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Memories of Mahler

4 minute read

The last of the great middle European giants of the symphony was Gustav Mahler, a Bohemian Jew who lived most of his life in Vienna. Like Richard Wagner, whom he worshipped musically, Mahler was a complicated introvert. He made his living by conducting other men’s operas. His own, seldom-played, gargantuan (90-minute) scores are full of funeral marches, Dante-like infernos and heavenly serenities.

Mahler’s musical pageants were not easy either for players or listeners. Though they sometimes required large choruses and offstage sound effects, no one but Mahler was ever quite sure what was going on. Mahler offered no-program notes. He once explained a particularly apocalyptic passage to his orchestra: “Here, gentlemen, is where the cow walks across the field.”

Last week Mahler’s widow, now living in Beverly Hills, Calif., published a biography of her husband (Gustav Mahler, Memories and Letters; Viking, $5). She first wrote her book seven years ago, published it in Amsterdam in 1940. Shortly afterwards she escaped to the U.S. with her third husband, Austrian Novelist Franz (Song of Bernadette) Werfelt† whom she met in 1917 when he was in the Czech army, married in 1918. Like many another Mahler partisan, Alma Mahler admitted that she wasn’t always able to understand Mahler’s music.

In New York she heard her first husband’s symphonies—banned by the Nazis —conducted by Viennese alumni like Bruno Walter, who is most responsible for Mahler’s U.S. popularity. He has played Mahler every season for 23 years. Said he last week: “[Mahler] is gradually coming into his own in American life. In the fall I will go to London, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Zurich and I will play Mahler. I will go on with Mahler as long as God will permit.”

Save Your Fury. Mahler’s widow, now in her sixties, was a 20-year-old counterpoint student when she married the slight, 41-year-old opera conductor. His ferociousness in the orchestra pit was already a legend. By abolishing the claque and ordering latecomers toa special box, Mahler had angered performers and audiences alike. Once the musicians stubbornly refused to rehearse another note, and Mahler barked: “Gentlemen, keep your fury for the performance. Then at last we shall have [it] played as it should be.”

The only other Austrian of Mahler’s musical stature was Richard Strauss. The Mahlers and Strausses shared a box at the opening of Strauss’s opera, Feuersnot. Writes Alma Mahler: “Strauss thought of nothing but money … the whole time he had a pencil in his hand. . . . [He] calculated his profits to the last penny.” Strauss’s formidable wife, Pauline, said to Mahler: “My God, for a million—well no, that’s not enough—five million! And then Richard can stop manufacturing music.”

Mahler had few good words for his contemporaries. Of Puccini he said (after a performance of Tosca): “Nowadays any bungler orchestrates to perfection”; of Sibelius: “The most hackneyed clichés were served up with harmonizations in the ‘Nordic’ style”; and of Strauss: “A heap of slag.”

Unlucky Nine. In 1907 Mahler came to New York to conduct the Metropolitan Opera. With such great singers as Enrico Caruso, Marcella Sembrich, Geraldine Farrar, Feodor Chaliapin and Emma Fames he conducted Beethoven’s Fidelia, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and the Met’s first performance of Smetana’s Bartered Bride.

A superstitious mystic, Mahler brooded over Beethoven and Bruckner, each of whom died after finishing his ninth symphony. When Mahler had written eight, he tried to dodge the unlucky number nine by titling his greatest symphonic work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

But he did not escape. He had just started his tenth when he returned to the U.S. to conduct the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. He soon became ill with a streptococcus infection which developed into uremia. Gustav Mahler, composer of nine symphonies, returned to Vienna on a stretcher, and died there May 18, 1911.

† He died last August in California.

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