By Dorian Griscom:
Composer Gustav Mahler: A centennial appreciation
31 January 2012
Composer Gustav Mahler is remembered for his nine symphonies and equally for his famous song cycles, including Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), Rückert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”). He also left behind a draft for a tenth symphony.
Mahler is known today almost entirely for his large-scale compositions, and these works were by and large rejected during his lifetime by a public that regarded him first and foremost as a conductor. Mahler held major conducting posts across Europe—in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg and most notably Vienna, and he also appeared in Berlin, Amsterdam, London and Paris. Toward the end of his life he came to the United States, where he directed both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
Mahler’s music was not widely heard in concert halls and on recordings until the middle of the 20th century, about 40 years after his death. Today, however, he is among the most widely listened to of 19th and 20th century classical composers. Last year, which marked the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death in Vienna on May 18, 1911, witnessed concerts, new recordings, lectures and exhibitions around the world celebrating his life and music.
His work speaks to a very wide audience, while his life and career remain the subject of intense scholarly interest. …
Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a city of profound contradictions. While home to a vibrant cultural life that witnessed intense ferment in the arts and sciences, it was also the heart of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the center of a continent on the brink of war and catastrophe.
Vienna was headquarters of the large and influential Social Democratic Party, a leading section of the Second International. Still nominally a revolutionary party, the Austrian SPD generally followed its more famous German counterpart in gradually abandoning Marxism in favor of parliamentarism and narrow trade union politics, a process that culminated in the Austrian party’s support for its own bourgeoisie at the outbreak of the First World War.
Despite its ultimately fatal political flaws, it is also true that the Austrian party played an enormous role in the political and cultural life of the country and especially of Vienna. Its newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, enjoyed a mass circulation. Lectures, meetings and mass demonstrations were a constant presence in the city’s life. Mahler, though by no means politically active, voted for the party in a number of elections. …
It was also during his Vienna period that Mahler met and married the young and beautiful Alma Schindler. They met in November 1901 and were engaged to be married roughly a month later. Though Alma herself was a composer of considerable talent, Mahler forbade her to compose. This devastated Alma, but she instead devoted her musical gifts to supporting Mahler’s career, copying out parts and writing transcriptions of his compositions. Nevertheless, Mahler’s domineering manner, on this and other matters, took its toll on their relationship.
Alma was known as a femme fatale. Mahler’s junior by nearly 20 years, she later had an affair with the architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, whom she would marry after Mahler’s death. The affair, towards the end of Mahler’s life, shattered the composer and led him to consult with Freud. The problems of their complicated relationship aside, Alma and Gustav Mahler’s partnership was a profound one that deeply affected the composer’s musical life.
Mahler’s life in Vienna was stormy on other than personal grounds. Anti-Semitism had wide support and was encouraged, as elsewhere, as a means of weakening the workers’ movement. The notorious anti-Semite and leader of the Christian Social Party, Karl Lueger, became mayor of Vienna in 1897.
The composer, who had converted to Catholicism largely to shield himself from official anti-Semitism in his quest for the position of director of the Hofoper, encountered opposition from the anti-Semitic press even before arriving in Vienna. The Reichspost, an anti-Semitic daily, wrote on April 14, 1897: “The Jews’ press will see whether the panegyrics with which they plaster their new idol at present do not become washed away by the rain of reality as soon as Herr Mahler starts his Jew-boy antics at the podium.”
While Mahler clashed with many of the musically conservative elements as he fought to remake the Vienna Opera into what he thought was required, he also faced continuous sniping on religious and political grounds. He was ultimately driven from his post by a venomous press campaign in 1907 that alleged “mismanagement” of the Opera on Mahler’s part.