Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Journey with Mahler (Part 2): Mahler Begins to Compose His 5th Symphony

This is a continuation of an earlier post about Mahler's 5th Symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, will perform on their program "Symphonic Splendor" this weekend, along with Respighi's Pines of Rome. Concerts are at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk by Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge an hour before each performance. Student tickets are also available. 

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At the end of the opera season in June, 1901, Gustav Mahler – no longer conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic but still director and chief conductor of the Court Opera in the Imperial capital – was able to leave the busy schedule and the constant in-fighting (not just office politics but dealing with opera singers’ egos) and head out to his new dream-home, built with the money he was finally making as a busy conductor, both in Vienna and across Europe.

Today, we think of Mahler as a famous composer but in his day he was a famous (if not always respected) conductor and as a result, the schedule of overseeing the business of running the opera house, planning its new productions, handling singers’ schedules not to mention dealing with an imperial bureaucracy that would put Washington to shame as well as conducting many of the performances – and don’t forget the occasional guest conducting opportunities outside Vienna – left him very little time for composing.

He became, in self-defense, a “summer composer.” This was not uncommon: even Brahms, who had no such professional demands on his time, found himself only ever able to compose during the summers, spending time in Vienna with all its distractions working on final drafts and orchestrations or proofing manuscripts and printer’s galleys.

Then when summer arrived, like Brahms, Mahler would take off for some place in the Austrian mountains – occasionally Northern Italy – where he would find the solitude to work on new compositions. And like Brahms, he would rent rooms or houses where he could (hopefully) enjoy the peace and quiet around him – walks in nature or pleasant places to hang out without being himself a tourist attraction. He might have favorite places to go until something happened or he simply sought new locations. Some were more successful than others.

View of Meiernigg on theWörthersee 
Unlike Brahms, Mahler eventually decided to buy a property – this one on a lake near the Carinthian town of Meiernigg – where he built a house which friends would later call “Villa Mahler.” This lake – the Wörthersee, a rather sizeable one for land-locked Austria – had a climate that made it the equivalent of a Mediterranean vacation destination and in the summer of 1899 he, his sister Justine (whom everybody called Justi) and his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner toured the place looking for a place to stay when Mahler found a rocky promontory overlooking the lake where he thought he could build a house.

Mahler's Composing Hut
First, however, the architect agreed to build a small house – a composing hut – for the composer, a place off in the woods not far from where the house was to be built: the hut would be ready for the following summer. That summer, he rented a villa that was a 20-minute walk from his hut where he “savored peace, security and Dionysic wonder, keeping the windows open to breathe the pure forest air” rather than, as usual, keeping them closed against noise (as he had to do in Vienna and several other summer properties he’d rented).

It was here, that summer, that he completed his Symphony No. 4.

Mahler's Summer House in Meiernigg
June 1901 would be his first arrival there as a property-owner. The house had been finished – an old-fashioned cross between a lakeside villa and mountain chalet with three floors and a basement that opened onto the lake-shore – with a steep foot-path that linked the main house to the all-important composing shed where Mahler would spend several hours a day.

To the Composing Hut
But Mahler, despite having given up his duties at the Philharmonic following his near-death experience in February (see previous post), could not concentrate on composing – at least, not at first. He set about studying scores, primarily the polyphonic motets by Bach and songs by Schumann. In the course of the summer, he would write several songs for voice with orchestra: several poems by Rückert – he composed, appropriately, “Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft” (“I breathe a sweet scent”) in the first days after his arrival – and one from the collection of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). The fact he could not get a “larger project” underway bothered him.

So he decided he would just put aside two weeks and rest. Naturally, he immediately began jotting down new ideas. Even when he went for walks, he would take small notebooks with him to scribble down a few pitches here and there that would generate a theme. But for a while, he told no one what he was working on. It’s possible he might not be sure what it was himself, at least to begin: he was always reluctant to play through anything for his friends that he was still composing until the first draft was finished.

It was on August 5th he told Natalie about the symphonic scherzo he was working on, how it was giving him so much trouble; how it was so contrapuntal with all these different lines that would require soloists to be able to play them well; how he had composed nothing like it before; how nothing would be repeated (a major feature of most symphonic music with themes and restatements, their development and recapitulations) and how everything “had to develop from within.”

He told her that it had “unparalleled power [like] that of a man in the full light of day who has reached the climax of his life.” More importantly, everything would be “expressed in terms of pure music. It will be a proper symphony in four movements, each of them independent, complete in itself, and linked to the others solely by affinity of mood.”

Five days later, he invited Natalie to the Composing Hut and played for her this collection of songs he had been working on (one more would be finished the next day, the famous “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I have become lost in the world”) usually collected in a set of Rückert-Lieder that includes “Um Mitternacht,” also composed that same summer. Before he left for Vienna, he gave her the songs’ original manuscripts.

Whatever he had planned – he also said it would contain “no harp or English horn” nor a human voice as his last two symphonies had – it was not yet finalized: though lacking voices, it did include both harp and English horn; and while it may originally have been four movements, at some point he decided to break the first movement into two – the opening Funeral March followed by an allegro marked “strürmisch bewegt” (highly agitated) and “mit grosser Vehemenz” (with great vehemence).

But this life-affirming scherzo is the first music he began composing – or, whether he’d sketched anything beyond an idea of the opening movement, at least the first movement he completed – for his new 5th Symphony.

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Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at the London Proms:

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The summer was not without its occasional interruptions: tourists gliding past on their boats (Mahler himself owned two boats) might either shout at him how they hated his music (“what has he ever done to you,” one shouted at the friend who then responded, “he wrote a terrible symphony and then another one!”); or glimpsing him on his balcony, cheering him with bravos. Characteristically, he found both of these distasteful and rushed inside to avoid acknowledging either.

One night, after a long walk and a late-night conversation on the balcony with Natalie, Mahler was disturbed by the sound of a man falling in the water. Rushing barefoot down the steps, Mahler was able to reach the man in time and drag him to shore, though the man, clearly drunk, was so frantic he nearly drowned Mahler along with him! Cries for help brought others and eventually the man was rescued and given blankets and dry clothes before he left without ever giving them his name.

Otherwise, it was an idyllic time – serene was the way he described it – and very productive despite its slow start. In all, he composed eight songs (with orchestral accompaniment) and what became three movements of his new symphony.

Yet, despite the mood of the scherzo, everything else was “funereal,” meditations on death and dying or on saying farewell to the world. Three of the songs later became part of the cycle known under the gruesome title Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”).

He had expressed to Natalie – perhaps on the night of the near-drowning man – his desire to have children of his own, that he was tired of being lonely and that having children would be his way of “staking claim to immortality.” In writing these songs, it is important to realize Mahler was not yet married nor had any children of his own, but he had lost several brothers and sisters and so, while composing them, he imagined his father grieving for the death of so many of his own children – by 1895, Mahler had lost 10 of his 13 brothers and sisters, 8 of them while they were still children.

Mahler’s “entourage,” such as it was, consisted of his sister Justi and occasionally her fiancé, the violinist Arnold Rosé (they would be married the following summer – incidentally, another sister, Emma, had married Arnold’s younger brother, the cellist Eduard Rosé); and their friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner who was a violinist and a member of an all-female string quartet (quite rare in those days). She accompanied Mahler on many of these summer excursions and though some people did not care for her or her morals – particularly one friend of Mahler’s whose husband had been an ex-lover of Natalie’s – she was that rare intellectual, musically knowledgeable friend that Mahler could confide in, musically.

Regardless of what the future would bring, her journals (some published; others, not) became important sources for future biographers of Mahler, especially concerning his creative insights into the works he composed during the summer she spent in his proximity.

It is also important to realize – our modern morality aside – that she and Mahler were never lovers. Mahler had his affairs and one of them was an unfortunately convoluted relationship with one of his opera singers, Anna von Mildenburg, which he had tried to break off several times (a native of the region, she had helped him locate the land where he built his villa, but she was not a guest at the house).

Natalie Bauer-Lechner
Natalie, by her own account, only ever loved two men in her life – the poet Siegfried Lipiner (who, a friend of Mahler’s, had written the poem that formed the initial basis of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and who, incidentally, was now having an affair with Mildenburg himself) and Gustav Mahler who, at least romantically, seemed totally unaware of Natalie’s feelings, despite some of the confidences he made to her, especially the one about wanting to get married and have children.

At any rate, the summer came to an end and on August 26th Mahler packed up and left for Vienna, Justi and Natalie staying behind to close up the villa.

Mahler had just written to Henrietta Mankiewicz, a mutual friend of his and Natalie’s, “What a good thing it is for mothers that they do not have to interrupt the process of giving birth – for the babies, too, perhaps.” His new symphony would have to wait until the following summer to be completed.

Meanwhile, Natalie arranged for someone to send her a telegram from Vienna urging her to return quickly, leaving Justi behind. Instead, she went to Mahler, apparently begged him to marry her and even tried to embrace him but he repulsed her, saying “I cannot love you, I can only love a beautiful woman.” “But I am beautiful,” she insisted, “ask Henriette Mankiewicz!”

The details of this sad and clearly uncomfortable confrontation, so soon after this serene summer, may not be totally reliable, Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange adds, because it was included years later in the memoirs of a woman who would later have a vested interest in the life of Gustav Mahler.

After returning to the politics-as-usual of the Vienna Opera – he described it as a “quagmire… becoming completely alien to me” – Mahler, who was now 41, attended a dinner on November 7th at a friend’s along with other luminaries in Vienna’s art world (the painter Gustav Klimt, for one), where he sat across from a young woman who was 22 and whose intelligence and no-nonsense personality attracted him immediately.

By Christmas, he and Alma Schindler were engaged and they set their wedding for mid-February, almost a year to the day of his near-fatal hemorrhage.

The next summer, Mr. & Mrs. Mahler would return to Meiernigg and Villa Mahler where the composer would complete the remaining movements of his Symphony No. 5.

To be continued

Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Mr. Strawser,

    I just wanted to thank you for writing on music, and continuing your sharing on the web. I "found" or "sourced" or "searched" your site via Mahler, as I was wondering what he said, if anything, about how the artist both draws on him/herself for inspiration, but adapts/uses it for a worldview or human creative act or creation of art. I was moved to this as I was amazed how, to this day, people still flame the messenger for making comparisons in artistic works by personal asides, aspersions and assumptions. Doesn't the common person get it, that a creative artist of any kind is both a medium and a personal message (to twist the McLuhan pechant for punning swords of meaning)...

    Anyway, THANK YOU for the thoughts on Mahler. I will joyous look at your blog and read and relish. Right now, it's time for the Classical Conumdrum on WCPE, in my neck of the woods, which still means for me, that I must go to work. I'm 68 and still working... a real job. Soon to retire, I'll start my own employment of doing art, enjoying music of all kinds, and surfing the web for fine minds and writings such as yours.

    Also, the best book (4 volumes) is way beyond my financial investment. What's the best "under $25 book on Mahler, or a good one cheap you're recommend. Mahler's such an interesting and powerful 20th century composer.
    Enjoy the following with Links to Mahler's retreats. That's what I wanted to share with you today, other than hoping you keep writing and blogging, and I'm a new "follower"... as they so sadly say now in social media. What the world does not need at this point is more followers.

    Dennis Hermanson
    Hillsborough, NC USA


    I wrote to Charlie Huenemann a couple of months ago
    I think you’d be interested in a lecture on one of the finest huts for creative development, or the series of them, taken very seriously by the most swirling of the great composers, Gustave Mahler. His final years were as empassioned, riptidal, and ultimately overwhelming as his symphonies became, and still become. No never, becalm. But the places of creation were – calm, enlighted places of both mind and body, spirit and mental flight.


    “Mahler referred to the fact that his huts were damp, (they had no damp-proof course), and probably had a detrimental effect on his health. But they did go a long way to provide the right environment for him and his art. They were his ‘fireplace’- a place of safety, free from the concerns of conducting orchestral music and opera.”

    How many great artists have had their personal spaces. Places. I assume some good scholar has asked, and hopefully compiled, such a study. Ah, on to amazon, let’s find out. The bane of conversation, where someone says, you know, that movie by the Italian where a rich couple are shipwrecked and they change roles… It was a woman director… No, that was a Madonna movie… Lena Wertmuller, Swept Away, IMDB. the woman staring at the iphone says quickly. End of conversation. “Let’s just not know,” seems to be an answer that a hut reponds to.
    “Let me think about it.” Who said, “I want to be alone?” Yes. She was right. Times change, but we need to be alone.

    Huenemann said, on March 27, 2015 at 1:59 pm
    Thanks for that Mahler link – very interesting! I was originally inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut –http://honestarchitecture.blogspot.com/2010/05/george-bernard-shaw-and-marvelous.html