Mahler’s Final Journey

There is a legitimate reason I have neglected regular submissions to this blog. I have just completed two books: one is for Yale University Press and can perhaps be seen as a follow-up to Forbidden Music – The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, published nearly 10 years ago. The second, I have already mentioned on several occasions, is translations of the many Feuilletons or extended essays on Gustav Mahler in the Habsburg Austrian paper of record Die Neue Freie Presse.  The two books have few intersections so my next entries will probably go from one to the other offering extracts to whet appetites.

Silhouetttes of Mahler Conducting

I realise that posting the La Bohème Eduard Hanslick’s review would interest a number of readers, so I’ll avoid posting another review by Hanslick on a Mahler opera performance, though they are fascinating wormholes into the past. In fact, when read in its entirety, the book is as much about the time, values and perceptions of the age as it is on Mahler. As I have written before, Die Neue  Freie Presse was an unapologetic supporter of Mahler, though not always uncritical. Yet, its support adds counter-weight to the view that Mahler was hated by all factions from all sides and under constant anti-Semitic attacks.  Reading the anonymous accounts of Mahler’s work at the opera and his obituary, the Neue Freie Presse implies that it was the machinations of the imperial court rather than antisemitism that would have represented the ultimate straw on the camel’s back. This may be surprising given the paper was rarely reluctant to call out antisemitism, given its prevalence in daily Austrian life and the fact that the paper’s cultural editor was none other than Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist Movement. Die Neue Freie Presse, like its equally Liberal Party supporting Neues Wiener Tagblatt was largely Jewish in both ownership and its many journalists. Its open Jewish identity was one of the reasons the most famous Jewish antisemite of the day, Karl Kraus, would constantly take aim at it. So when the paper, in its un-signed editorial states that it was the constant petitioning of various aristocrats unable to influence Mahler in questions of casting that ultimately caused the rupture, it needs, at the very least, to be considered.

Mahler and Julius Korngold

Nevertheless, Julius Korngold, the principal music critic on the paper after Eduard Hanslick’s retirement, was more of the view that Mahler had accomplished everything he could in the ten years of his directorship.  Given Korngold’s personal closeness to Mahler, I’m inclined to believe this take, rather than the partisan attacks on the imperial court.  Yet the very fact that the paper in its unsigned editorials seizes opportunities to attack both the Habsburg court and the influence of the Catholic clergy, offers proof of a relatively open and free press. Korngold’s view is not as passive as one might think. He accepts that a man like Mahler needed new challenges and new opportunities. Despite Court censors refusing to countenance a performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1905, it is clear that working in the United States would have been more financially attractive to remaining in Vienna. In addition, Korngold is merciless in his profile of Mahler’s successor Felix von Weingartner. Julius Korngold was very far from just rolling over and accepting Mahler’s departure, while acknowledging its inevitability.

More fascinating for me personally, was confronting the aesthetic arguments surrounding Mahler’s engagement of Alfred Roller as head of staging. Roller was a founding member of the Secessionist Movement, and Korngold who was generally supportive of everything Mahler did, questioned having someone from the “fine arts” when it came to designing scenery, props and costumes.  Until then, sets were more or less standard and interchangeable: a forest was a forest, a throne room a throne room, and a bedroom a bedroom and there was no apparent need to individualise these settings. Initially, Korngold believed that doing so, distracted from the music. Over time, he conceded that the lighting and set-designs were as crucial to the dramatic narrative as the words and music. The initial reluctance to accept artistically designed sets and costumes reminded me of the more recent advent of sur-titles in opera houses:  hated by traditionalists as distracting yet ultimately so popular that they made their way into even the most obscure opera houses. (Bayreuth apparently remaining the exception). In Korngold’s later appraisal of Mahler’s ten years at the opera in Vienna, he admited that his innovations concerning lighting and set-design had made their way throughout all of Germany’s opera houses and came close to realising Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk idea of joining together drama, image, setting, lighting and music.

Roller’s designs for Tristan und Isolde

I’ve laid out the book into four sections consisting of Mahler and his Symphonies and Orchestral Songs; Mahler and the Opera; Mahler and Vienna and Mahler and his Legacy. Hanslick’s review of La Bohème was only one example of Mahler at the opera. Other performances would be more surprising because of his decision to use Alfred Roller and transform the very nature of opera presentation on stage. Hanslick was distressed that Mahler insisted on performing Meistersinger without cuts. Readers may be astonished to know that Hanslick called the opera “a masterpiece”, which given his generally accepted antagonism to everything Wagnerian comes as a surprise, and this in the context of Wagner coming close to naming the role of Beckmesser, “Veit Hanslich”.

Roller’s design for Lohengrin

To read the reviews of the performances of Lohengrin, Fidelio, Marriage of Figaro and other works, it becomes apparent that despite the acknowledged greatness of the music, opera was fundamentally viewed as theatrical entertainment. Mahler’s former lover and soprano of choice, Anna von Mildenburg wrote an article for the Neue Freie Presse in which she recalled working with Mahler in Hamburg and Vienna. She stressed how important it was to enter a character so thoroughly, that there was no need to look at the conductor and went on to explain how Mahler’s apparent over-rehearsing was only a means in order to achieve that specific end. Performances at Vienna’s Imperial Opera were all in German – as they remained in Vienna until Karajan’s arrival in the mid-1950s. Orchestras were less loud, so words were audible, and characterisation was possible. Hanslick, on the other hand, complained that Mahler’s over-rehearsing resulted in a lack of theatrical realism and complained that the opening church chorus in Meistersinger lacked conviction because it was so perfectly sung. “Everyone knows”, he wrote, “that congregational singing is always behind the beat and slightly out of tune”.

Equally fascinating were the reviews of Mahler’s own works, particularly those written by Julius Korngold. Several things stand out. First, is an assumption of extraordinary musical literacy in his readership as he describes works both structurally and harmonically.  Given the fact that people did not have access to recordings or scores of these works, one assumes readers had an unusually high level of inner-ear projection. A point that Korngold values, which to him comes across as “modern”, is Mahler’s unwillingness to characterise folk music in the manner of other composers such as Schubert or Brahms. Rather, Mahler goes in the other direction presenting these folk-elements in full ethnic grotesqueness, as a kind of hyperrealism. Surprisingly, he is most critical of Mahler’s slow movements and even referred to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony as representing “bourgeois sentimentality” – parodied by Mahler, note-for-note in the final movement. He correctly places the work as a sarcastic gesture towards the complacency of the concert public and offers a view of the Adagietto that pre-dates Visconti’s use in his film Death in Venice. It’s not clear what he would have made of Haitink’s fourteen minute version, when apparently Mahler’s own performances lasted around eight minutes.

The other thing that may surprise modern readers is the casual dismissal of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It was most definitely not seen as Mahler’s last will and testament. Writers as diverse as Julius Korngold, Richard Specht and Max Kalbeck see Das Lied von der Erde as being Mahler’s final completed symphony. The Ninth Symphony was premiered in a Herculean concert conducted by Bruno Walter after Mahler’s death, together with Bruckner and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonies and Bruckner’s Te Deum. As both Korngold and Kalbeck pointed out, it was clearly not meant to be Mahler’s valedictory statement: Kalbeck believed Mahler had decided the Eighth Symphony served that purpose. Korngold recalled Mahler teasing that his Ninth Symphony would be light, jolly and in the key of D Major. Though the symphony we know as Mahler’s Ninth is in D Major, it is neither light nor jolly. In addition, as everyone pointed out at the time, Mahler had already embarked on his Tenth Symphony in order to get past the premonitions of a composer’s “Ninth”. The later deification of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was most definitely a development of more recent years. Bruno Walter’s attempt at the time, to place it in the same context as Beethoven and Bruckner comes under criticism for that reason. Indeed, some of the aesthetic and structural comments following its premiere, were quite dismissive, with Max Graf writing that it was the least original of any of Mahler’s symphonies and even Korngold suggesting it contained some of Mahler’s least convincing music.  

Photo of Mahler taken in New York

The final chapter is a collection of essays on Mahler’s ultimate legacy, including accounts of the Amsterdam Mahler Festival in 1920 along with an account of a less fulsome festival conducted by Oskar Fried in Vienna. Memories of Mahler are represented not just by the above-mentioned von Mildenburg, but also Stefan Zweig who sailed from New York on the same ship as Mahler’s final return to Europe.

As a taster of the book, however, I offer an edited extract from the Third Chapter: Mahler and Vienna. It is an account by the writer and diplomat Paul Zifferer. It relates Mahler’s arrival as mortally ill returning to Vienna. It is written in a breathless present tense and appeared in the paper on 13. May 1911. In under a week of Zifferer’s article appearing, Mahler was dead.

The Imperial “Hofoper” at the time of Mahler’s Directorship

The Orient Express thundered into the Hall of Vienna’s West Train station. Between the heavy ironed locomotive and the two large baggage carriages, are a few sleeping carriages, used by respectable travellers for spending the night between Paris and Vienna. Two young girls leap out of one of the carriages, red-cheeked and laughing, greeting waiting family members. Other travellers follow. Slanted rays of spring sunshine wash into the station hall and the atmosphere is one of happiness. Joy at seeing someone again after a long absence, they hasten their pace as if the train’s movements were still rattling in their limbs. The windows of one of the carriages remains darkened, everyone who passes instinctively lower their voices. The carriage is decoupled from the rest of the train, while another locomotive is hooked up. Carefully and without noise, the wheels start to turn. Gently, as if a wheelchair was being pushed by a caring nurse, it is moved into the sunlight. A few silent individuals, sunk in thought, stand at the balustrade of a freight loading point. They have come to greet Gustav Mahler who after a long journey has returned home to Vienna. Only visible from afar, where nobody can see, they want to spare him any public commotion.

Something ceremonial can be noted in their presence. They stand back nervously and a few tense minutes pass, as medics enter the carriage. They reappear shortly afterwards, jumping from the running board, conferring among themselves. The automobile for the invalid is parked right by the tracks. They attempt to move a stretcher into the carriage but no amount of turning or twisting appears to work with all attempts proving futile. And, watching this, our thoughts turn to the patient trapped since yesterday evening in the narrow bed of the sleeper, all because he had become obsessed by his determination and singular desire to return to Vienna: to come back home. Suddenly we notice some movement in the carriage and carried by two men, we can see Gustav Mahler through the windows. His ravaged body is dressed in a grey summer suit. His noble hands rest gently on the shoulders of the two men supporting him. At first, we only see the back of his head, the black wiry hair, the narrow boy-like shoulders, but suddenly the patient turns his head and one recognises the contours of his face: the broad steep forehead, in which locks of hair defiantly fall, the pointed nose above his thin, firmly pressed lips and the wilful chin. His face is pale and exudes both suffering and fortitude. His movements are defiant, radiating tension and energy, and an intense will to live. His face radiates determination, yet what we see is only a mask. As they place the patient onto the stretcher, there is a painful movement of his lip that only lasts a few seconds. Immediately afterwards his determination takes over again, his muscles tighten and a red blanket that picks up the sun is tucked around him. The wind plays gently in his hair as if wishing to caress him. And then, Gustav Mahler raises his eyes-the glasses through which he so often shot his stern unyielding looks are missing. An undefinable flickering in his eyes appear, searching and yearning, looking in the distance towards the city growing pink in the first signs of eventide. A smile appears to flutter across his face, but only the corners of his mouth turn upwards for a brief second. Immediately afterwards, his face resumes the expression from before, the determination as if he didn’t want to lose for a moment the resolve that had been necessary to make this long journey…not far away, near one of the freight loading stations stands a simple young worker who has occasionally helped out as a stage hand at the opera. His co-workers all  scurrying about their duties really have not got the faintest idea who this sick person is being moved on a stretcher in to a waiting automobile. The young worker, however, does recognise Gustav Mahler from the time when he was still opera director. Moved, he continues to look at him while wiping his eyes with his dirty blue sleeve.

From a pure human standpoint, Gustav Mahler’s return home to Vienna is something that is exceptionally moving. One cannot escape the assumption that the poor suffering patient saw salvation in his homeland. Everything abroad was unkind, but home would offer healing. Everything else was pushed into the background and even all his toughest artistic dreams and aspirations stepped back to make room for this vision of return. Back home, everything will be right again, relief and good health are found. One could imagine that his will, burned by fever, was given new strength by this one, great hope. There was something comforting and soothing in this return. We are too easily tempted to curse our modern times, as if its rushed pace has banished all beauty; as if it is antagonistic to the individual, caring only about his usefulness in its drive towards mediocrity. And yet, these modern times have now been placed at the service of a seriously ill artist. The entirety of human intelligence and scholarship has sped across oceans and the European continent in order to come to his rescue. One could almost imagine that our oft-criticised culture came together to save Gustav Mahler in his flight from deceit and suffering. This flight is noticed in the agitated pulse of the patient. A spluttering car transports him swiftly through the streets of New York, where the buildings on either side rise up like mountainous cliffs while a rapid ocean liner lies docked and waiting at Hoboken Market. The Statue of Liberty raises her torch and the foghorns blast a farewell in departure. The propellers churn deep in the waters as it steers its path towards Europe. And then comes the express train which takes the invalid to Paris where for a moment, he can regain his strength. As seen from America, every European city seems like home. But the illness has pursued his ship like a ferocious shark. It cowers at the foot of his bed in his cabin. There are foreign noises in his ears; he can barely make himself understood to the doctor who comes to help. And yet again, he is seized by the disquiet that drives him across the seas. His happiness and joy is expressed to strangers in a foreign language, while searching for relief in worry. His pain can only be expressed in his native tongue; and again, irrepressible in its drive, his yearning to return home. All of our thoughts rushed towards Gustav Mahler from the moment news of his wish to return came to us. We saw him in the small garden town of Neuilly, passing by the Arch of Triumph through the Elysian Fields downwards, turning into the broad boulevards of Paris, just as theatres were opening up, a point when this festive city is at its loudest and most rambunctious. But this time, the well-attuned ear of our artist was unable to comprehend all of the voices that raced around him, voices that had cheered him after countless successes. His unbroken determination wrestling with his illness had already gone ahead. Presumably, this one night, when return seemed so close, he slept very little. In Avricourt, he must have heard the change of personnel, with its mix of German and French and in the noise of the train, he could start to make out familiar words and sounds. Instinctively, he recalled Heine’s lines when he too was deathly ill and crossing the Rheine for the last time: “And as I came to the border, I felt a heavy pounding in my breast; I even think my eyes welled up…”

But was not just the German language that accounted for Gustav Mahler’s yearning for return. With the same obstinacy that visions of earlier days may have had on him, what ultimately entrapped him, leaving him unable to free himself from the very start of his illness, was a vision of a city that took hold of his soul, and from hour to hour, held it ever tighter in its magical grip. The journey took him through all of Germany, through many old university towns. Their greatest scholars would have instantly offered him their advice and treatment. But the sufferer knew that medical treatment would never be enough. And indeed, the doctors knew this as well. He only trusted one city, one city out of many others: the city that was his home: Vienna. His strong belief allowed him to put up with the martyrdom of the journey, bringing him greater hope. One may often conspire against Vienna, move to foreign places in order to live at a quicker and more industrious pace, in order to expand one’s horizons. One may even earn greater sums of money and achieve greater fame, but from the moment someone becomes part of Vienna, it will always be where their heart remains. One simply cannot escape; neither from the good nor from the bad.

One may be angry at Vienna, but one never stops secretly loving Vienna. Everywhere else in modern large cities, one lives on the surface where one is blown in one direction and then in another. One is forgetful and one is forgotten. Whoever has become attached to the much-reviled city of Vienna finds themselves rooted deeply into its earth. One does not forget Vienna, nor is one forgotten in Vienna. Now that Gustav Mahler is returning home, all of the city’s streets and squares greet him as a familiar acquaintance. He can rest his eyes on any particular spot, but we, as everyone in Vienna, have seen him appearing in streets and squares. For example, one spots him in a coffee house near the Opera with a mountain of newspapers in front of him, while he engages in deep conversation with a kapellmeister who has taken a place next to him. He puts his face very close to the face of theother person and makes a point by spitting out his words, quickly and breathless, totally focused on the point of conversation as if everything, just everything, had to be explained in that one second. Or one saw him with his unique gait walking down Kärtner Street in the afternoon. His body wrapped in a large Havelock and on his head, which is always a little in front of the rest of him, he wears a soft, flat hat. His long thin arms wave about in the air during conversation. His voice is loud as if he was completely by himself in the street. His vision is directed inwards, taking no notice of the outside world. One might think it made no difference in which city this deeply introspective person might live.

And yet this is a man who needed the air of Vienna’s streets when he took his walks-specifically this city’s air and specifically this city’s environment. And there are the times we have noticed him at the theatre at a performance of a comedy. He sits in the first row of the balcony his arms leaning on the ledge, his head between his delicate hands, laughing like a child: loudly and un-self-consciously. And finally, we see him in front of the orchestra conducting a Wagner opera. Suddenly, he appears from among the musicians, racing to the conductors stand. We can see his jacket tails flapping as he moves. He hops onto his stool and we are convinced that in the silence, we too can hear the call to order he gives with his slender baton, as he beats for attention on his music stand. The score is brightly lit and against this light, he rises so that we only see a silhouette of his body, a moving, jerking shadow. This is just as we see him today through the windows of the train carriage, his shoulders are those of a slim young man and his arms outstretched as if conjuring an incantation. And when he moves his head, we see the dark bushel of hair above his high forehead, the sharp contour of his glasses, his pointed nose, the thin line of tightly pressed lips and his jutting, obstinate chin. This is the Gustav Mahler in our minds’ eye: the Musician, the artist, his pluses and his minuses cannot by judged by amateurs.

What draws all of us to Gustav Mahler is his extraordinarily strong will, outwardly visible in his small body and tense gestures. And it was this very same strong will that has brought him back to his home city. In his journey across the ocean and the continent of Europe we can sense something like poetry. Lyrical accents sound in our mind, the Earl King resounds in our inner ear, horribly enlarged, threatening and heavy with the weight of destiny. An artist who still has so much to say to humanity is fleeing from an illness that is invisible and incurable and yet, it manages to clutch him with a thousand arms. There is only one place where this horror cannot harm him, where he feels his immunity against this evil. And it was to this refuge that he fled, though many doubted the wisdom of his decision, he was bold enough to make it happen. Until now, Mahler’s determination has proven itself stronger and more victorious than the illness that tries to claim him. And yet in the story of the Earl King, we believe the victim to have been rescued, though he has already been claimed by the Earl King. Full of hope, Gustav Mahler is convinced that healing can come from the love of his city, Vienna. And if there is a spark of truth in the belief that the inner will of the individual is stronger than any medicine, then we may hope to see him soon completely recovered. He deserves this if only as a reward for his strong self-belief.