Friday, April 12, 2013

Gustav Mahler's 5th Symphony: A Bit of Biography

This series of posts on Gustav Mahler's 5th Symphony was originally posted on the blog I maintain for the Harrisburg Symphony where I often go "behind the scenes" about the music on up-coming programs. 

Being one of my favorites and one of those epic symphonies that one could write so much about, I chose to write primarily a "biography" of the work: what was going on in the composer's life at the time he was writing it.

So I'm re-posting it here, slightly edited, on my original blog to keep it part of the on-going series, here, which I tag "Up Close and Personal."

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One day, a leading critic in Vienna complained over lunch to conductor Gustav Mahler, director of the Imperial Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic, about not only his obsession with the music of Richard Wagner but his unbounded enthusiasm for it which, he thought, was like the foie gras they were dining on at the Café Imperial.

Asked what he meant by that, the critic explained “because geese are force-fed until they develop a liver disease which produces the succulent foie gras. You, when you prepare a new production [of a challenging opera], stuff yourself with enthusiasm and this results in a marvelous performance.”

Mahler rather enjoyed this and so began announcing an impending new production by saying “the foie gras will soon be ready.”

When faced with bad reviews, he might respond, “the Big Bosses [the major critics in town] once again consider it a liver disease… but we think the foie gras will be excellent!”

Equally enthusiastic about Mahler's music, the Harrisburg Symphony's conductor, Stuart Malina, told an audience at a pre-season preview about this concert, “When you listen to Mahler, it’s like taking a musical journey, you never know which direction he’s going to take you but at the end of the evening you feel like you been through not just a concert, not just a performance, but an experience...a life experience.”
To anyone thinking Mahler is obsessed with death – and certainly his last two symphonies were written when he knew he was dying – the fact the 5th Symphony opens with a funeral march may seem daunting.

On the other hand, considering where this token of death leads us, it is not something we haven't experienced before: there are famous funeral marches in earlier works like Beethoven’s Eroica or Chopin’s B-flat Minor Piano Sonata, much less Mahler’s own 1st Symphony with its odd minor-mode version of Frere Jacques.

However, it seems odd to start a heroic symphony – which in essence it seems to be – with the death of the hero. Where do you go from there?

Before he began work on this new symphony in the summer of 1901, perhaps before he had even planned anything about the new symphony he would no doubt write next, there was an experience that no doubt had a profound impact on a composer who’d turned 40 the previous summer.

It was over Christmas, 1900, that he was preparing the final copy of his 4th Symphony to send to his publisher. There was an idea that he changed in the scherzo which has this violin solo he now felt should be played on an instrument with its strings tuned a step higher than normal, so that “it will have a harsh, shrill sound, as though Death were playing it.” This, in the middle of a symphony that ends with a rapturous and child-like evocation of a Heavenly Banquet!

After the holidays, back to business as usual, Mahler was preparing for a new production of Wagner’s first successful and rarely performed opera, Rienzi when a recurring throat infection was diagnosed as tonsillitis. He monitored the dress rehearsal from his bed via telephone, but felt well enough to conduct the opening night performance. A few days later, on January 27th, and not yet recovered, he conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Shortly afterward, he received word of the death of Giuseppe Verdi who’d died on the 27th at the age of 89. Verdi was a composer for whom Mahler felt an “almost affectionate veneration.” Friends remarked he seemed very affected by this news.

February began with the belated premiere of a work he had written when he was 20, half his life ago, Das klagende Lied, this “Sorrowful Song” which he’d referred to even then as his “child of sorrow.”

He was surprised by how well it had stood up, considering his musical style had developed considerably over the time in between. The general response from the audience was genuinely enthusiastic, though the critics (as ever with Mahler) were often derogatory. Many of them were conflicted, trying to separate Mahler the Conductor from Mahler the Composer.

Next came a concert which included a rare performance of Anton Bruckner’s 5th Symphony, a vast work that Mahler thought was uneven – though he had never officially studied with Bruckner, he attended many of his lectures and the older composer became something of a mentor to him – and so he made many cuts which enraged Bruckner’s fans. He had chosen not to support a recent memorial to Bruckner because he didn’t want to see his name next to those who had never bothered to support the composer during his lifetime when he had very little professional much less popular support, but his lack of “interest” in the monument was taken for arrogance and disloyalty. Plus he had already declared that there was “nothing to be done for Bruckner without a scalpel.”

On February 24th, he conducted the Bruckner at a 12:30 concert and then conducted Mozart’s Magic Flute at the opera that evening.

That same night, Mahler suffered a hemorrhage – not the first he’d had, but the most violent – in which, he later told Richard Strauss, he’d lost 2.5 liters of blood. His sister found him lying in a pool of blood, called the doctor who felt obliged to call a surgeon. Had they arrived a half hour later, the doctor told him, it would’ve been too late.

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“You know,” [he told a friend of his], “last night I nearly passed away. When I saw the doctors… I thought my last hour had come. While they were putting in the tube, which was frightfully painful but quick, they kept checking my pulse and my heart. Fortunately it was solidly installed in my breast and [I] determined not to give up so soon… While I was hovering between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to this in the end. Besides, the prospect of dying did not frighten me in the least, provided my affairs are in order, and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance.”
(quoted in Henry-Louis de la Grange, Gustav Mahler: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904) vol. II of his vast four-volume biography)
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That same day, he was examining the proofs of his 4th Symphony which the publisher had ready for him and was horrified to realize the copyist had marked the slow movement (which acts as a transition into the finale) in second place, followed by the Scherzo with its Death’s Fiddle solo.

“If I had died last night, the entire structure and significance of the work would have been destroyed!”

Then, between that and dwelling on his usual spate of bad reviews, he drafted an obituary notice: “Gustav Mahler had finally met the fate he deserved for his many misdeeds.”

And that, you might assume, is why Mahler began his next symphony with a Funeral March.

You’d think

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At the end of the opera season in June, 1901, Gustav Mahler – no longer conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic but still director and chief conductor of the Court Opera in the Imperial capital – was able to leave the busy schedule and the constant in-fighting (not just office politics but dealing with opera singers’ egos) and head out to his new dream-home, built with the money he was finally making as a busy conductor, both in Vienna and across Europe.

Today, we think of Mahler as a famous composer but in his day he was a famous (if not always respected) conductor and as a result, the schedule of overseeing the business of running the opera house, planning its new productions, handling singers’ schedules not to mention dealing with an imperial bureaucracy that would put Washington to shame as well as conducting many of the performances – and don’t forget the occasional guest conducting opportunities outside Vienna – left him very little time for composing.

He became, in self-defense, a “summer composer.” This was not uncommon: even Brahms, who had no such professional demands on his time, found himself only ever able to compose during the summers, spending time in Vienna with all its distractions working on final drafts and orchestrations or proofing manuscripts and printer’s galleys.

Then when summer arrived, like Brahms, Mahler would take off for some place in the Austrian mountains – occasionally Northern Italy – where he would find the solitude to work on new compositions. And like Brahms, he would rent rooms or houses where he could (hopefully) enjoy the peace and quiet around him – walks in nature or pleasant places to hang out without being himself a tourist attraction. He might have favorite places to go until something happened or he simply sought new locations. Some were more successful than others.

View of Meiernigg on theWörthersee 
Unlike Brahms, Mahler eventually decided to buy a property – this one on a lake near the Carinthian town of Meiernigg – where he built a house which friends would later call “Villa Mahler.” This lake – the Wörthersee, a rather sizeable one for land-locked Austria – had a climate that made it the equivalent of a Mediterranean vacation destination and in the summer of 1899 he, his sister Justine (whom everybody called Justi) and his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner toured the place looking for a place to stay when Mahler found a rocky promontory overlooking the lake where he thought he could build a house.

Mahler's Composing Hut
First, however, the architect agreed to build a small house – a composing hut – for the composer, a place off in the woods not far from where the house was to be built: the hut would be ready for the following summer. That summer, he rented a villa that was a 20-minute walk from his hut where he “savored peace, security and Dionysic wonder, keeping the windows open to breathe the pure forest air” rather than, as usual, keeping them closed against noise (as he had to do in Vienna and several other summer properties he’d rented).

It was here, that summer, that he completed his Symphony No. 4.

Mahler's Summer House in Meiernigg
June 1901 would be his first arrival there as a property-owner. The house had been finished – an old-fashioned cross between a lakeside villa and mountain chalet with three floors and a basement that opened onto the lake-shore – with a steep foot-path that linked the main house to the all-important composing shed where Mahler would spend several hours a day.

To the Composing Hut
But Mahler, despite having given up his duties at the Philharmonic following his near-death experience in February (see previous post), could not concentrate on composing – at least, not at first. He set about studying scores, primarily the polyphonic motets by Bach and songs by Schumann. In the course of the summer, he would write several songs for voice with orchestra: several poems by Rückert – he composed, appropriately, “Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft” (“I breathe a sweet scent”) in the first days after his arrival – and one from the collection of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). The fact he could not get a “larger project” underway bothered him.

So he decided he would just put aside two weeks and rest. Naturally, he immediately began jotting down new ideas. Even when he went for walks, he would take small notebooks with him to scribble down a few pitches here and there that would generate a theme. But for a while, he told no one what he was working on. It’s possible he might not be sure what it was himself, at least to begin: he was always reluctant to play through anything for his friends that he was still composing until the first draft was finished.

It was on August 5th he told Natalie about the symphonic scherzo he was working on, how it was giving him so much trouble; how it was so contrapuntal with all these different lines that would require soloists to be able to play them well; how he had composed nothing like it before; how nothing would be repeated (a major feature of most symphonic music with themes and restatements, their development and recapitulations) and how everything “had to develop from within.”

He told her that it had “unparalleled power [like] that of a man in the full light of day who has reached the climax of his life.” More importantly, everything would be “expressed in terms of pure music. It will be a proper symphony in four movements, each of them independent, complete in itself, and linked to the others solely by affinity of mood.”

Five days later, he invited Natalie to the Composing Hut and played for her this collection of songs he had been working on (one more would be finished the next day, the famous “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I have become lost in the world”) usually collected in a set of Rückert-Lieder that includes “Um Mitternacht,” also composed that same summer. Before he left for Vienna, he gave her the songs’ original manuscripts.

Whatever he had planned – he also said it would contain “no harp or English horn” nor a human voice as his last two symphonies had – it was not yet finalized: though lacking voices, it did include both harp and English horn; and while it may originally have been four movements, at some point he decided to break the first movement into two – the opening Funeral March followed by an allegro marked “strürmisch bewegt” (highly agitated) and “mit grosser Vehemenz” (with great vehemence).

But this life-affirming scherzo is the first music he began composing – or, whether he’d sketched anything beyond an idea of the opening movement, at least the first movement he completed – for his new 5th Symphony.

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Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at the London Proms:

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Though it's difficult to say when Mahler sketched what or composed which movements during this particular summer, he had, apparently, written what would become the first two movements of the symphony as it now stands. Presumably, they were conceived as one single movement which at some point (ostensibly the following summer) he broke in two. There seems to be no indication that I can find concerning how he did this, perhaps the opposite of what Sibelius did in his own 5th Symphony in 1915 when he decided to combine his opening movement with its ensuing scherzo to create one single but not necessarily unified movement.

This would explain, of course, the amount of shared material - particularly the rhythmic cell from the opening trumpet fanfare that pervades both movements in one form or another - almost as if the second movement was commentary on the first or perhaps the deferred development section to the opening's exposition (speaking, of course, only conjecturally). It stands outside the standard convention of Sonata Form Opening, Slow Movement, Scherzo and Finale format of the 19th Century Symphony, to become the "added fifth" movement the way Beethoven's thunderstorm was inserted between the Scherzo and the Finale of his 6th Symphony, the Pastorale.

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Alan Gilbert conducts the National German Radio Symphony: 1st Movement (in two clips)

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Not a great recording, but it’s Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony on tour in Tokyo with the 2nd Movement:

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The summer was not without its occasional interruptions: tourists gliding past on their boats (Mahler himself owned two boats) might either shout at him how they hated his music (“what has he ever done to you,” one shouted at the friend who then responded, “he wrote a terrible symphony and then another one!”); or glimpsing him on his balcony, cheering him with bravos. Characteristically, he found both of these distasteful and rushed inside to avoid acknowledging either.

One night, after a long walk and a late-night conversation on the balcony with Natalie, Mahler was disturbed by the sound of a man falling in the water. Rushing barefoot down the steps, Mahler was able to reach the man in time and drag him to shore, though the man, clearly drunk, was so frantic he nearly drowned Mahler along with him! Cries for help brought others and eventually the man was rescued and given blankets and dry clothes before he left without ever giving them his name.

Otherwise, it was an idyllic time – serene was the way he described it – and very productive despite its slow start. In all, he composed eight songs (with orchestral accompaniment) and what became three movements of his new symphony.

Yet, despite the mood of the scherzo, everything else was “funereal,” meditations on death and dying or on saying farewell to the world. Three of the songs later became part of the cycle known under the gruesome title Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”).

He had expressed to Natalie – perhaps on the night of the near-drowning man – his desire to have children of his own, that he was tired of being lonely and that having children would be his way of “staking claim to immortality.” In writing these songs, it is important to realize Mahler was not yet married nor had any children of his own, but he had lost several brothers and sisters and so, while composing them, he imagined his father grieving for the death of so many of his own children – by 1895, Mahler had lost 10 of his 13 brothers and sisters, 8 of them while they were still children.

Mahler’s “entourage,” such as it was, consisted of his sister Justi and occasionally her fiancé, the violinist Arnold Rosé (they would be married the following summer – incidentally, another sister, Emma, had married Arnold’s younger brother, the cellist Eduard Rosé); and their friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner who was a violinist and a member of an all-female string quartet (quite rare in those days). She accompanied Mahler on many of these summer excursions and though some people did not care for her or her morals – particularly one friend of Mahler’s whose husband had been an ex-lover of Natalie’s – she was that rare intellectual, musically knowledgeable friend that Mahler could confide in, musically.

Regardless of what the future would bring, her journals (some published; others, not) became important sources for future biographers of Mahler, especially concerning his creative insights into the works he composed during the summer she spent in his proximity.

It is also important to realize – our modern morality aside – that she and Mahler were never lovers. Mahler had his affairs and one of them was an unfortunately convoluted relationship with one of his opera singers, Anna von Mildenburg, which he had tried to break off several times (a native of the region, she had helped him locate the land where he built his villa, but she was not a guest at the house).

Natalie Bauer-Lechner
Natalie, by her own account, only ever loved two men in her life – the poet Siegfried Lipiner (who, a friend of Mahler’s, had written the poem that formed the initial basis of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and who, incidentally, was now having an affair with Mildenburg himself) and Gustav Mahler who, at least romantically, seemed totally unaware of Natalie’s feelings, despite some of the confidences he made to her, especially the one about wanting to get married and have children.

At any rate, the summer came to an end and on August 26th Mahler packed up and left for Vienna, Justi and Natalie staying behind to close up the villa.

Mahler had just written to Henrietta Mankiewicz, a mutual friend of his and Natalie’s, “What a good thing it is for mothers that they do not have to interrupt the process of giving birth – for the babies, too, perhaps.” His new symphony would have to wait until the following summer to be completed.

Meanwhile, Natalie arranged for someone to send her a telegram from Vienna urging her to return quickly, leaving Justi behind. Instead, she went to Mahler, apparently begged him to marry her and even tried to embrace him but he repulsed her, saying “I cannot love you, I can only love a beautiful woman.” “But I am beautiful,” she insisted, “ask Henriette Mankiewicz!”

The details of this sad and clearly uncomfortable confrontation, so soon after this serene summer, may not be totally reliable, Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange adds, because it was included years later in the memoirs of a woman who would later have a vested interest in the life of Gustav Mahler.

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Gustav Mahler in 1902
When Mahler returned to Vienna after that busy summer of 1901, arriving back at the "quagmire" (as he called it) of the opera house's constant in-fighting, he had finished what would be the first three movements of his new symphony, his Fifth.

Initially, the idea had been it would be a “normal” symphony in four movements without the human voice and, presumably, without a “program” or story behind it.

Mahler had supplied fairly detailed stories for the first three symphonies – either what had inspired the music or what the music meant in terms of a story. He had chosen texts for vocal soloists or chorus that implied a layer of meaning as well and had even incorporated songs he had written even if he, here, omitted the voice and text (for instance the song about St. Anthony’s sermon to the fishes for the scherzo of his 2nd Symphony).

In his 3rd Symphony, which underwent frequent changes from the initial sketches to its final format when he completed it in 1896, he had supplied numerous possibilities, given each movement descriptive subtitles and then removed them. Having dinner with friends in October 1900, he declared “Down with programmes which are always misinterpreted!” Yet in December 1901 he sent the orchestra in Dresden a detailed program for a performance of his 2nd Symphony (the “Resurrection,” which incidentally has nothing to do with Easter) merely as a means to help the audience contend with something new and challenging as well as unusually long.

Given that his 4th Symphony grew directly out of his 3rd – the 4th’s last movement was originally intended for the 3rd – and the text of the last movement implies a story (observing a heavenly banquet with child-like awe) where music would be quoted in the purely orchestral first movement questioning the implications of tying them together in some way (in what way, though?) – Mahler never gave us any kind of program or descriptive titles for his Symphony No. 4. Though he had told his friend and musical confidant Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the 4th was like the “uniform blue of the sky… [b]ut sometimes the atmosphere darkens and grows strangely terrifying… just as on a brilliant day in the sun-dappled forest one is overcome by a panic terror.” There is a “gaiety coming from another sphere… terrifying for adults: only a child can understand and explain it, and a child does explain it in the end: a child who, if only at the chrysalis stage, already belongs to this superior world.”

There were, apparently, beautiful titles for each of the 4th Symphony’s movements as there had been for the 3rd (with its “What the flowers tell me” and “What love tells me” movements) but, in August 1900, he tells Natalie he decided not to disclose them (even to her) “so as to avoid giving rise to further absurd misunderstandings.”

Mahler had conceived the 4th originally as a suite of songs (vocal or not), six movements in all, and the whole would be called “Symphony No. 4 (Humoresque).” The ultimate scherzo for the 4th – with its image of fiddling Death (and what’s that about, people would ask) – didn’t exist in that initial version but the D Major scherzo that did, in the best waste-not/want-not manner many composers (even Beethoven) would not think twice about, found its way into the 5th, where it became the germ of his third movement. Whatever programmatic implications it might have had there were no doubt officially shed. Certainly the 5th’s scherzo continues the kind of joie de vivre that marks so much of the 4th Symphony.

By the time he’d begun the 5th in the summer of 1901, months after his near-fatal hemorrhage – though it opened with its Funeral March and subsequent emotional storm, he completed the Scherzo first – Mahler was quite reticent about the “meaning” behind the music beyond what he’d already told Natalie about the scherzo – the man in  “the full light of day who had reached the climax of his life.” More often, he talked about its contrapuntal complexity – he became obsessed with polyphony after studying Bach, especially the motets, and was now criticizing Tchaikovsky, for instance, for not using it in his symphonies.

(When, in April 1901, a friend praised the “orchestral palette” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Mahler dismissed this as “humbug, sand in the eyes,” how all those rising and falling arpeggios and scales, “those meaningless sequence of chords,” were like having a colored dot which, when you “swing it round an axis, it looks like a shimmering circle. But when it comes to rest again, it’s still the same old dot and even the cat won’t play with it.” Ironically, after Mahler become conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1909, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be the work he would conduct the most. I can almost hear Sigmund Freud saying, "so, how does that make you feel, Herr Maestro?")

Mahler working on scores
Interrupted by his return to Vienna at the end of August and resuming his duties as director of the Vienna Opera, he put aside work on the new 5th Symphony and prepared for the premiere of his 4th, set to take place in mid-November in Munich.

It was his first premiere since the 2nd was first heard in 1895.

The 3rd, which he’d completed in 1896, had yet to be performed: its difficulties were too considerable for it to be taken lightly and he found no opportunities to schedule its premiere. That, too, would take up some of his busy schedule at the Opera: the premiere of the 3rd would finally take place in June of 1902, just before he would return to Meiernigg and his little Composing Hut to resume work on the so-far incomplete 5th.

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Alma Schindler at 19
Barely ten weeks after that unfortunate scene with Natalie Bauer-Lechner which ended their long (and for us, informative) friendship, Mahler attended a friend's dinner party where sitting across from him was a young woman whose name, he learned, was Alma Schindler. The daughter and step-daughter of artists, she was young – 22 to his 41 – intelligent and beautiful, had a mind of her own and he was immediately fascinated by her. On December 23rd, they became engaged and planned their wedding for mid-February, though it eventually didn’t take place until March 9th, four months after they’d met.

When she and Mahler first met, Alma was still in love with her composition teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky – a composer Mahler already had mixed feelings about professionally as it was – and with whom, she confided to her diary, she planned on living with and bearing his children. She also found herself the object of other would-be suitors during these months: in one week, she had received two proposals of marriage from men who didn’t interest her in the least.

Alma at 16
Her mother and step-father, the artist Carl Moll, thought Mahler a bad match – Moll had heard rumors about Mahler’s “womanizing,” apparently seducing every young woman in the opera company – given his age, his debts and ill-health and his “precarious” position at the Opera. A close friend of hers considered Mahler “a degenerate Jew” (despite his necessary conversion to the state’s official Catholicism) who was “not good-looking and his music is apparently not worth much.” What, he asked her, would she do if Mahler proposed to her?

“I would accept!” she replied at once.

There were times of separation during this courtship and a vast amount of letters passed between them as Mahler went to Munich to conduct the premiere of the 4th and later for another performance in Berlin.

Alma at 20
There was also much soul-searching. Mahler was concerned not only about their age-difference, but the fact he was from humble origins and she was “born to joy and plenty” with no dark past. She was brought up to discuss the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and she couldn’t share his enthusiasm for the Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky.

Alma writes in her diary that “Zemlinsky …is a wonderfully gifted fellow. But Gustav is so poor, so frightfully poor. If only he knew how poor he is, he would hide his face in shame. And I’ll always have to lie… to lie constantly throughout my life – with him, that’s just possible – but with Justi [Mahler’s sister], that female! I have the feeling she’s checking up on me the whole time… But I must be free, completely free.”

Mahler, she realized, was a man of genius, ardent and over-flowing with love, but an authoritarian (not just as a conductor), very demanding but a prisoner of himself and his ideals. Alma was described as a “coquette” by some friends, with a “capricious temperament,” conceited and flighty, frivolous but attractive, witty, spontaneous – and, importantly for a composer like Mahler, musical.

Zemlinsky in 1898
Alma was herself a composer, having studied with Zemlinsky and written several songs and, of course, had her own ideas about music. Yet Mahler forced her to give up composing which she promised to do, intending instead to devote herself to his music. (This decision would haunt her later, especially when Zemlinsky would once again become a part of Mahler’s professional circle of friends.)

While Mahler was in Berlin conducting his new 4th Symphony, Alma wrote to Zemlinsky to break off their relationship, not without protest on her former teacher’s part. In her diary, she wrote, “a beautiful feeling was buried that day,” after Zemlinsky visited her, begging her to reconsider. “Gustav,” she continued, “you’ll have to do a lot to make up for it.”

Her mother was determined to convince Alma to break up with Mahler, but given Alma’s complete dislike of her mother (her father’s death had devastated her and she only grew colder toward her disapproving mother) this only strengthened her resolve.

When Mahler returned from Berlin and Dresden, writing immensely long letters about his love and happiness, he came to visit the family and, on December 23rd, he asked for Alma’s hand in marriage.

She accepted.

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By the time the New Year began – and with it, the rehearsals for the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of the 4th Symphony – Alma was constantly at his side. The inevitable scrutiny from a curious (and often hostile) public annoyed her. Glances and waves to old friends in the audiences were reported to Mahler as evidence of her flirting behind his back.

Mahler had described his symphony with its old-fashioned and child-like themes as a “primitive painting on a gold background” (while Gustav Klimt had used gold backgrounds in a couple of his paintings before 1900, his official “Golden Phase” with its famous painting, The Kiss, didn’t begin until 1907). But she admitted to being baffled by its naivety and archaic details which she considered more ‘childish’ than ‘child-like.’

Rehearsals with the Philharmonic were going badly. It was the first time Mahler conducted them as the Philharmonic since his well-received resignation the previous year, but it was the same orchestra he conducted regularly at the opera: personnel decisions he had made there rankled the Philharmonic, where he didn’t have the director’s authority – he was a guest conductor, and they treated him with hostility.

Mahler stamped his feet, glowered and raged at the players, finding fault with nearly everyone (this was in the day when maestros were considered tyrants and presumably expected to get away with such behavior: this would never work, today). For their part, the players threatened to walk out of rehearsals.

And Alma was there to help calm him down.

Though the crowd cheered as Mahler returned to the podium he had long been absent from, his new symphony was meet with occasional boos between movements and cries of “Shame!” at the end. Bruno Walter, his newly-arrived young assistant, shouted back at two men sitting near him who disapproved of “this horrible, unmusical music” that “Mahler and his immortal work will still be alive long after you are dead and buried.”

The 1st Symphony was scheduled for a performance a week later but Mahler decided to schedule the 4th again instead, along with his earlier work, Das klagende Lied. The soprano soloist in the latter was Mahler’s ex-mistress, Anna von Mildenburg, which, given the attention Alma was receiving in the audience, must have been fraught with melodramatic potential!

Mahler also received a letter from Richard Strauss with whom he had an on-again/off-again friendship, congratulating him (ironically) on the “St. Vitus Dance” the Berlin critics pulled in their attacks on his 4th Symphony, there, as he prepared to be in Vienna for the local premiere of his own latest opera.

“Congratulations, and also from my wife, on your engagement: anyway it will put you in your best mood for [my] rehearsals so I can congratulate myself as well. Although I do not yet know her, best wishes to the lovely bride, and all the best to you, Your ever faithful Richard Strauss.”

Initially postponed from February because Justi wanted it to coincide with her own wedding to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Arnold Rosé, Gustav and Alma’s wedding was eventually held on March 9th – having been scheduled for the 8th, it was discovered the wrong date had been engraved on the ring, so it was moved back a day.

These delays no doubt caused concern on the happy couple if for no other reason than Alma was already pregnant and dealing with frequent bouts of sickness.

The ceremony was, in keeping with Mahler’s celebrity status, to be a “private” affair but word had leaked out and the church was packed with mostly curious women. When it was announced the wedding had taken place earlier in a side chapel, the crowd left. Then Alma arrived by cab and Mahler, dressed in a gray suit, walked in the rain to arrive a little later. Misjudging the position of the prie-dieu, Mahler fell to his knees. “Because he was so short, he had to stand up again before he could kneel down properly, much to the sympathetic amusement of the officiating priest.”

The wedding meal with the two families was calm with long periods of silence. Then Gustav and Alma got on a train for St. Petersburg, Russia, for their honeymoon. The next day, Mahler’s sister and Rosé were married.

In Petersburg, the happy couple visited the Hermitage Museum and hoped to attend the opera, but it was closed for Lent. They took a sleigh-ride on the frozen River Neva during which they both caught cold.

It was not, however, simply a honeymoon. It had been added to a pre-arranged concert tour: he led three concerts there (none of his music had been programed) and Alma watched the first from backstage, noticing the intensity of her husband’s face which she thought “divinely beautiful.” The final concert was to include Bruckner’s 4th but when told that Bruckner did not go over well with Russian audiences, he substituted Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony instead – played with 102 musicians on stage!

As soon as the concert was over, the Mahlers were on the train back to Vienna, tired of Russia, its weather and its food, but with enough money in his pocket to help with his outstanding debts. But it did not erase them – there was still the expense of having built his summer home in Meiernigg – and so Alma had to set up house on a thrifty budget.

Their apartment was small so when Mahler’s meddlesome neighbor moved out (the one who hated Mahler’s music and always ordered his servant to play the gramophone quite loudly whenever he’d hear Mahler begin to work at the piano), he took over these rooms as well.

Then came performances of Wagner operas, the famous (or infamous) Beethoven Exhibit by the group of artists known as The Secession (Alma’s step-father was a member, as were Klimt and the sculptor Max Klinger whose statue of Beethoven caused such a controversy though today the name is more likely to be confused with a character from the TV series “M*A*S*H”) with Mahler conducting Beethoven’s 9th at its opening – and, in June, the long-delayed premiere of his 3rd Symphony.

(You can read more about the premiere of the 3rd Symphony in an earlier post, here.)

Considering the complexity of the 3rd compared to the simplicity of the 4th which was so universally criticized, the 3rd proved to be a triumph. In fact, the publishing firm Peters was so interested in this symphony, they signed a generous contract with him for his next symphony with far more favorable terms than any Mahler had previously received.

After a couple weeks of business at the Opera, Mahler and his wife took off for “Villa Mahler.” Inspired by this most recent triumph – not to mention his new bride and the impending child already on its way – Mahler looked forward to concentrating all his creative energy on completing his 5th Symphony.

They soon settled into a routine: Mahler would get up at 6, have breakfast (café au lait, diet bread with butter and jam) which he would eat in his Composing Hut. It was Alma’s job to see that no sound disturbed him at the hut – she even had to stop playing the piano in the house because he could hear it from his hide-out in the nearby woods. She promised opera tickets to their neighbors to entice them to lock up their dogs during the morning hours.

the piano in Mahler's Composing Hut

Interior Shot of Mahler's Composing Hut, now a museum
Built on a natural terrace some 200 feet above the house, the hut had no foundation and was very damp which worried Alma, especially the steep path often covered with mud or wet leaves after a rain (the servant certainly complained about it, hauling his breakfast and lunch up to the hut every day).

The hut contained a piano, a large work-table, two or three other pieces of furniture and a few books – a complete edition of Goethe, for one. The only musical scores there were by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Around midday, Mahler would finish his work, go down to the lake for a swim. Alma would join him, sitting beside him while he sunbathed before taking another dip to cool off (Alma considered this a barbaric custom). He preferred taking walks to napping and walks quickly exhausted Alma who was now five months pregnant. Sometimes, he would stop, jot something down in a notebook, Alma hoping to find a tree-trunk she could sit on so as not to distract him if she became tired.

Despite the tourists from Pörtschach across the lake – a favorite summer resort for Brahms who wrote his 2nd Symphony there – Mahler found it a “splendid isolation,” as if, Alma wrote in her diary, “we were protected by a glass dome.”

It’s interesting, knowing this, to listen to the absolute serenity of the famous Adagietto of his 5th Symphony, which he was writing at this time.

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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Adagietto:

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Mahler's original MS of Adagietto
End of the Adagietto & Start of the Finale
But while he composed these remaining two movements, Alma had little to do. She hated the interior of the house which was dark, pedestrian and, she thought, gloomy, though she enjoyed the garden and the view of the lake. She couldn’t even play the piano and it began to annoy her she had promised to give up composing herself in order not to disturb (or compete) with her husband.

Alma Mahler in 1902
She confided in her diary, “There’s such a struggle going on in me! And a miserable longing for someone who thinks of ME, who helps me to find MYSELF! I’ve sunk to the level of a housekeeper!” She had found a heavy volume of philosophy in his study but yet it wasn’t anything that he would discuss with her.

The next day, they had a “bitter discussion” and she told him “everything. And he – with infinite kindness – pondered over how he could help me! And I do understand… he can’t just now! He lives entirely for his composing. I will use this summer to improve myself in every way. I will try to learn… to fulfill, to realize myself! Gustav was happy yesterday – because of the peace of mind I’ve given him.”

But the next day, while he was “wrapped up in his happiness,” she writes she couldn’t share it and “burst into tears again.”

Anna von Mildenburg, soprano
As if this period of adjustment, this realization of what the future might be like for her, Alma had to deal with the appearance of Anna von Mildenburg, the famous soprano from the Opera who, in years past, had been Mahler’s mistress. A native of Carinthia, she was staying in Meiernigg that summer and dropped by frequently to visit Mahler and his new bride, bringing with her a “wretched mongrel” dog she’d rescued from some beggar (Mahler hated the dog). Out of gentlemanly deference, Mahler would walk her back to her friends’ place but once he tired of this and gave his servant this particular chore, Mildenburg visited less often.

One time, while Mahler was working, Mildenburg entertained Alma with several stories from Mahler’s past which, of course, implied there was an intimacy there for who but an intimate would know such things? When she told Mahler about this, he was intent on banning Mildenburg from the house, but Alma suggested a more diplomatic course.

At the next visit, perhaps over dinner, he steered the topic toward Wagner and she ended up singing the final scene from Siegfried with Mahler at the piano – and better, apparently, than she’d ever done on stage. The sound of her voice carried across the lake and by the end, there was applause from the crowd that had gathered in their boats along the shore.

But in the end, Mildenburg gave up trying to win Mahler back – or at least trying to affect his marriage. Later, Alma admitted that she “never stopped being afraid of her and her intrigues.”

It was around this time that Mahler wrote a song especially for her, well aware of the conflict going on in his young wife’s heart. Mahler slipped the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty’s sake”) – another poem by Rückert – into her score of Wagner’s Siegfried which she always had by the piano and often played from, but for about a week it lay there undiscovered. So on August 10th, he finally handed the score to her and, when she opened it, the manuscript fell to the floor.

With its last line – “Love me always, I’ll love you always and forever” – she played through it several times that day. “I almost wept. The tenderness of such a man!” she wrote in her diary, “and my lack of sensibility! I often realize how little I am and possess – compared to his infinite riches!”

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Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Daniel Barenboim: Liebst Du um Schönheit:

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In her memoirs, Alma would recall this story differently: then, she placed the event in the following summer. There are other statements that confuse the issue of when the Adagietto was written: some assume it must have been written the previous summer since it bears a strong resemblance to that summer’s song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost in the world”) but which has an entirely different mood (one could say, “meaning”); another statement she makes indicates it might have been written shortly after they met, sometime between November and Christmas, but with everything Mahler was busy with at the time – and he never wrote during the opera season at any other time – it seems unlikely no mention of it would have survived in their voluminous correspondence during those weeks prior to their engagement.

The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg says he had heard a story “several times” from both Mahler and Alma, how he had finished the Adagietto at Meiernigg their first summer together and sent it to her up at the house with a message about it being a love-token, but there is no mention of this in any of Alma’s diaries, either. While she kept the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” framed on her wall in her New York City apartment toward the end of her long life (she died there in 1964), there was never any sign that the original manuscript of the Adagietto was ever one of her “trophies.”

Two weeks later – on August 23rd, 1902 – Mahler writes to a friend, “At last I have finished! The Fifth is with us!” He mentioned that he was feeling very “fit” despite the prolonged exertion – writing the last two movements of the symphony in two months’ time – and was now facing Vienna again: “Now back into the harness!”
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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Finale of Mahler's 5th:

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When Mahler had finished the work, he took Alma "almost solemnly" up to the hut to play through it for her. She seemed to like it better than she did the 4th until they got to the big Chorale theme in the finale (at 12:17 in the above clip) which, to her mind, was "too ecclesiastical and boring." She got the conflict between Mahler's Jewish roots and his "strong attraction to Catholic mysticism" (he was more of a pantheist than anything, anyway) but still felt her husband's statement that Bruckner had used chorales in his symphonies also was moot: he was very different from the older composer.

On August 27th, Mahler returned to Vienna with the draft score of the 5th Symphony under his arm. All that remained to do, now, was copy the score (a “clean score” to be sent to the publisher). This was winter’s work.

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There was another life-changing event yet to come: Alma had been pregnant during the summer and she was easily tired out by Mahler’s love of walking. The fact this exertion might have complicated her pregnancy was kept from Mahler who, worried about the imminent birth, tended to go walking even more. (Remember his own family history and how his parents had lost seven of their fourteen children, five of them by or before their 1st birthday, all within a span of 22 years.)

Maria Anna (named after both Gustav’s and Alma’s mothers but referred to as “Putzi”) was born on November 3rd, 1902, in their apartment in Vienna. It was a “breech birth” (the result, the doctor theorized, of Alma’s walking too much over mountain paths and through city parks) and a difficult one. And it seems, judging from her diary, Alma’s “maternal instincts seemed dormant,” with no satisfaction in her new-found duties, comparing herself to a bird whose wings have been clipped, “this splendid bird so happy in flight” and now “there are so many heavy ducks and geese who cannot fly at all!”

A few weeks later, the baby became seriously ill and Mahler carried her around the apartment, cooing endearments in her ear as if that alone would help cure her. Alma, meanwhile, complained “how hard it is to be deprived so mercilessly of everything, to be mocked about things closest to one’s heart. Gustav lives his life. My child has no need of me. I cannot occupy myself only with her! Now I’m learning Greek. But my God, what has become of my goal, my magnificent goal! My bitterness is intense.”

The following month, reacting to the sight of a happy Mahler dancing like a young man around Mildenburg at the opera rehearsals, she writes, “He disgusts me so much, I dread his coming home… If only he never came home again. Not to live with him any more…. The thought of him nauseates me…”

But this is a story for another time – especially considering the symphony he would begin next summer, his 6th, which contained a theme he told Alma represented her. He had come down from the hut full of this lyrical theme in the first movement, a theme that was full of his love for her.

But what to make of the rest of the symphony, with its three “Hammerblows of Fate,” the third of which “fells the hero,” the one he kept taking out and putting back in? At times, he called this symphony the “Tragic” Symphony – a dark contrast to the 5th even despite its having begun with a funeral march.

The 5th Symphony was premiered after Mahler had already begun the 6th – what was it like for the composer to face the remembrances of the one summer with the music he was writing now?

As for Natalie Bauer-Lechner, she never mentioned Mahler in her journals again and, in fact, ended up a sad case, dying in poverty in 1921, almost exactly ten years after Mahler. From her journals, her nephew published a condensed volume called Mahleriana in 1923. The original copies, several bound copybooks, passed through many hands over the years before ending up in a Mahler library in Paris, and several pages are missing.

If nothing else, Natalie recorded Mahler’s thoughts about what he was writing and what engaged his mind when he was writing it, even down to the details, for instance, how a laxative had not only helped his constipation but had unblocked his creativity so he could suddenly compose a song in one afternoon.

With Natalie gone, our insights into Mahler’s creativity have been replaced by Alma’s observation of her own situation, as if (at least during these first months of marriage) her husband didn’t confide in her about the music that was so central to his life or that she chose not to record it.

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There can be much more I could tell you about Mahler’s symphony from a technical standpoint – why it’s probably not accurate to refer to it as a “Symphony in C-sharp Minor” because, while it begins in that key, it spends very little time in that key (D Major is the main tonality of the Scherzo and the finale) and how Mahler used what we call a “progressive tonality,” moving from its starting tonality to its final one through some inner logic of its own – or even from a “program notes” standpoint – that it is divided into three parts, the first two movements before the central Scherzo, the last two movements afterward, like a vast arch – but the purpose of these essays was primarily to give the reader (and hopefully, the listener) some idea of Mahler’s life at the time he composed this work.

There’s always an argument how valuable this awareness might be. We can certainly enjoy the music without needing to know about Mahler’s hemorrhoids (which was, unfortunately, an on-going health issue) or what he had for breakfast while he was writing, but I think it’s interesting (if not important) to realize that, first of all, the composers who write these masterpieces we are in awe of, were not marble busts operating in a reality vacuum but had to contend with balancing their creativity against the intrusions of a complex world which, in turn, makes them more complex as people.

True, Beethoven, writing the tragic Heiligenstadt Testament at the time he was near suicidal about his impending deafness, was composing the boisterous finale of his 2nd Symphony that same month. But Mahler (and indeed most other composers) were not Beethoven: everyone, like the rest of us more normal people, are affected by what happens to us in different ways.

If this reality affected the life of Mahler the Man, why couldn’t it affect the creativity of Mahler the musician?

Of course, planning out the details of a work as vast as an hour-long symphony doesn’t mean the ups and downs of reality affected the daily work. No doubt a symphony starting with a funeral march and ending in triumphant celebration could be a general plan and had certainly been done before (Beethoven’s Fifth, the obvious inspiration: even the persistent rhythm of the opening trumpet call, which then permeates the first two movements, brings to mind Beethoven's Fate Knocks at the Door motive) – and no doubt such a plan might have been subtly tweaked along the way without straying from whatever initial idea he may have had. After all, the trumpet call that opens the symphony is a quotation from a list of signals and drumbeats used by the Austrian Army when Mahler was a child, growing up in a Bohemian town not far from the local barracks; the often startling contrasts of sad with vulgar music presumably stems from an often quoted and much dismissed incident in his youth when he apparently ran out of the house while his parents were fighting and heard the music of either a military band or a dance band playing something in a popular vein (it’s a story he told, but one wonders if it’s an actual incident or a fabrication of memory).

So, there you have the incidents of a life at a time a particular work is composed. Draw your own conclusions.


Gustav Mahler died in 1911, four years after their daughter "Putzi" died. Another daughter, Anna, would grow up to become a famous sculptor. Alma Mahler would go on to marry the architect Walter Gropius (their daughter Manon, who died of polio at the age of 18, inspired Alban Berg's Violin Concerto) and then the novelist Franz Werfel. In 1946, Alma became an American citizen and died in 1964. This photograph (above) from Life Magazine was taken of her (I believe in 1960) listening to a New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler symphony.

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Most of the material and all the quotes included in these posts are from Henri-Louis de La Grange’s biography, Gustav Mahler, particularly Volume 2, “Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904), Oxford University Press, 1995 edition. You would need to consult this to reference the accounts of Natalie Bauer-Lechner and Alma Mahler, or Mahler’s own letters to his other correspondents.

For this post, I've chosen the Bernstein videos with the Vienna Philharmonic mostly out of respect for Bernstein who almost single-handedly brought Mahler's symphonies to American audiences.

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