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On The Eve of World War: Mahler And The Fall of Empires

29 November 2010

Gustave Mahler (1860-1911) the conductor and composer, was a hero to those who opposed and fought against anti-Semitism and refused to be it's victim. On the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth Gerry Fitzpatrick looks at his life and work.

The shells and munitions that had been falling on Berlin were British and American, later they would be joined by Russian rockets and shells. But today a partyof Jewish Berliners who had yet to be deported by the Gestapo left their hiding places and made their way to an underground location to carry out a secret mission.

The mission was to perform the work by a banned composer: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Many who attended that performance and performed the music never lived to see this extraordinary music not only out live Hitler and the Third Reich,butto later triumph on the world stage and stay there right up on till today one hundred years after Mahler’s life ended.

Statue of Mahler by Rodin in Vienna State Opera, the statue was removed by the NAZI’s.

After WW II Mahler’s music was regularly performed by a small group of dedicated conductors -Stokowski, Mitropoulos, Copland. Expert high quality performances became widely available from the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink on stereo LP.

Since the 1970s  Mahler’slife and work has been invoked by film makers:

Mahler (1974) by Ken Russell:

Russell’s film explores the typical elements associated with Mahler’s music – bourgeois civilization exploding, sardonic humor, folk music, nature and the universe. The film also makes fun of Visconti’s film Death In Venice(1971) a deeply serious portrait of Mahler in the guise of Thomas Mann’s fictional character Aschenbach:

Here Aschenbach is shown as the composer who faces a hostile public and as a man who loses a young daughter – both were aspects of Mahler’s life as was the Adagietto from his 5th Symphony – a piece that Mahler wrote for his wife to be - Alma Schindler and which Visconti uses throughout the film, (Aschenbach’s pursuit of a young man in the film is from Mann’s original story and not related to Mahler’s life). But Mahler and Mann did know one another. After hearing Mahler’s 8th Symphony - the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – Mahler’s gigantic hymn to nature based on Goethe’sFaust, Mann wrote to Mahler describing him as someone who embodies, “the most serious and sacred artistic purpose of our age”. But what was that ‘most serious and artistic purpose’ and whose ‘age’ was it?

That question is the one that an army of critics and cultural commentators have tried and failed to answer ever since. The attempts vary from the neo-Marxist (Adorno), through to liberal (Blaukopf and Le Grange) to conservative (Holbroke).  And now in the year of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death in 2011 these and many more new biographies and studies will be available. If there was a central question they attempt to answer it is this: how important are ideas, culture and ideology to Mahler’s aesthetic achievement? It is an important question – certainly as far as the social history of art is concerned – a discipline itself that grew up along side the increasing popularity of Mahler’s music in the late 1970s. 

Writing About Mahler 

For the majority of literature on Mahler tries to do two things: First, introduce the world of Vienna and theavant-garde, of modernity and modern architecture, of Karl Kraus, Schoenberg and Freud. Second, after this detailing they conclude that Mahler’s music is only really about his own private world and consciousness. They in effect reverse the process of artistic production from grey matter to the world, to one of the world to grey matter; thusMahlerbecomes a ghostly presence,a genius cipher of the critics hollow imagining. 

The importance and significance of Mahler is that he made the realities of the Hapsburg Empire part of his work and passionately believed that his music should ‘embrace the whole world’. Despite his success he suffered terribly at the hands of Vienna’s anti-Semitic rulling elite and its press who  had always opposed Mahler’s appointment to The Vienna State Opera (a post he gained after reluctantly converting to Catholicism in 1897). However, the opposition did not relent and greatly increased after it became known that Mahler had voted for Victor Adler (the father of Austrian Marxism) in the 1901 general election.  Soon his contemporaries began to make the connection between the (socialist) masses and Mahler’s symphonies. Richard Strauss (the composer of Thus Spake Zarathustra)remarked that the opening of Mahler’s 6th Symphony (1906) was ‘like watching a May Day demonstration’. Only Mahler himself did not watch the May Day march, he joined it as it passed through Vienna in 1905 - the year of the Russian Revolution (Mahler wholeheartedly supported the extension of the franchise to the working class which was also a key tenet of socialist politics of the day). 

Strauss’s remark quoted above was no doubt sarcastic – referring to workers brass bands that usually accompany May Day demonstrations. In his day no one accepted Mahler’s symphonic funeral marches as his response to the realities of the Hapsburg Empire and its relentless death march to destruction. But we know now that he was right and what he felt and feared might happen did happen:  war would flow out from the Austrian Balkans and would engulf the whole world:

But Mahler doesn’t just give us the horrific death march he also comments sarcastically on the absurd and ridiculous pomp of the marchers (at 0:57):

Alternating with this theme and by contrast in the Symphonywe also hear here whatMahler cherished so we hear the music associated with his wife Alma (at 0.31) and the peace and serenity of the dramatic landscape of the Austrian countryside; this is evoked by chordson the celesta (at 4.16) that suggest a dreamlike elevation to a mountainside where the sound of cowbells can be heard. All this is not at first apparent, as while we listen to a live performance we see the performers in their tuxedos working away,the conductor also ‘performing’– we have all this to contend with on top of the music being unfamiliar. But it is Mahler’s technique that keeps us interested that is not just how the harmony and notes are put down and who plays them, but how the movement cleverly shifts its dramatic focus. 

This is the modern realist technique that was pioneered by Berlioz and Wagner and their followers.In Mahler there is no programme as such (the likes of which Berlioz, Lizst and Richard Strauss used). What is intended here is simply invoked and evoked - something that the Wagnerian music drama did before the advent of the sound film. When they are brought together Mahler and film - as they were by Visconti and Russell, it is impossible to tell if it is Mahler’s music that was filmic before its time or if it is the filmmakers that are using their editing and camera work musically:

[Russell’s version of the cow bell ‘scene’ is literal then shifts in space and time to suggest what Mahler is doing musically (at 4.13.) the film deftly quotes the, 4th symphony (at 3.34)  the 3rd Symphony (at 5.17) the 4th again at the Sheppard’s flute scene (at 5.54) and the 1st Symphony during the scene at the inn, the beautiful slow movement of the 4th while Mahler swims in the lake and back to Mahler’s Alma theme from the 6th Symphony] 

The term used to describe this musical technique in Germany and Austria was Tonmalerei or ‘tone-painting’ - a practice later despised by musical modernists because it leads to a kind of revere that they thought was not appropriate to their view of music’s role in society;music they thought should only serve itself and no other purpose. This was the answerfashioned by Schoenberg and his school who were known to Mahler. Schoenberg’s response was an understandable reaction to social crisis – the masses begin to arrive in the cities and demand the social art and the accessible art – the artistic avant-garde responds by attempting to put the language of art on an austerity programme to retain its specialty, its class. 

This moment personally occurred for Schoenberg early in his career, specifically when he was a conductor of workers choruses. He recalls this moment in a letter of 1922 to his friend Kandinsky (who had just spent two years organizing Soviet museums for the Bolshevik Government). He told Kandinsky that he had once been a conductor of workers choruses and had been supportive of their aim to extend the franchise but he later realized that he was ‘a bourgeois’ and after that, ‘I took no further part in politics’. Shortly after Schoenberg started his own school of composition. Mahler was of course supportive and used his influence to secure performances of Schoenberg’s music.

Towards The Masses

By 1907 Mahler’s time in Vienna was coming to an end he had succeeded in changing artistic practice at the Vienna state opera, most of the rehearsal methods he used to achieve his ground-breaking performances later became standard throughout the world. But the Viennese ruling class hated him for it and continued their atrocious anti-Semitic attacks. After he was finally forced to resignhis post as director as of the Viennese Opera a leading newspaper published anarticle celebrating the resignation of ‘the Jewish trickster Gustave Mahler’. The new director is then shown in a cartoon as a gardener continuing the racial ‘pruning’ by cutting the heads off the Jewish members of Mahler’s audience. 

But Mahler was not defeated; he fought back by securing work as a conductor in New York and Amsterdam. But his time in Vienna had taken its toll on his health, as had the loss of one of his daughters to scarlet fever. In 1911 He collapsed while conducting in New York and after returning to Europe he died in May of that year in Vienna.

He left behind the Song of The Earth and two new Symphonies the 9th and the 10th all three of these works became part of the standard concert repertoire. The Song of the Earth, based on Chinese poetry it is his farewell but ends with a wholly positive outlook on life ‘the horizon shines blue and bright – eternally, eternally’the soloist sings:

The 9th and the 10th symphonies are both works from a life that knew it was ending and both are stunning achievements:

(Excerpt from the start of the 9th Symphony)

(The beginning of the 10th Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein)

But we never leave Mahler there fighting in his own private purgatory we must approach Mahler like those Berliner’s did in 1941and like the Dreyfusard’swho sought out Mahler’s and his music. They did so because they saw him as a hero of the resistance to anti-Semitic bigotry. 


In the course of preparing this article the text of Theodor Wisengrund’s book on Mahler was consulted. Adorno makes a number of ostensibly Marxian observations such as, “Mahler’s humanity is the mass of the disinherited” (p.46). However, when he is confronted by those masses in Mahler and in the form of the music and performers of Mahler’s 8th Symphony he writes:

Like no other composer Mahler is sensitive to the collective shocks. The temptation that arose from this to glorify the collective, that he felt sounding through him as an absolute, was almost overwhelming. That he did not resist is his offence. (Wisengrund, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy p.139)
That Mahler did not resist the collective masses and joined them to change the world is, on the contrary, to his eternal credit.

(The triumphal end to Mahler’s 1st Symphony The Titan conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Vienna)

(Final movement of Mahler's 3rd Symphony used to symbolize the story of man's knowledge and its collective power at the Greek Olympiad 2004)


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