The Indomitable Will of Gustav Mahler
By JOHN ADAMS
By Jens Malte Fischer
Translated by Stewart Spencer.
Illustrated. 766 pp. Yale University Press. $50.
Idealistic, fantastic, grotesque, violent, tender, sarcastic, confrontational, confessional, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) are among the most profoundly autobiographical of all composed music. “I have written into them, in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured,” he confided to a friend after finishing the Second Symphony. For all its professional, emotional and physical crises, Mahler’s life was exemplary for an artist who, no matter how loud the outside world might pound on the walls of his concentration, vigilantly maintained an unobstructed direct line to his creative self, keeping it uncorrupted and unblocked to the end.
He was the living embodiment of “the world as will and idea.” The composer Hans Pfitzner said Mahler was “one of the most strong-willed men I have known.” Romain Rolland, novelist and creator of the fictional genius composer Jean- Christophe, saw in the “extraordinarily high-strung” Mahler “something of the schoolmaster and something of the clergyman,” with a “long, clean-shaven face, hair tousled over a pointed skull and receding from a high forehead, eyes constantly blinking behind his glasses, a strong nose, a large mouth with narrow lips, sunken cheeks, and an ascetic, ironic and desolate air.”
High-strung he may have been, but Mahler was also just plain tough, able to conduct four or five performances a week, many of them four-or five-hour operas like “Tristan” and “Don Giovanni”; rise early the next morning to orchestrate his own music; and then walk to the opera house to deal with the myriad complications and headaches that came with his position as music director of a major opera house. He conducted with raging fevers, sore throats or, his particular curse, painful hemorrhoids. As an ambitious young conductor in Budapest and Hamburg, he was aerobically demonstrative on the podium, flailing his arms, urging, coaxing, shaping and giving fiery impulse to the music. In his later years, especially after the diagnosis of a perilous heart ailment at the age of 47, he became economical in gesture but no less intense in mood. A spartan in his dress and daily habits, he disliked showy display on and off the stage and was historically unpleasant at the kind of obligatory social gatherings and dinners required of cultural leaders.
When he composed he did it in a white heat, sketching the outlines of his large symphonic forms in a hasty shorthand scrawl, going as fast as his quicksilver mental powers allowed him, usually during all-too-brief summer “vacations” in picturesque alpine settings. A symphony might be composed in the course of one or two of these summer retreats. But the painstakingly detailed writing out and preparation of performance materials would occupy him for another two or more years before the work would be publicly performed. He was in every sense what we’d now call a control freak. He insisted on conducting all first performances, often treating early rehearsals as a further composing phase, trying out this and that effect on often hapless and confused orchestra members. His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right.
He weathered negative criticism in the press throughout his life. His symphonies didn’t behave right, didn’t fit the mold. Their extravagance of scale and expressivity offended conservative tastes. In an era when “program music” like that of his contemporary Richard Strauss was enormously popular and on every listener’s agenda, Mahler teased his audience by first providing programmatic descriptions for his symphonies only to withdraw them later, saying the works should be heard simply as “pure music.”
There is a lot to write about here. Mahler’s life was as vivid and as emotionally stormy as his music. As a Bohemian Jew who managed to flourish in fin de siècle Vienna with its toxic anti-Semitism, Mahler is a case study in cultural collision. His complicated domestic life, his marriage at the peak of his fame to the much younger and musically talented Alma Schindler, the tragic death of their 4-year-old daughter and his seeking out Sigmund Freud to help solve the crisis in his marriage — all of this provides a seemingly endless number of portals into the mysteries of his music.
The summa of all Mahler study, the first source of reference for anyone seriously interested in Mahler, is the massive multi volume biography by Henry-Louis de La Grange. This is a work of exhaustive and exhausting research that does for its subject what similar studies by Joseph Frank did for Dostoyevsky and Leon Edel for Henry James. But de La Grange’s study amounts to several thousand dense pages in which genuinely important information is mixed in with tedious data about long-forgotten singers, ticket sales and contract negotiations, along with more footnotes than a David Foster Wallace novel (and nowhere near as much fun).
For those who desire a more manageable overview of this artist’s extraordinary life and work, Jens Malte Fischer’s “Gustav Mahler” (translated from the German by Stewart Spencer) is a good place to start. At 700-plus pages, Fischer’s book is no bagatelle either, but it is the work of a sympathetic writer who takes pains to establish the historical and cultural milieu that informs Mahler’s music. His affection for his subject is palpable, the descriptions of the rural setting of the composer’s Bohemian childhood are evocative, and the discussions of the symphonies and song cycles are original and refreshingly opinionated. He frequently cites Theodor Adorno’s writings on Mahler, for both their positive and their pejorative appraisals, and in reading them one is yet again reminded of how musically penetrating that philosopher’s statements can be, despite the often koan-like perplexities of their expression. It was Adorno who addressed what was for many a persistent and uncomfortable issue about the banality of some of Mahler’s musical ideas by pointing out that he had turned “cliché” into “event.”
Fischer interweaves the year-by-year narrative with special chapters that function as topical set pieces, with titles like “The Conductor,” “Jewishness and Identity,” “Mahler’s Illnesses: A Pathographical Sketch” and “The Avid Reader: Mahler and Literature.” Each of the nine completed symphonies, as well as “Das Lied von der Erde,” receives its own dedicated chapter. Perhaps with too cautious an eye to a larger reading public, Fischer (a professor of the history of theater at the University of Munich) tends to steer clear of the musically technical in favor of a more generalized discussion of the sort that in earlier times we used to term “music appreciation.” This to me is regrettable in a book of this length and presumed scope, because so much of the true genius of Mahler’s invention lies in his astonishingly skillful manipulation of harmony, counterpoint, form and instrumentation. A serious book about Mahler that assumes its reader will not want musical examples cannot do justice to its subject. Would one write a biography of Shakespeare and not include lines from the plays?
Nonetheless, Fischer is a thoughtful writer, and his essay on the Eighth Symphony, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand,” in particular is both admiring and skeptically cleareyed. On completing the work, Mahler wrote to a friend: “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” Mahler, in a burst of creative energy that seems humanly inconceivable, did the essential compositional work on this gigantic 80-minute symphony in a single eight-week period during the summer of 1906. In Mahler’s own words, “The creator spiritus took possession of me, held me in its clutches and chastised me for eight weeks, until the work was all but finished.” Fischer acknowledges that in a good performance, “the power of the uplift” of this symphony “is unforgettable.” But he is equally able to voice his anxieties about what Adorno also detected, a hectic collectivism, a “reverting to a kind of conservatism that he had left behind him with his First Symphony,” a “selling out to the desire on the part of Wilhelmine Germany to create a total work of art that would establish and celebrate values in an age devoid of values.”
His marriage to Alma brought him a great deal of happiness and domestic stability. He wrote lovingly to her, sometimes twice a day when he was away from her. She was his soul mate, a woman with her own talents and cultural sophistication who was instrumental in exposing her husband to the newer currents of Secessionist sensibility that were emerging in turn-of-the-century Vienna. But as is so often the case with driven, visionary creators, Mahler was also woefully unconscious of his wife’s growing unhappiness, not so much belittling as simply ignoring her own artistic impulses. Alma, talented, sensual and socially extroverted, bounced back and forth between adoration for his genius and feelings of isolation and frustration with her role as companion, servant, mother and copyist.
Fischer, while acknowledging the biographical quicksand that Alma’s later memoirs and heavily edited letters pre sent, is nonetheless careful to lay out the immense complexities of their relationship, which culminated in Mahler’s discovery of her affair with the young Walter Gropius and the composer’s heartbreaking reaction and ensuing panic that he might be abandoned at a time when he knew his days were numbered.
Nothing in Mahler’s life was simple. Even at the end during his three seasons of conducting in America, when he should have been able to enjoy the esteem and fame that had finally been accorded him, he was belittled and humiliated by New York critics, impresarios and board members who complained about his programming, found his manners too arrogant and wanted him to share the podium with the rising star Toscanini. He was a dying man, barely able to stand or walk when he returned to Vienna in the spring of 1911. In his last, unfinished Tenth Symphony he laid out an imaginary landscape of desolation and emotional violence, of resignation and scant solace that by now seems eerily prescient of the calamitous century that would follow, one in which his own very great music would emerge triumphant.
John Adams’s new oratorio, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” will receive its world premiere in Los Angeles in May.
from the New York Times Book Review
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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