GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: Gustav Mahler

PUBLISHED: 18:00 22 May 2019

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Photo: Imagno/Getty Images

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Photo: Imagno/Getty Images

IMAGNO/÷sterreichisches Theatermuseum

CHARLIE CONNELLY takes an in-depth look at the life of late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler.

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One morning in July 1910 Gustav Mahler was working as usual in the writing cabin at Toblach in the Tirolean countryside that he'd used for the previous three summers. The hut, equipped with a piano, a desk, a day bed and a stove, was the composer's creative retreat, a place to which he would decamp at six every morning to find the peace and solitude he needed to work on his Tenth Symphony. Instructions were left that he should never be disturbed.

The solitude was welcome after a fractious winter, his third in New York but his first as the conductor of the city's Philharmonic Orchestra. The 46 concerts he conducted at Carnegie Hall comprised one of his busiest seasons ever but his programming failed to chime with the public and there was a hefty financial loss. To compound the disappointment, his own First Symphony was among the more notable critical and commercial flops.

He'd arrived in Toblach via Paris and Rome and had already interrupted his summer retreat in order to rehearse his immense Eighth Symphony, whose premiere was scheduled for Munich in mid-September. By July, however, he could at last focus on what would turn out to be his final major work and arguably his finest achievement.

On that particular morning he was lost in the music swirling around his head, his pen skittering over the manuscript paper, when there was a sudden and violent crash of shattering glass, a tumult of feathers and a deafening screeching. Wrenched from his creative reverie Mahler leapt from his chair, terrified.

"He saw that he was in the presence of an eagle which filled the little room with its violence," wrote the conductor Bruno Walter in a memoir of his dealings with the composer. With its wings spread wide the bird levelled its gaze at Mahler for a moment, flew up onto the window ledge and took off over the trees. As Mahler righted his chair there was a panicky fluttering beneath the day bed as a crow the eagle had been pursuing emerged, scrabbled in a panic around the hut and then exited too via the broken window.

Mahler found the incident deeply disturbing and spoke about it often in what little remained of his life, especially when it turned out to be an eloquent portent for a turbulent summer.

A few days later a letter arrived at Toblach addressed to Mahler which turned out to be from the architect Walter Gropius and intended for the composer's wife Alma. From the content it was clear the pair were conducting an affair. Whether Gropius addressed the envelope in error or it was a deliberate act isn't clear but the revelation came as a dreadful shock to Mahler, so severe that a few weeks later he would track down Sigmund Freud himself to Leiden in Holland in order to solicit advice.

According to Alma's memoir, written after Mahler's death, there followed a three-way discussion between her, her husband and Gropius at which she vowed to end the affair (in fact she continued seeing Gropius and would go on to marry him in 1915), and in the aftermath of these traumatic weeks the composer travelled to Munich to conduct the premiere of his Eighth Symphony on September 12, 1910.

The Eighth, for which Mahler required a total of more than 1,000 musicians and singers, was a piece whose journey from creation to performance had spanned four years. Composed in a remarkable rush of inspiration in 1906, it was the most ambitious work of his life.

"I saw the whole thing immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me," he reflected.

While a symphony is traditionally an instrumental work in four movements, Mahler's Eighth consists of two sections, a setting of the 9th century Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and an interpretation of the final part of Goethe's Faust. At an hour and a half, the Eighth is twice as long as most conventional symphonies and features eight vocal soloists, several choirs, an organ and even a separate offstage brass section.

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A powerful evocation of redemption through love, the work was intended as a celebration of the human spirit composed when the Mahlers' marriage was a happy one. The following year, however, their eldest daughter Maria died of scarlet fever at the age of five, then Mahler was diagnosed with the heart condition that would kill him before his 51st birthday.

To conduct a work of such ambition, one that had been composed in happier times, would have been daunting enough, but for the premiere of a work inspired by his devotion to Alma to take place barely six weeks after discovering her relationship with Gropius added extra weight to the challenge.

Despite the fraught nature of his domestic life and the massive logistical issues presented by a work of such staggering scale (the concert was billed as 'The Symphony of a Thousand') the premiere was arguably Mahler's greatest triumph and earned him a 20-minute standing ovation.

Among the musical luminaries in attendance were Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saens and the Second Viennese School composer Anton Webern, who wrote afterwards to Arnold Schoenberg, "I can't tell you how beautiful Mahler's symphony is. It's hardly bearable. As a whole, the work is barely conceivable and I'm still completely bowled over by it".

When Mahler returned to his hotel room that night he found a letter of praise from Thomas Mann, who addressed him as "the man who, I believe, expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form".

Mahler, never one to knowingly talk down his abilities, had in 1906 declared the Eighth his "gift to the nation". At the time he was the artistic director of both the Vienna Court Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic and the nation on whom he bestowed the work was Austria-Hungary. He'd been in Vienna for nearly a decade after being appointed to the opera at the impressively young age of 37 but Austria-Hungary hadn't been an entirely welcoming state to its brilliant young conductor.

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a city blighted by anti-Semitism and in 1897 Mahler was obliged to renounce his Judaism before he was allowed to take up his appointment at the opera. He then battled constantly with the opera house administration over programming and still had to endure the insults of Vienna's society bigots. When he put on Smetana's Dalibor, for example, he was accused of "fraternising with the anti-dynastic and inferior Czech nation".

By the time of his daughter's death Mahler was already in advanced negotiations to take charge of the New York Metropolitan Opera. The contract offered more money than he'd ever imagined, but as well as an opportunity to leave behind Vienna's simmering prejudices he also recognised in the United States the appealing prospect of a young country where almost everyone was an outsider.

Mahler had nursed a sense that he never really belonged for as long as he could remember. The son of an Austrian tavern keeper, he'd grown up in Bohemia as part of a minority German-speaking community. Even among his own linguistic group his Jewishness set him further apart, fostering a feeling of otherness he would never shake off. He was, he wrote, "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".

He'd taken up conducting at a young age because of the stable income it offered, a decision that won him fame with the baton long before he developed any kind of reputation as a composer and meaning that a man regarded as one of the greatest composers of the modern age, who expanded the range and scope of the symphony itself, only wrote music in his spare time.

The combined sense of never quite belonging and being a piecemeal artist left Mahler feeling he had more to prove than most. It made him push himself to compositional heights and made him a demanding conductor constantly frustrated by the pursuit of unattainable perfection.

"Mahler was shouting and gesticulating every instant, it seemed to me that he would explode with rage," said one visitor to a New York rehearsal in 1908. "To an outsider it seemed he was utterly heartless and merciless to those men."

"Poor Mahler," observed one contralto after a similarly explosive rehearsal, summing up the relentless drive that chased the composer to an early grave. "He seems to forget that there is no such thing as perfection in this world."

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