"Nobody Gets Me" - a Millennial Biography of Gustav Mahler

#classicalmusic #mahler #sensitivemusicians

Born on July 7th, 1860, the Cancer Zodiac Sign and of Jewish Descent, Gustav Mahler was a rebel of his day.

black and white photo, composer snapshot
Gustav Mahler, age 28

Old Soul

Unlike his contemporaries Elgar and Debussy, Mahler had little interest in interpreting the natural world, instead preferring to focus on ideals of the past and his interpretation of spirituality. His perfectionism invited critique, and his intellect and the severity with which he put forth his views rebuked the music of his day, making his short life a lonely one.

"Never let oneself be guided by the opinion of one's contemporaries. Continue steadfastly on one's way." - Gustav Mahler

A Great Conductor

The level of perfection he brought to the Vienna Opera during his 10 dedicated years as director - he even converted from Judaism to Catholicism for the job - were no match for the antisemitic views that ultimately pushed him out in 1907. He pursued employment with the Berlin Opera, only to be rejected because an antisemitic trustee "did not like the shape of his nose". Later he was offered the directorship of the Berlin Opera, but he responded with the disdainful telegram:

"Cannot accept. Nose still same shape."

"I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." -Gustav Mahler

Ruled by Emotion

Even with the skepticism relating to astrological generalizations, there remains little doubt that those characteristics most attributed to the Cancer sign are prevalent throughout Mahler's life: while he was on the one hand adaptable, driven to success, and tenacious, he was also moody, narcissistic, and overly sensitive. One may say, a musician.

"Musicians are the architects of heaven" - Bobby McFerrin

Private Life

Alma and Gustav Mahler, 1903, when Mahler conducted a performance of Symphony No. 2 in the Basel Cathedral

Mahler married Alma Maria Schindler in 1902. A composer in her own right, Gustav pressured her after their marriage to give up composing, and to instead support him and his work. She obliged but fell into a depression and began an affair.

Mahler accepted a position at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but either real or imagined slights left him sulking in his hotel room, making the orchestra's concertmaster conduct the last few concerts.

"The longer you live and the more you learn, the more clearly you will feel the difference between the few men who are truly great and the mere virtuosi." - Gustav Mahler

In an attempt to repair his crumbling marriage, he sought help at the urging of Alma to contact Sigmund Freud, and after Gustav cancelled their meetings three times, he finally met with Freud for a two-hour walk in Holland in 1910. It was the only meeting between the two. The men bonded and supported each other during this meeting, as both were distinguished figures in their fields, and both were plagued by the increasing pressure of antisemitism.

Perhaps as a result of his meeting with Freud, Gustav returned to Vienna to work on his marriage. His annotations in the manuscript of the unfinished 10th Symphony are an open love letter to Alma and the meeting seems to have reminded Gustav of why he loved his wife:

music, handwritten, score
"To live for you! To die for you! Almschi!" Scribbled on Mahler's 10th Symphony

"To live for you! To die for you!"

Gustav and Alma began the work of repairing their crumbling marriage - she ended her affair and he encouraged her compositions - after his meeting with Freud until his death from heart failure on May 18th, 1911.

Freud had overlooked sending the bill for his consultation to Mahler, tactlessly sending it to Alma a few weeks after Gustav's death.

A Unique View of Death

Mahler's first four symphonies are built around songs he had previously written. The fourth of these symphonies was based around "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), depicting a child's view of heaven. The final movement features a soprano (sometimes even a boy soprano, for a truly childlike sound) singing the entire poem:

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures and avoid the earthly things. No worldly tumult does one hear in Heaven! Everything lives in the gentlest peace! We lead an angelic life! Nevertheless we are very merry: we dance and leap, hop and sing! Meanwhile, Saint Peter in the sky looks on. Saint John has let his little lamb go to the butcher Herod. We lead a patient, innocent, patient, a dear little lamb to death! Saint Luke slaughters oxen without giving it thought or attention. Wine costs not a penny in Heaven's cellar; and angels bake the bread. Good vegetables of all sorts grow in Heaven's garden! Good asparagus, beans and whatever we wish! Full bowls are ready for us! Good apples, good pears and good grapes! The gardener permits us everything! Would you like roebuck, would you like hare? In the very streets they run by! Should a fast-day arrive, all the fish swim up to us with joy! Over there, Saint Peter is running already with his net and bait to the heavenly pond. Saint Martha must be the cook! No music on earth can be compared to ours. Eleven thousand maidens dare to dance! Even Saint Ursula herself is laughing! Cecilia and all her relatives are splendid court musicians! The angelic voices rouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy.

Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, by Arnold Böcklin, 1872

Themes and Schemes

This symphony is one of the shortest and most sparsely orchestrated (relatively speaking) of all of Mahler's symphonies. He titled each of the movements privately, only sharing them with a close friend because he didn't want “to betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who were limited by “their banal misunderstandings.”

The one title we know is "Freund Hein spielt auf" ("Death Strikes Up"), the name of the 2nd movement, and it's based upon the figure "Friend Hal", a euphamism for Death. Alma Mahler confirmed that inspiration was drawn from Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, writing “the composer was under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.”

"To write a symphony is, for me, to construct a world." - Gustav Mahler

Mahler told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, the Austrian Violist, that he initially planned his 4th Symphony to be a 6-movement work, including the entirety of "Das irdische Leben" ("The Earthly Life") as a stark contrast between the starving child on earth and the feasting child in heaven. This song also makes an appearance through themes in Mahler's 3rd Symphony. He ultimately decided on the simpler structure of 4 movements for his 4th Symphony, continuing to reference this song in themes alone. In a manner of speaking, his first four symphonies in their entirety make up one colossal work.

"To judge a composer's work, one must consider it as a whole." - Gustav Mahler

In keeping with the theme of death, Mahler wrote orchestral parts that embodied unique elements:

  • Sleigh Bells, Flutes and Harp - Bell tones of heaven begin and end the symphony.

  • Violin - tuned a whole step up, the solo instrument now has a strained and aggressive country instrument sound, representing Death.

  • Basses - tolling bell-like figures of their own, performing a benediction, through which the key modulates to tell the listener that we have reached heaven.

Love it or Hate it

Mahler's compositions are said to be for the student, not the passive listener. His genius comes from his polyphonic way of thinking, and his talent for composing suggestions and interruptions between the instrument groups.

And there you have it - a troubled, sensitive man, truly genius and believing in his own intellectual superiority, continually berated for his heritage, forced to convert from his faith, misunderstood and struggling to stand up for what he believed was the best in music - conversations between instruments woven together in a tapestry that flies us up to heaven on a carpet of sound.

Christie Becker is a professional violinist, music history enthusiast, and owner of Christie Becker Violin, where she specializes in creating her client's perfect memories. For more information, or to work with Christie on your unique event, visit www.christiebeckerviolin.com.

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