Gustav Mahler and the Next Generation


This is a talk I gave as part of Oxford’s 2017 Lieder Festival on October 20th. Originally, I was asked to speak on Mahler’s Vienna, but somewhere along the line the request changed into how Mahler may, or may not have influenced the next generation of Viennese progressive composers. To understand what this influence was and how central it became, it’s important to understand the political and social nature of Mahlerian Vienna itself so in fact, the two subjects complement each other. It’s now 120 years since the 37-year-old Gustav Mahler arrived in Vienna in 1897 as Director of the Imperial Court Opera, or Hofoper as it was called. The general view has always been that he arrived in one of Europe’s great bastions of not just musical, but political and social conservativism. Certainly the Empire was wracked with what today we might call nativists’ movements. The Prime Minister of Austria, Kasimir Felix Badeni decreed that all official documents in Bohemia and Moravia were to be in both Czech and German. It resulted in protests that were so disruptive as to lead to his downfall.

Beim Straffantritt schönerer

Von Schönerer is assured by his jailer that there won’t be any Jews to disrupt his “relaxing” four month stay in prison

A further 1897 development was a surprising move from Georg von Schönerer’s Pan-German party to the equally anti-Semitic Christian Socialists (Christlichsoziale), represented by the election of Karl Lueger as Mayor of Vienna. The Emperor Franz Joseph who despaired of Lueger’s anti-Semitism refused to confirm him as Mayor of Vienna until advised by Pope Leo XIII of the futility of his stand. Schönerer, no less of an anti-Semite than Lueger, had lost all credibility with his denouncement of Austrian Catholicism and his 1888 occupation of the editorial offices of Moritz Szeps’s newspaper Das Neue Wiener Tagblatt, which he had proclaimed “an evil instrument of Jewish propaganda”. His occupation of the editorial offices along with ensuing fisticuffs are considered by some as the first act of right-wing terrorism. As a result, he spent four months in jail leaving the political field open for Karl Lueger’s Christian Socialists.

the secessionist movment 1897

Group portrait of the members of the Secession taken on the occasion of the XIVth exhibition 1902: Anton Stark, Gustav Klimt (seated in chair), Kolo Moser (with hat in front of Klimt), Adolf Böhm, Maximilian Lenz (lying), Ernst Stöhr (with hat), Wilhelm List, Emil Orlik (sitting), Maximilian Kurzweil (with cap), Leopold Stolba, Carl Moll (lying), and Rudolf Bacher (from left to right, Photo: Moriz Nähr / Pictorial Archives of the Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek)

But in addition to the fall of the Badeni government, the arrival of Mahler and the election of Karl Lueger, 1897 was also the year when Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Joseph Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbricht along with a host of others founded the Secessionist Movement in the Salon of Berta Zuckerkandl, who also happened to be the daughter of the press baron, the aforementioned Moritz Szeps.


The composer Karl Goldmark: 1830-1915

Only the year before, the opera Das Heimchen am Herd, or The Cricket on the Hearth had been premiered at the Hofoper. Karl Goldmark, a Jewish German-speaking Hungarian composer had established himself as such a crucial figure in Vienna’s musical life, that he no doubt played a role in procuring the appointment of Gustav Mahler at the Hofoper. In 1897, apart from some Lieder, Mahler only had 2 symphonies along with his student work das Klagende Lied to his name as composer. Mahler was therefore seen as an important conductor and his work as composer was largely unknown to most Viennese.

Badinis Rausschmiß

Badeni is booted out of office

On the 31st of December 1897, Austria’s paper of record, Die Neue Freie Presse, a liberal, largely anti-clerical daily newspaper with the standing of the New York Times wrote the following résumé of 1897:

Today, we close a critical year of the first order in Austria. As we look back, we’re seemingly confronted with a veritable battlefield, or the aftershocks of an earthquake. The specific characteristics of this year are the apparent speed with which events followed: crisis came hard on the heels of developments, with everything given the appearance of total catastrophe. Indeed, only a few weeks were necessary to shake to the core what years of work had brought forth and what we had assumed were now facts or standards within our present day life. Rarely has a year produced so many disappointments and shattered expectations. Everything has panned out quite differently from our earlier assumptions. We began the year with a government firmly and popularly in place. It was a government that enjoyed the pleasure of the crown and profited from successes that had been laid by previous governments. Yet it was this very same government that would be gone by the end of the year, blown away by the storms of events, lamentably collapsing in on itself. It was also the 30th year of the December Constitution of 1867 and nothing could have been further from the imagination than the fact that this constitution, responsible for the unity of different nations, responsible for increased enfranchisement could suddenly be called into question. In spite of this, the constitution has effectively been rescinded, parliament is incapable of functioning, and the most important laws are no longer being discussed in our parliamentary chambers, but passed by decree. In truth, 1897 was the first year in which our voting reforms took effect. The great hope was that the resultant MPs of this fifth government, themselves members of the newly enfranchised, would be able to address the social and financial problems faced by the country and the thorny questions of nationality would recede into the background. But in fact, as a result of this new parliament, the very opposite has been achieved. Never before have we seen such wrangling between our Slav and German citizens. As contained as our political apparatus normally is, this time it proved itself simply incapable of coping with such excesses. 1897 has shattered everything: the December Constitution of 1867, the Duality of the Monarchy – all political destruction that greets the New Year [1898] can be traced back to 1897.

1898_01_01 Das Jahr 1897_1

The problems that are referred to, were to do with the new contractual arrangement between Austria and Hungary – renewed and renegotiated every 10 years. Badeni fearing that he would never gain a parliamentary majority in favour of his new deal with Hungary decided to push for bilingualism in the Czech holdings in order to win over Slavic parliamentarians. It was Badeni’s decision that official documents should be treated equally in Czech and German that would in fact bring down his government. Indeed, the previous government led by Count Eduard Taaffe had also fallen at the hands of German nationalists when he attempted to strike a similar arrangement with the Habsburg Slavs as already enjoyed by the Hungarians in their Austro-Hungarian duopoly. Taaffe saw German nationalism as deadly, yet attempts to neutralise it with enlarged enfranchisement and representation of non-German parliamentarians always seemed to backfire.

The Bartered Bride

Poster for Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”

If we listen to Dvořák or Smetana, we’re inclined to hear appealing Czech melodies that set out cultural differences between European peoples. An unstoppable drive towards Slavic autonomy is presented as charming folklore rather than existential battle cries of nationalism. Dvorak and Smetana were merely providing the mood-music to a development that was threatening to blow up Europe altogether. Indeed, the big bang that blew up Europe would have to wait until the shots of Sarajevo were fired. In the meantime, tensions simply carried on seething malevolently under the surface.

Max Nordau by Maxa Nordau

Drawing of Max Nordau by Maxa Nordau

The nationalism the unnamed journalist just quoted describes was not something that came from nowhere. The journalist was most likely the Paris based Max Nordau, who would write end-of-year résumés under his own name for the Neue Freie Presse from around the turn of the century and whom we can “thank” for the Nazi word “Entartet” meaning “deformed” and usually translated as “degenerate”. Nordau published his observations on art and its perceived sociological impact under the title “Entartung” in 1892. Nordau was no Nazi, but a Zionist Jew, so the irony of the Nazis taking on his vocabulary begs more questions than answers.


The German Federation following the Congress of Vienna in 1815

But returning to German nationalism – a development that would be answered by Slavic nationalism, we have to go back to the Revolution of 1848 and the aspirations of a network of mini-states ceremonially headed by the Austrian Emperor, called The German Federation, or der deutsche Bund. This Federation resembled to some degree today’s EU. It had always been an aspiration that the states unite into a single nation to balance France. The nominal leader of this federation was the highest ranking crowned head, who happened to be the Austrian Emperor.


Austria-Hungary with pink marking where German speakers lived

The problem with the Austrian Emperor heading the German Federation was the fact that he, as a Habsburg, also headed an Empire made up of Slavs, Hungarians, Romanians and Italians all with their competing nationalist movements. Indeed, the German speakers of the Habsburg realm were more than balanced by Slavs, Hungarians and Italians. His position as head of the German Federation assured the upper-hand of German speakers within the Habsburg realm. But Habsburgian Austria was not viewed as a German entity by the other states within the German Federation. What was called Austria, in those days, encompassed Bohemia, Moravia, Polish-Galicia, parts of present-day Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Italy and all of Greater-Hungary, which included tracts of present-day Romania. As a result, Austrian aristocracy was rarely German, though it was German speaking. Names such as Pallfy, Palivicini, Clam-Gallas, Lobkowitz dominated, with even families such as Windisch-Graetz or Schwarzenberg offering mixtures of Italian, Slav and German branches.

Lobkowitz infante

The Valesquez painting of the Lobkowitz “Infante”

Even the famous Velasquez Infante portraits are of a Lobkowitz princess. Austrians may have spoken German, but they did not appear to be culturally German. As a result, many, though by no means most members of the German Federation resented Austrian dominance; yet the power struggles between competing members of the German Federation made unification of the states appear a distant and unrealisable dream. A sequence of wars would eventually lead Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck to the conclusion that the German states could be unified, but only if Austria, and all of its holdings were excluded. Austrian dominance was thus seen off in 1866 at the battle of Königgrätz in the last of a series of wars surrounding questions of the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein. With Austria out of the way, the remaining mini-states were united under Prussia in 1871 following the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war. The Prussians paid the Austrians a fortune not to enter the war on the side of the French.

Das deutsche Reich jpg

The German Reich and the Dual Monarchy of Austria Hungary

It would seem that the impossible dream of unification of the German people into a nation-state had been realised. The only problem with this “dream come true” was the number of German speakers in the actual Habsburg realm who were excluded. If the Duchies of Carinthia, Lower and Upper Austria, Styria, Salzburg, Tyrol along with the County of Vorarlberg were almost exclusively German speaking (and largely making up present day Austria with the exception of South Tyrol) the rest of the holdings were a bilingual mishmash. Pockets of German communities were scattered everywhere with German speakers outside of the aforementioned Duchies and counties being in the minority. These minority German speakers still felt themselves to be of a higher caste as German was the official language of the Habsburg court and civil service. If they made up 20% of the population, as was the case in Moravia, for example, they dominated local governments, with Czech speakers nearly excluded.  It was a linguistic privilege that was not easily forfeited or compromised away. Yet with the German states now under Prussia, the apparent legitimacy of German speakers in non-German speaking Austrian holdings was clearly questionable.

Vielvölkerstaat Österreich Infanterie

The Bosnian Infantry with an indication of its many ethnic groups

The Constitution of December 1867 grew out of the upheavals caused by the Ausgleich, or the agreement of equal status between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Empire. It guaranteed the equality of all peoples within the Habsburg realm. Yet without saying so specifically, it emancipated Ashkenazy Jews, allowing them to move freely from their ghettos and own property. Paradoxically, Sephardic Jews (and Muslims) had gained an unprecedented degree of freedom following the Karlowitz treaty between the Ottoman/Habsburg empires in 1699. Eventually, all Jews would gain the privileges and responsibilities of non-Jews, and as most Ashkenazy Jews were also Yiddish speakers, acquiring German was easy. Regardless of whether they lived in Hungary, Bohemia or the Bukovina, they entered into what was still considered the legitimate ruling caste, often inflaming anti-Semitism in Slav nationalists.

1897_11_08 Jüdische Verkäufer in Wien_1

Random pages from an edition of the Neue Freie Press in 1897 suggesting a large number of established Jewish business in Vienna

The German speaking Austrians who had dreamt of belonging to a massive German nation-state with Austria’s non-German subjects serving as the reservoir for cheap labour saw their ambitions thwarted. Austria’s aristocracy was sniffy about the united German state, brought together by “blood and steel” (to quote Bismarck) as opposed to strategic marriages. Germany under a Protestant Emperor, though larger and wealthier, was viewed by the Austrians in much the way the British viewed the United States pre-1917. Unification by blood and steel offered no legitimacy when compared to an Empire cobbled together through the Catholic sacraments of selective inbreeding.  Yet for a short time, the agricultural and Alpine classes of Austrian pan-Germans under the influence of Georg von Schönener, believed Catholicism was not consistent with pan-German ideals, resulting in conversions to Protestantism. Von Schönerer’s battle cry for Austrian pan-Germans was:  “Free from Rome – Free from Vienna” until Austrian farmers and the urban proletariat decided this was a terrible idea and Catholicism was too fundamental to self-identity to drop in pursuit of German nationhood. It was in fact the final nail in von Schönberer’s coffin.

Franz Joseph 1867

Franz Joseph I, the Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary in 1867

With the December Constitution of 1867, the only thing that was fundamental to Austrian identity was homage to the Habsburg emperor.  His authority was meant to supplant all differences of language, culture, national dress or religion. The word “Austria” was frequently removed from state documents and replaced by “Franz Joseph”. For the aristocracy and newly liberated Jews, having a national identity based on allegiance to a ruling house made more sense than allegiance to a state, a language or even a religion.


Gustav Mahler as a small child

Mahler was only seven years old with the signing of the December Constitution. The family had already taken advantage of an earlier liberalising “patent” that allowed Mahler’s father, Bernard (Baruch) Mahler to up sticks from Czech speaking Kallisch and move to German speaking Iglau. Mahler was a child of the December Constitution – or what other prominent Jewish writers such as Julius Korngold, the music critc and father of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, called “the age of Liberalism”.


Rural Italian life: “Verismo”

An extraordinary series of events collided at this point. One was nascent nationalism that identified with linguistic and religious communities more than with the supranational Habsburg emperor. The growing nationalistic view was that the true representative of any “nation” was not to be located within the aristocracy or their occasional inter-marrying with the urban haute-bourgeoisie, but in the countryside among country folk. This verismo movement took root sooner in Italy than within the German states, and their manifestations were slightly different. Verismo in theatre, literature and latterly in opera was often a de-romanticised view of contemporary country life. It involved infidelity, illegitimacy, dirt and grime. It showed an often ugly but somehow noble, true picture of “the people”. Italian unification landed between the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich, and German unification in 1871.


Waldmüller’s romanticised view of German rural life

The identity with the people in German Europe was slightly different. It was rarely contemporary and it was highly romanticised, while ultimately dwelling on the same idea that the “people” (“das Volk”) were not found in palaces in capital cities, but in the muddy lanes of villages, in the fields, mountains and meadows. Such definitions of who was German would inevitably offer subliminal messages to those who were only recently allowed to join this illustrious fraternity. In this context, it’s easier to see Mahler’s early attraction to subjects as reflected in Das klagende Lied, or Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It was an outward demonstration of belonging and sharing a common mythology.

Nakte Frau

Gustav Klimt’s Nakte Frau

In reading various works regarding fin de siècle Vienna, writers often struggle to place Mahler in the context of the Secessionists, and jump a generation to Schönberg. Yet despite the fact that Mahler was, thanks to Alma, only tangentially interested in Art, architecture and the design concepts of the Wiener Werkstätte, he can still be placed within the Secessionist context – not by adapting his music to the visual arts, but by re-casting the visual arts in the context of Mahler’s music: The idea of showing life in all its nobility, along with all of the elements that make us human was very much in the forefront of Secessionist thinking. They were reacting to the hypocrisy of virginal purity, as represented by the Pre-Raphaelites and their various continental manifestations, and showed life as it was, synthesising the ugly to make it beautiful: hence the pubic hair in the drawings and painting of Klimt. It was this synthesis of the uplifting and banal that would also permeate Mahler’s symphonies, thus ennobling the banal into an anti-chamber of the sacred. This dialectic was found in the plays of Schnitzler, the writings of Hauptmann, the paintings of Klimt and even the designs of Adolf Loos.


Adolf Loos’s shockingly austere design for the Goldman Salatsch Clothing Store for Gentlemen, immediately in front of the Imperial entry to the Hofburg Palace, built in 1909

Ornament was not meant to prettify the otherwise mundane; rather the starkness of the mundane was meant ennoble humanity. This is the context of the brass bands, the marches, the klezmer, the Ländler that nestle side by side with Mahler’s most uplifting moments of transcendent beauty. Mahler’s searing adagios or, as Alma once put it, (and I gratuitously update her actual quote): “his hot-line to God” cleverly bypasses traditional Judo-Christian liturgical references, for example reworking the Klopstock text in the Resurrection Symphony so that it’s taken out of its original Lutheran liturgy and becomes a Universalist, humanist message. Again in his so-called Symphony of a Thousand, his careful settings of formerly liturgical, Christian texts are adapted to break confessional boundaries, synthesising in the final scene of Faust. Next to these moments are juxtaposed marches, folksongs, Ländler and grotesques – themselves, the musical equivalent of Klimt’s representation of pubic hair.

racehorse and shetland pon

A racehorse and a Shetland pony

But if Mahler could take German myth-making in the Knaben Wunderhorn, to show his credentials to Blut und Boden, he had the additional hurdle to clear that would grow out of Darwinism, that extrapolated the human condition as being akin to just so many different breeds of farm animals: some herds were more robust than others.  To anti-Semites, who believed Darwin had offered scientific evidence to support their natural bigotry, the Jew Mahler was merely a Shetland pony trying to pass himself off as winner of the Grand National.

Wagner als Antisemit

Richard Wagner in a caricature that shows him with stereotypically “Jewish” features

Wagner attacked Jewish attempts at participation in German culture in ways I recall the generation of my Austrian music teachers thoughtlessly dismissing Japanese and Korean students: “their technique was exemplary, but did they understand what they were dealing with? Weren’t they just imitating?” Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s son-in-law and admirer of Adolf Hitler extrapolated ever further on the subject of Jews and “other European races”. He was the quintessential English gentleman as professional, though ill-informed, amateur. If the dull-witted German Emperor Wilhelm II hadn’t pronounced his book Foundations of the 19th Century a masterpiece, nobody would have taken any notice of his drivel. It was poorly reviewed in scientific publications with my favourite review citing:

In short, this is an extremely bad book, unclear and illogical in its develop­ment of ideas and written in an un-gratifying style, full of false modesty and genuine arrogance; full of genuine ignorance and false scholarship.

Yet the public loved it as it served up simple lies rather than address complex truths. Together with Wagner’s Judenthum in der Musik, it would feed Nazi cultural ideology, though we are getting ahead of ourselves. My point is there were two strands of anti-Semitism that were current: the dangerous extrapolations of Darwinian anti-Semites and the cultural variant that saw Christianity as Occidental and Judaism as Oriental – a condition that religious conversion, rather than biology could remedy.


“Race Theory” being taught in school in Nazi Germany

The other variant, to quote the diarist Viktor Klemperer was “zoological” and saw Jews as inferior beasts attempting to pass themselves off as equals to the master race. Leon Botstein makes the point that Jews saw music as the quickest means of assimilation in the late 19th century whereas Hannah Arendt wrote in Verborgene Tradition, that Jews saw nature as politically and socially neutral and thus offering Jews a means of speedy assimilation. Mahler would seem to bear out both postulations, without necessarily suggesting that “assimilation” was his objective. Indeed, Mahler would combine Judaism, music, national, rather than confessional identity with nature and proudly present it, not as a plea for acceptance, but as a cosmos that held everything.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Yet the fact remained that only someone acutely Occidental in their perceived values could run the Imperial Opera. Conversion addressed this issue for Mahler, though as we shall see, the cultural baggage that others believed they sensed, and which he himself was aware of, would continue to diminish him in the eyes of anti-Semites. His solution as composer was to create a synthetic identity that combined Jewish, Austrian, Moravian and German. I’m grateful to my colleague Dr. Karin Wagner for providing me with the observation of fellow Moravian composer Hugo Kauder, who felt that Mahler reached beyond the boundaries that separated identities and resorted to “a metaphysics of sound”, creating a unity that contained all of these identities. It was bold, daring and made no apologies. As the Schönberg pupil Paul Amadeus Pisk observed:

Mahler hardly ever offered anyone specific instruction, yet bequeathed symphonies that were enormous works and would influence the next generation. Arnold Schönberg would have been a member of this younger generation and underwent stylistic developments that would take years to evolve. Much closer to Mahler were the stylistic bonds that influenced [three young Jewish composers] Karl Weigl, Egon Lustgarten and Hugo Kauder.

Schönberg’s change of style would take place in 1908 with his setting of Stefan George’s Buch der Hängenden Gärten, along with his Second Quartet, also incorporating settings of George’s, entitled Litany and Rapture (Entrückung) Mahler made no pretence of understanding where the young Schönberg was headed or why, but he knew that for Schönberg, it was the only direction possible. Mahler supported Schönberg financially by purchasing some of his paintings, and Schönberg, who was unaware of his patronage, would grow ever more under Mahler’s spell, despite the divergence of musical styles.


Richard Gerstl’s portrait of Arnold Schönberg

In Schönberg’s lecture from 1912, the year after Mahler’s death, he writes the following:

Rather than gabble on, perhaps it would be best if I simply said the following: “I am of the unshakable and firm conviction that Gustav Mahler was one of the greatest artists and human beings.” There are only two means of convincing someone about an artist: the first and best means is to let them hear something; the other means, and the one I am compelled to employ, is to convince others through my own conviction.

Mahler vortrag 1911

facsimile of Schönberg’s 1912 Mahler lecture held at the Arnold Schönberg Centre in Vienna

Schönberg then goes on to explain the depth of his belief in Mahler’s artistry before referencing what he underwent:

Let me cite an example that will be familiar to everyone who maintains any degree of self-observation. I can recall that when I first heard Mahler’s II Symphony, I was so physically overwhelmed by certain passages that my heart began to pound. Yet despite this, as I left the performance, I was compelled as a musician to subject the work to the same critical assessment that every work of art must undergo by any discerning artists. As a result, I overlooked its most important aspect: which was the enormous impression it had left on me, thus reducing me to passive participant, and confirming itself as fulfilling the highest expectation of any work of art. Those impulses that have ranted and raged through the artist find themselves taking hold of the listener in the same way. I was enthralled – and in the most profound manner, carried away.

Schönberg then expounds on how being carried away by music is experienced by the critical listener. He goes on to speak about all the things he found “wrong” in Mahler’s music: a banal melody, bizarre developments, outrageous voice leading, gratuitous lack of originality, wanton orchestrations etc.

One knows innately as a competent musician the correct means of addressing these issues. Every artist presented with a commission to make the world better than God himself, finds themselves locked into commitment. Everything that we don’t understand we assume to be wrong, everything that grates, a miscalculation by the artist. It never occurs to us that we’ve missed the point and the only viable option is to shut up……..respectfully to shut up.


Oskar Kokoschka’s portrait of Egon Wellesz

Egon Wellesz was one of Schönberg’s first pupils, but unlike Alban Berg and Anton Webern, he felt himself being drawn too heavily under Schönberg’s influence and left after only having received instruction in harmony and counterpoint. His admiration for Schönberg was enormous and he wrote the first Schönberg biography, published in 1920, just as Schönberg was developing his theories of 12 tone composition. As we’re here in Oxford, it may be worth repeating his experiences taken from a lecture he gave in Oxford in 1960 which focused more on Mahler the composer rather than on Mahler the conductor, which was a lecture he gave in the newly re-opened Vienna State Opera at the invitation of Herbert von Karajan.

When I came for a visit to this country in 1923, I found it difficult to talk about [Mahler’s] Symphonies even with my friends. They found them too long and could not understand why in the heyday of the symphonic poem, Mahler had not written works of a similar kind. But even on later visits and when I had settled down at Oxford, I found no response when I tried to speak of Mahler’s greatness as a composer. [….] The fate of a composer is not an easy one if he goes beyond the boundaries drawn by tradition. This has been particularly true with Austrian composers since the days of Bruckner and Hugo Wolf. What is to blame for this rather painful situation? I should say that it is those very qualities that make the Viennese audiences one of the most sensitive in the world. They are deeply steeped in classical music and a nostalgic longing for the past makes them ultra-conservative in their musical taste.

Wellesz then goes on to tell the story of Mahler meeting Hans Pfitzner at his flat while rehearsing his opera. It was the 1st of May, the day that workers marched around Vienna’s Ring Boulevard to the Prater, a large park in the city’s Second District. Pfitzner and Mahler had independently made their way from the opera house to Mahler’s flat in the 4th district. Pfitzner arrived first and was terrified by what he described to Alma as a “rabble of the enemy, workers all ready to attack”. Mahler joined them shortly thereafter beaming that he was thrilled at the sight of workers all marching happily to the Prater singing as they went.  Wellesz then tells us:

This is the character of Mahler and the spirit which one finds in the march in the first movement of his III Symphony. He catches a popular tune – just as Haydn did – and works it out symphonically.  Mahler was aware that this kind of music would shock the public and the music critics.

Wellesz then goes on to quote a letter from Mahler to Bruno Walter:

I think some of the gentlemen who write reviews will be staggered; those however, who enjoy a good joke will be pleased with the ramble I take them on. It is well known that I cannot write anything without becoming vulgar. This time, however, these vulgarities go too far, They’ll say: One might as well be in a tavern or a stable.

(extract of March from the 1st Movement of Mahler’s III Symphony)

Wellesz then goes on to describe the influence of Mahler on Schönberg’s class:

I think I was the only one among Schönberg’s pupils who admired Mahler from the beginning. I remember that Anton Webern was rather shocked by this march when he first saw the score. We had a miniature score and there was a good arrangement of the Symphony for two players: I persuaded Webern to play through the work with me before the first performance in December 1904, when Mahler conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It was sometime before Webern overcame his prejudice against the realistic features in Mahler’s music. Finally however he became more and more enthusiastic.

I’m rather taken with Wellesz’s description of this march as “musical realism”. Anyway, Wellesz then goes on to mention Schönberg’s dedication to Mahler of his Harmonielehre published in 1911. What unites all of these younger composers, whether Paul Pisk, Hugo Kauder, Egon Wellesz, Arnold Schönberg, Karl Weigl, Rudolf Reti, Egon Lustgarten or even Hans Gál, but significantly not the squeamish Anton Webern, was the fact they had been born into Jewish families. The reluctance of Webern was common among those who felt this confrontation with vulgar reality to be too close for comfort. It was the same alienating revulsion on hearing a march that one felt upon seeing the pubic hair in a Klimt painting. Mahler was dragging reality into music and if those in an excluded minority, disadvantaged by generations of persecution rejoiced in such boldness, it was understandable that the respectable and would-be respectable elements in Viennese society would resist.


Rudolf Louis 1870-1914

The Bavarian journalist and critic Rudolf Louis in 1909 in his widely successful book on Contemporary German Music, wrote the following about Mahler:  (and one needs to be reminded that Mahler would have been alive and aware of Louis)

What I find so fundamentally repellent about Mahler’s music is its axiomatic Jewish nature. If Mahler’s music spoke Jewish, I perhaps wouldn’t understand it, but what is disgusting is that it speaks German with the Jewish accent – the all too Jewish accent that comes to us from the East.

(Mahler’s Klezmer sequence in his Ist Symphony)

It was to such listeners as Louis that Mahler intended his Klezmer echoes in the First Symphony, and to young Jewish composers in Austria, it must have been a moment of silent rejoicing. It was not a militant celebration of Jewish culture within Austria-Hungary, but a celebration of inclusiveness. It was like the first time television showed a black or gay character as ordinary participants in a drama without their race or sexuality being their dramatic raison d’etre.

Musik in der Weltkrise

On the other hand, Adolf Weißmann, the Jewish author of Musik in der Weltkrise, Music in the world Crisis, published in 1920, resorts to race in much the manner of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, though not as hateful, he still sees Mahler’s Jewishness as an issue in desperate need of addressing:

There is a Mahler problem. [. . .] It lies firmly in the personality of the man himself. [. . .] Mahler is a Jew. He is [also] a Jew of this new age while being at the same time a great symphonist. Is it believable that the so-called death of the symphony – the musical idiom so hallowed by Beethoven – should be revived by a Jew? The connections between race and music are finally being examined despite frequent criticism. [Mahler’s] ideals may be questionable, but his Jewishness cannot be denied as an important component in his creativity, even by those who think that ignoring it does him a favour. This Jewish blood is important. Always heated, it attempts a great deal while rarely scaling great heights. It pushes towards dispersion as easily as it pushes towards cohesion. But it has the ability to flow in such a fashion that the Jewishness to which he was born is joined in an inseparable and noble union with the German nature that has always accompanied him. Thus metaphysical thought and intensified emotion become the inheritance of a neurotic creativity. Indeed much more: they march forth into the Beyond where there are no borders – they take on the traits of the transnational. Even in Mahler’s [own] spirit, Jewishness has gouged deep furrows. [. . .] In such a hyper-sensitive, creative spirit, agitation is always ready to blast the body asunder. He may feel himself German to the last fibre of his being, but his strength comes only from his state of continuous nervous tension. Journeys into the metaphysical with emotions pumped to their most extreme are joined in a passionate yet necessary fanaticism. His relationship with nature runs deep; one could almost call it naïve. He wishes to be part of his people and to be a real Austrian. But he remains tortured and tormented [. . .] as a modernist, as a passionate interpreter of the works of others, as a Jew. This is the spirit that invades his music and drives him to the demonic. This accounts for the countless contradictions in his work and also accounts for its ‘profound’ shallowness, a half-ironic creativity that makes counterfeit appear to be real gold. This accounts for his ingenious re-creation of the sound-worlds of forests and glades. But the most tellingly racial characteristic of all is his Christian fight for sanctity. [. . .] His ability to recreate music is no less passionate than that to create it. Mahler is the consummation of the German into the Jew. Wagner’s words, ‘To be German means to do something because it must be done’, were for Mahler: ‘To be German is to do what must be done to the point of self-annihilation.’ Thus was the life of a man living in a state of perpetual anxiety: a self-flagellator continuously whipping himself into a state of ecstasy.


Theodor Adorno 1903-1969

Theodor Adorno, writing much later in his Langer Blick – The Long View, in 1963 writes the following in seeming refutiation of hearing “the Jewish” in Mahler’s Klezmer snatches:

Mahler’s Jewishness is not to be found within his use of the folkloristic, but rather expresses itself through all conduits as cerebral and restrained, while ultimately remaining tangible in its entirety.


Martin Strommel’s “Jakob und der Engel”

Perhaps it’s worth ending this lecture with Wellesz’s account of attending a rehearsal of the Second Symphony. After offering various telling details regarding re-orchestration decisions, he relates:

And so the rehearsal went on. The two last movements of the Symphony, the song “Urlicht” and the choral movement “Auferstehen” with the middle section for soprano solo and alto solo, played without interruption. Before the movement the choir stood up, but Mahler gave them a sign to wait and told the orchestra and the singers what he meant when he composed the Symphony: “It is the [Genesis story] of Jacob wrestling with the Angel” he said and Jacob’s cry to the Angel, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”

There were no hidden 12 tone sequences in Mahler’s music, nor were there distant departures from the diatonic, and there was nothing that remotely could be described as leaving tonality altogether. Mahler’s influence on a largely Jewish younger generation of composers was to break the bonds of convention by way of flinging accepted Jewish stereotypes of banality, sentimentality and superficiality, along with visions of aspirational Christianity into the face of a post-Wagnerian public consisting often of bourgeois Jews who believed acceptance demanded cultural compliance.  He showed that the generation of Jews emancipated in the December Constitution of 1867 no longer needed to follow convention, but dominate it and steer it into any direction they chose.