Before he wedded Alma Schindler in 1902 at the age of 42, Mahler hadn’t had a very fortunate sentimental life even if each one of his loves inspired him for his pieces. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer, one of his first compositions started in 1884) was born after his unfortunate passion for the singer of the theatre where he worked. Mahler forgot about it for a while before picking it up again because he had been distracted by a new hopeless love: this time, the object of his affection was married and a mother of four. 

At 27, in 1888, Mahler was the conductor at the Leipzig Theatre and was about to compose his first symphony. This time, his inspiration was no one less than Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson’s wife. Von Weber was one of the most famous German composers and a good friend of Mahler’s. His romance with Marion von Weber lead him to despair, as he was torn between his love for Marion and the treason it would be for his friend if he betrayed his grandson. 

He forbade his wife to compose music

In December 1901, Gustav Mahler was 41 years old and madly in love with Alma Schindler. Just before they got married, he sent her a most famous and cruel letter: twenty pages of narrow writing in which the asked Alma to choose between her career as a composer and her destiny as a wife. From his perspective, Alma’s musical vocation (all of her relatives praised her composing talents) was only vanity and arrogance and could create a rivalry “degrading for[them] both”. He wanted to make sure his wife wouldn’t shadow him

“Do not misunderstand what I am trying to tell you: do not think that in the relationship between two spouses I consider the wife a way to pass the time, despite of all in charge of a house and at her husband’s service (…) But you must be “the one that I need” if we want to be happy; my wife and not my colleague, that is certain!”

On her part, Alma moderately appreciated Mahler’s music: she wrote in her journal “As a composer, I do not believe in him very much”. When she received Mahler’s letter on Friday, the 20th of December 1901, her heart froze “Surrender my music? Give up the reason I have lived for until now? My first reaction was to refuse. I cried, I couldn’t help it, because I had just realized I loved him”. Alma finally said yes and agreed to give up her vocation – she would however keep a grudge against her husband her entire life. 

He was Freud’s patient

Gustav Mahler was melancholic – in a sense of depressed. One of his most harrowing pieces is the cycle for vocals and orchestra Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). He wrote it not long before the death of his daughter: he drew the conclusion that he had killed her by anticipation. Mahler started to suffer from an irrational feeling of guilt and despair. 

Alma avec Maria et Anna, les deux filles qu’elle a eu avec Gustav Mahler vers 1905-6
Alma avec Maria et Anna, les deux filles qu’elle a eu avec Gustav Mahler vers 1905-6

In 1910, he was shaken by an uncontrollable burst of depression when he discovered his wife Alma was having an affair with Walter Gropius. Divorce was out of the question. Mahler thus looked for help with Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. The treatment was too brief though (a sole four-hour discussion-walk) to show results.

He left for the United States to seek fortune

At the beginning of the 20th century, many Europeans left for the American continent to become rich. Mahler did not find any work in Vienna and thus went to live his American dream: in 1907 he moved to New York where he was offered the office of lead conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. For his first concert, he conducted Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

The more concerts he gave, the more successful he became with the public and the American critics. But the Met’s administration board was essentially controlled by rich and authoritarian women. Alma, still in Vienna was rumored to have said even the Austrian Emperor wouldn’t dare to give her husbands orders. An argument broke between Mahler and the board and he gave his resignation at the beginning of 1911. Afterwards, he returned to Vienna where he would die shortly after of pneumonia.

His “Resurrection Symphony” was sold for a record price 

Composed between 1888 and 1894, the Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” of Mahler was a monumental piece written for 90 musicians and one choir. Played for the first time in 1895 in Berlin, it covered universal themes such as life, death and after life. After Mahler’s death, Alma gave the original musical partition to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg in 1920. Since then the greatest international conductors have played it.

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Video of conductors (Boulez, Rattle, Bernstein..) directing the Symphony No. 2 of Mahler comparing their enthusiasm

The original manuscript for this symphony was sold in November 2016 for 4,54 millions pounds during an auction at Sotheby’s in London. A record. If the buyer of the partition wished to stay anonymous, the previous owner was Gilbert Kaplan, a New York businessman and one of the biggest admirers of the Austrian composer. The American millionaire had discovered Mahler in 1965 during a concert and liked to say: “Zeus sent lightning. I was a different man when I left the room”. After this discovery, he decided to purchase the manuscript and… to conduct himself the Symphony No. 2 for the first time in 1982.

The curse of the 9th symphony

“It seems the Ninth is a limit. Those who want to go beyond it have to perish. As if the Tenth contained something that we should not know yet, for which we would not be ready yet. Those who wrote a ninth got too close to the other side”. Here is what Arnold Schoenberg wrote in an essay to Mahler. The myth of the Ninth was born after the Ninth of Beethoven, which would be his last composition. Mahler had already composed a symphony no. 9 but, because he was a superstitious man, he chose to name it Das Lied von der Erdre (The Song of the Earth) so it wouldn’t be a part of his symphonies list. After he had finished it, he thought he had managed to outwit fate and wrote a tenth… He died while composing it.

When he was writing his Symphony No. 10, Mahler was eaten up by jealousy: his wife was having an affair at the time. On the partition, he wrote in the margins of his second movement called Purgatorio: “Madness is taking power over me, annihilates me” before wishing for his own death a little bit further: “Madness, take the cursed man than I am! Destroy me before I forget that I exist, before I cease to exist”. Several of Mahler’s friends assured that before he died, he demanded the destruction of his unfinished piece’s drafts. As a matter of fact, during his entire life, Mahler never accepted to talk about his pieces nor play them before they were completely finished. But his wife Alma decided to keep the manuscript.

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