Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gustav Mahler: The Earliest Years

Henry-Louis de La Grange is a French-born music critic who has, as they say, “written the book” on Gustav Mahler. His four-volume biography – the last volume came out in 2008 – averaging about 1,000 pages per volume, is easily the most detailed if not the definitive biography on the composer. When the late, lamented Encore Books went out-of-business, I managed to pick up Vol. 2 (pictured, left) and Vol. 3 for about $20 each: these three volumes currently list for $140-$155.

Vol. 1, curiously, never came up in these searches.

Much of the material I used for my posts on Mahler’s 3rd for the Harrisburg Symphony’s recent performance came from Vol. 2 which covered the years he was preparing the work for its first performances. Even though it had tons of information about it, the time period it was composed in was covered in Vol. 1 which I didn’t have and couldn’t find. Curious about it, I began looking around to see what I could.

I knew that La Grange wrote a one-volume biography published in the early-70s in French which he then expanded into a three-volume work that was never translated from the French. This in turn was further expanded into the four-volume set which began appearing during the 1990s. Oddly enough, I was unable to track down any on-line sales for Vol. 1 of the four – and the original one-volume work was out-of-print. It turns out that Vol. 1-of-4 has not yet been released, despite the three later volumes’ availability. Somewhere, a commentator who referenced the initial 1973 volume advised anybody interested in a “complete” Mahler set by La Grange (who is now 87) to snap this one up “just in case.”

There were things about Mahler’s musical style – or his attitudes about his musical aesthetic – that I was curious about which would only have been discussed in those pages covering his student years. These are very rarely mentioned in what material I’ve read about Mahler where it seems his 1st Symphony (prefaced by the early ‘cantata / song-cycle’ “Das Klagende Lied”) appeared largely through some form of parthenogenesis.

I was also curious about his relationship with fellow-student Hans Rott whose career is easily summarized but tantalizingly lacking in explanation: a brilliant young composer who studied with Bruckner, his 1st (and only) Symphony failed to please, it sounds a lot like Mahler and yet it was composed in 1880, eight years before Mahler began his 1st Symphony. Rott was on the receiving end of some bitter scorn by no less than Johannes Brahms and this apparently proved too much for his delicate psyche: on a train out of Vienna, he threatened a fellow passenger with a revolver when he tried lighting a cigar because he was convinced Brahms had loaded the train with dynamite in order to destroy him. He was taken off the train, put in an asylum and diagnosed with “insanity, hallucinatory persecution mania” and where he died of typhoid before he was 25 years old.

Aside from a single reference to Rott and his Symphony in La Grange’s second volume, I wanted to see what more information there might be about Mahler’s association with Rott when they were students. This would presumably be covered in the first volume of La Grange’s work.

(I’ll write more about Mahler & Hans Rott in a subsequent post.)

Having located Peter Bartok’s memoir about his father through an InterLibrary Loan, I again contacted my local library, the East Shore Library of the Dauphin County Library System, to see if they could track down the elusive (and difficult to explain) one-volume first edition biography of Mahler by La Grange. Despite trying to distinguish between this and the later four-volume expansion (of which Vol. 1 is not yet available), the book that showed up was Vol. 2 (which I already owned). After more discussions and details in an incredible example of customer service – finally aided by my tracking down a publisher and an ISBN number (d'oh!) – they were able to locate it.

Ironically, it was in the Harrisburg Area Community College Library (not one I would’ve expected to own a copy of it) where it has been signed out twice: once in 1977 and another time in 1992. Apparently there’s not a lot of demand for this book – or anyone who would be interested in it would probably not think to check the HACC Library.

So I now have until June 18th to read through some 982 pages.

And it turns out not to be a complete biography of Mahler later expanded into four – it covers only up to January 1901. And Vol. 2 of the “complete” set begins in May 1897 to September, 1904.

Paging through the initial chapters dealing with the inevitable background on Mahler’s family and his earliest years, I found a few items of interest which I thought I would take time to point out.

(These may not be the only biography in which this material appears in print but, published in English in 1973, it still predates many of the more standard, readily available and often less detailed biographies which have been published since then.)

His first composition, written when he was 6 years old, was entitled Polka with Introductory Funeral March.

To anyone who knows Mahler’s more mature music which is full of references to funeral marches – think the third Movement of his 1st Symphony (with its minor key version of the tune we know as “Frere Jacques”), the huge “funeral games” of the 2nd Symphony’s first movement, passages in the opening of the 3rd Symphony, the opening of the 5th Symphony and even passages of the unfinished 10th Symphony which were inspired by hearing a passing funeral procession for a slain policeman in New York City – much less his frequent mixing of the deeply tragic with almost banal vulgarity (particularly in the first movements of the 3rd and 5th Symphonies), and the title of his first piece would surely sound like something Mahler would do.

But at 6 years old?

His musical awareness began quite early, in true prodigy fashion – though Mahler is never thought of as a “prodigy” in the sense Mozart and Mendelssohn were (or we might have been saddled with The Three M’s). As an infant, he would stop crying only when one of his parents would hold him and sing to him; he was able to hum tunes he had heard even before he could stand. There were the darkly sad Slavic cradle songs and gay peasant rounds of Bohemia – and stories like the one told him by a neighbor’s nursemaid called “Das Klagende Lied” which would form the basis of his first major pre-symphonic composition, completed after considerable revision, by the time he was 20 years old.

And he discovered military music. There were barracks down the street and the soldiers often paraded past the Mahler’s house. Once, he ran out of the house and followed behind the parade playing the toy accordion he’d been given for his 3rd birthday. It was only after they’d gone several blocks, into the busy Market Place, when he realized he was lost. Two neighbors recognized him and offered to take him home but “only after he had played to them, on his accordion, his entire repertoire of military music. Seated on a fruit-vendor’s counter, he enchanted a large audience of housewives and passers-by. After this, amidst applause and laughter, he was taken back to his parents…” You could consider this his first “public appearance,” not quite as grand as Mozart’s introduction to the world, but still…

Again, how many “military marches” appear in Mahler’s early symphonies? This is especially important in the 3rd where there is quite a dramatic contest between the March of Pan or Bacchus (as he initially conceived it) and the good burghers who prefer the more vulgar military-style march that forms the first movement’s climactic moments.

Signs of the future conductor and his imperious maestro-ness might be in evidence in another anecdote about one of his first visits to the synagogue, when he interrupted the hymn singing, howling “Be quiet! It’s horrible,” then offering, at the top of his lungs, his own favorite song, “Eits a binkel Kasi” (which unfortunately is not translated in the notes).

(Though other biographies include this anecdote, Norman Lebrecht's "Why Mahler?" mentions it is a bawdy Czech song about a swaying knapsack in a polka rhythm but then he concludes the reference by saying "There is an element of myth-making involved in his narration. He is leaving false trails for future biographers like me, playing us along a line of no return.")

Visiting his maternal grandfather, the 4-year-old Mahler disappeared into the attic where he found a strange box. Opening the lid, he discovered a keyboard that made sounds and on which he found he could play tunes that others in the family recognized. The grandfather gave the boy the old piano, sending it on an oxcart to the Mahler home. The boy then began to have regular piano lessons.

There are stories how he would borrow scores and sheet music from the local library and play them over and over at the piano, even refusing to stop for dinner, entreaties by his sisters and mother ignored until his father's cane proved more persuasive.

When Mahler was 7 or 8, he had his first piano student, a boy a year younger. La Grange writes how the teacher rested his arm on the pupil’s shoulder, palm close to the cheek, all the easier to slap the pupil when he made a mistake. If the pupil continued making the mistake, he was made to write “I must play C-sharp, not C” one hundred times.

Around this time, a neighbor girl asked him “how music is composed.” He told her she should “sit down at the piano and play whatever comes into her head. After noting the principal melodies, she should develop them, improve them, and finally write down the resultant piece of music.”

It may sound obvious to one who composes but not so obvious to one who still regards creativity as a mystery (I couldn’t help thinking, when I found this passage in La Grange, of Monty Python’s infamous “How to Make a Rat Tart” skit which enumerates in excruciating detail how you would kill the rat “and then bake it into a tart,” end of story). Still, the adult Mahler recalled this story and said “These instructions that I gave at the age of 8 are followed by most composers all their lives!”

Many of these anecdotes were told to his friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, whom I wrote about in my post on the 3rd Symphony. She was a frequent guest of his during his composing holidays and apparently kept voluminous notes in her journals about her conversations with him.

Another famous anecdote was something he told Sigmund Freud when he visited the psychiatrist in Vienna in 1910 when he was 50. Mahler’s father was an often violent man who could be very strict and abusive, especially toward his wife. During a particularly brutal quarrel, Mahler fled from the house when he ran into a street musician playing Ach, du lieber Augustin on a barrel organ.

Much has been made of this story and it is often dismissed by many writers, those who believe such experiences have nothing to do with an artist’s art. But Mahler himself considered it why, when “a moment of deep emotional creation carried him to the heights,” he would suddenly find one of these banal street songs stuck in his head.

This kind of juxtaposition, so shocking to his contemporaries, was one of the hallmarks of his style, perhaps heralding a more psychological approach to the creative mind. La Grange says, whether conscious or unconscious, “these ‘quotations’… opened a new chapter in musical history, and were the forerunners of neoclassicism in early-20th Century music,” though I’m tempted to think of it as more a precedent for the deeper psychological explorations of early-20th Century’s expressionism, more of an antithesis of 20th Century neoclassicism.

Remember Arnold Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet, famous for its use of the soprano voice added in the last two movements, a work that progresses from its loose hold on tonality into what is generally considered the first example of atonal music? Much of it was composed during a particularly emotional phase of Schoenberg’s private life, the discovery of his wife’s affair with the painter Richard Gerstl who would be their summer guest at the time he was completing the quartet. There’s a disturbing and usually inexplicable moment when, in the midst of all this harmonic turmoil as the familiar world is on the brink of being thrown over into the unfamiliar, Schoenberg suddenly quotes a banal nursery song which comes in quite unexpectedly and without apparent preparation – Ach, du lieber Augustin.

Was he familiar with Mahler’s anecdote? They were at times acquaintances, even friends – perhaps Schoenberg had heard him talk about this one time and it left an impression on him. After all, Mahler’s music is full of such contrasts, though not such explicit quotations. Was this Schoenberg’s way of expressing his own deeper personal conflict or applying a “third-person experience” to mitigate the trauma?

Another of Mahler’s childhood recollections regards his day-dreaming whether it was to escape his family’s quarrels or find a haven for his creative mind. His father had taken him on a walk in the woods and ordered him to sit on a bench until he was called. Apparently his father forgot about him but as Mahler later told Bauer-Lechner, “ but I did not get tired waiting and remained in my place, without moving and very happy. To everyone’s great amazement I was found in just that way several hours later.”

Immediately, certain sections of his early symphonies come to my mind – the long scenes of unfolding nature in the bird calls of both the 1st and 2nd Symphonies (which an impatient friend of mine referred to as “Sleepers, Sleep” as opposed to “Sleepers, Awake”) and the long post-horn solos in the third movement of the 3rd Symphony, incredible moments of suspended animation in the midst of the dance that Mahler himself described as being like “nature looking at us and sticking out its tongue.”

Perhaps such awareness of nature and its depiction in music would only have been possible to the mind of a child enraptured by spending hours sitting on a bench in the woods, oblivious to the reality around him, the bustle of the market and the military barracks of the town and of the family life with its quarrels and constant grief over the deaths of his little brothers and sisters (eight of the Mahlers’ fourteen children did not survive childhood).

There is one photograph that survives from Mahler’s childhood, a fairly famous one. He was five or six years old and looks terrified, standing beside a chair and holding a musical score. Now, any child, especially one placed before the contraptions of a photographer in 1866 or so, given the pan with its chemical flash, might be excused for looking terrified. But Natalie Bauer-Lechner writes how young Gustav was convinced he would be subjected to some form of enchantment where he would be transformed, stuck to a piece of paper forever. He would only allow it after he saw his father being photographed first and how “he walked away unharmed from the terrifying machine that [Mahler then] allowed himself to be photographed as well.”

And so far, that covers just twelve pages of La Grange’s text – only 933 more to go…

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Volumn One of the four book biography may be out in January of 2013 per Oxford. La Grange was still working on it when I inquired about it back in early 2011. I just find it odd that it has taken so long to release the complete set ins spite of the fact that he has written and re writen the biography several times. At this point I am holding my breath. Not convinced that volumn will be released at this point.