|Gustav Mahler in 1902|
This is the third in a series of biographical posts about Mahler's life when he was composing this symphony. You can read the earlier posts here (which includes video clips of each movement of the complete symphony) and here.
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When Mahler returned to Vienna after that busy summer of 1901, he had finished what would be the first three movements of his new symphony, his Fifth.
Initially, the idea had been it would be a “normal” symphony in four movements without the human voice and, presumably, without a “program” or story behind it.
Mahler had supplied fairly detailed stories for the first three symphonies – either what had inspired the music or what the music meant in terms of a story. He had chosen texts for vocal soloists or chorus that implied a layer of meaning as well and had even incorporated songs he had written even if he, here, omitted the voice and text (for instance the song about St. Anthony’s sermon to the fishes for the scherzo of his 2nd Symphony).
In his 3rd Symphony, which underwent frequent changes from the initial sketches to its final format when he completed it in 1896, he had supplied numerous possibilities, given each movement descriptive subtitles and then removed them. Having dinner with friends in October 1900, he declared “Down with programmes which are always misinterpreted!” Yet in December 1901 he sent the orchestra in Dresden a detailed program for a performance of his 2nd Symphony (the “Resurrection,” which incidentally has nothing to do with Easter) merely as a means to help the audience contend with something new and challenging as well as unusually long.
Given that his 4th Symphony grew directly out of his 3rd – the 4th’s last movement was originally intended for the 3rd – and the text of the last movement implies a story (observing a heavenly banquet with child-like awe) where music would be quoted in the purely orchestral first movement questioning the implications of tying them together in some way (in what way, though?) – Mahler never gave us any kind of program or descriptive titles for his Symphony No. 4. Though he had told his friend and musical confidant Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the 4th was like the “uniform blue of the sky… [b]ut sometimes the atmosphere darkens and grows strangely terrifying… just as on a brilliant day in the sun-dappled forest one is overcome by a panic terror.” There is a “gaiety coming from another sphere… terrifying for adults: only a child can understand and explain it, and a child does explain it in the end: a child who, if only at the chrysalis stage, already belongs to this superior world.”
There were, apparently, beautiful titles for each of the 4th Symphony’s movements as there had been for the 3rd (with its “What the flowers tell me” and “What love tells me” movements) but, in August 1900, he tells Natalie he decided not to disclose them (even to her) “so as to avoid giving rise to further absurd misunderstandings.”
Mahler had conceived the 4th originally as a suite of songs (vocal or not), six movements in all, and the whole would be called “Symphony No. 4 (Humoresque).” The ultimate scherzo for the 4th – with its image of fiddling Death (and what’s that about, people would ask) – didn’t exist in that initial version but the D Major scherzo that did, in the best waste-not/want-not manner many composers (even Beethoven) would not think twice about, found its way into the 5th, where it became the germ of his third movement. Whatever programmatic implications it might have had there were no doubt officially shed. Certainly the 5th’s scherzo continues the kind of joie de vivre that marks so much of the 4th Symphony.
By the time he’d begun the 5th in the summer of 1901, months after his near-fatal hemorrhage – though it opened with its Funeral March and subsequent emotional storm, he completed the Scherzo first – Mahler was quite reticent about the “meaning” behind the music beyond what he’d already told Natalie about the scherzo – the man in “the full light of day who had reached the climax of his life.” More often, he talked about its contrapuntal complexity – he became obsessed with polyphony after studying Bach, especially the motets, and was now criticizing Tchaikovsky, for instance, for not using it in his symphonies.
(When, in April 1901, a friend praised the “orchestral palette” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Mahler dismissed this as “humbug, sand in the eyes,” how all those rising and falling arpeggios and scales, “those meaningless sequence of chords,” were like having a colored dot which, when you “swing it round an axis, it looks like a shimmering circle. But when it comes to rest again, it’s still the same old dot and even the cat won’t play with it.” Ironically, after Mahler become conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1909, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be the work he would conduct the most. I can almost hear Sigmund Freud saying, "so, how does that make you feel, Herr Maestro?")
|Mahler working on scores|
It was his first premiere since the 2nd was first heard in 1895.
The 3rd, which he’d completed in 1896, had yet to be performed: its difficulties were too considerable for it to be taken lightly and he found no opportunities to schedule its premiere. That, too, would take up some of his busy schedule at the Opera: the premiere of the 3rd would finally take place in June of 1902, just before he would return to Meiernigg and his little Composing Hut to resume work on the so-far incomplete 5th.
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While the end of his friendship with Natalie Bauer-Lechner – to whose journals we owe so much for details about Mahler’s life and his compositional process – happened suddenly after the end of that summer holiday in 1901 (see the end of Part II of this series of posts), Mahler had already had in mind his need to get married and have children, a confession that no doubt prompted Natalie to make her ill-fated advance.
|Alma Schindler at 19|
When she and Mahler first met, Alma was still in love with her composition teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky – a composer Mahler already had mixed feelings about professionally as it was – and with whom, she confided to her diary, she planned on living with and bearing his children. She also found herself the object of other would-be suitors during these months: in one week, she had received two proposals of marriage from men who didn’t interest her in the least.
|Alma at 16|
“I would accept!” she replied at once.
There were times of separation during this courtship and a vast amount of letters passed between them as Mahler went to Munich to conduct the premiere of the 4th and later for another performance in Berlin.
|Alma at 20|
Alma writes in her diary that “Zemlinsky …is a wonderfully gifted fellow. But Gustav is so poor, so frightfully poor. If only he knew how poor he is, he would hide his face in shame. And I’ll always have to lie… to lie constantly throughout my life – with him, that’s just possible – but with Justi [Mahler’s sister], that female! I have the feeling she’s checking up on me the whole time… But I must be free, completely free.”
Mahler, she realized, was a man of genius, ardent and over-flowing with love, but an authoritarian (not just as a conductor), very demanding but a prisoner of himself and his ideals. Alma was described as a “coquette” by some friends, with a “capricious temperament,” conceited and flighty, frivolous but attractive, witty, spontaneous – and, importantly for a composer like Mahler, musical.
|Zemlinsky in 1898|
While Mahler was in Berlin conducting his new 4th Symphony, Alma wrote to Zemlinsky to break off their relationship, not without protest on her former teacher’s part. In her diary, she wrote, “a beautiful feeling was buried that day,” after Zemlinsky visited her, begging her to reconsider. “Gustav,” she continued, “you’ll have to do a lot to make up for it.”
Her mother was determined to convince Alma to break up with Mahler, but given Alma’s complete dislike of her mother (her father’s death had devastated her and she only grew colder toward her disapproving mother) this only strengthened her resolve.
When Mahler returned from Berlin and Dresden, writing immensely long letters about his love and happiness, he came to visit the family and, on December 23rd, he asked for Alma’s hand in marriage.
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By the time the New Year began – and with it, the rehearsals for the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of the 4th Symphony – Alma was constantly at his side. The inevitable scrutiny from a curious (and often hostile) public annoyed her. Glances and waves to old friends in the audiences were reported to Mahler as evidence of her flirting behind his back.
Mahler had described his symphony with its old-fashioned and child-like themes as a “primitive painting on a gold background” (while Gustav Klimt had used gold backgrounds in a couple of his paintings before 1900, his official “Golden Phase” with its famous painting, The Kiss, didn’t begin until 1907). But she admitted to being baffled by its naivety and archaic details which she considered more ‘childish’ than ‘child-like.’
Rehearsals with the Philharmonic were going badly. It was the first time Mahler conducted them as the Philharmonic since his well-received resignation the previous year, but it was the same orchestra he conducted regularly at the opera: personnel decisions he had made there rankled the Philharmonic, where he didn’t have the director’s authority – he was a guest conductor, and they treated him with hostility.
And Alma was there to help calm him down.
Though the crowd cheered as Mahler returned to the podium he had long been absent from, his new symphony was meet with occasional boos between movements and cries of “Shame!” at the end. Bruno Walter, his newly-arrived young assistant, shouted back at two men sitting near him who disapproved of “this horrible, unmusical music” that “Mahler and his immortal work will still be alive long after you are dead and buried.”
The 1st Symphony was scheduled for a performance a week later but Mahler decided to schedule the 4th again instead, along with his earlier work, Das klagende Lied. The soprano soloist in the latter was Mahler’s ex-mistress, Anna von Mildenburg, which, given the attention Alma was receiving in the audience, must have been fraught with melodramatic potential!
Mahler also received a letter from Richard Strauss with whom he had an on-again/off-again friendship, congratulating him (ironically) on the “St. Vitus Dance” the Berlin critics pulled in their attacks on his 4th Symphony, there, as he prepared to be in Vienna for the local premiere of his own latest opera.
“Congratulations, and also from my wife, on your engagement: anyway it will put you in your best mood for [my] rehearsals so I can congratulate myself as well. Although I do not yet know her, best wishes to the lovely bride, and all the best to you, Your ever faithful Richard Strauss.”
Initially postponed from February because Justi wanted it to coincide with her own wedding to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Arnold Rosé, Gustav and Alma’s wedding was eventually held on March 9th – having been scheduled for the 8th, it was discovered the wrong date had been engraved on the ring, so it was moved back a day.
These delays no doubt caused concern on the happy couple if for no other reason than Alma was already pregnant and dealing with frequent bouts of sickness.
The ceremony was, in keeping with Mahler’s celebrity status, to be a “private” affair but word had leaked out and the church was packed with mostly curious women. When it was announced the wedding had taken place earlier in a side chapel, the crowd left. Then Alma arrived by cab and Mahler, dressed in a gray suit, walked in the rain to arrive a little later. Misjudging the position of the prie-dieu, Mahler fell to his knees. “Because he was so short, he had to stand up again before he could kneel down properly, much to the sympathetic amusement of the officiating priest.”
The wedding meal with the two families was calm with long periods of silence. Then Gustav and Alma got on a train for St. Petersburg, Russia, for their honeymoon. The next day, Mahler’s sister and Rosé were married.
In Petersburg, the happy couple visited the Hermitage Museum and hoped to attend the opera, but it was closed for Lent. They took a sleigh-ride on the frozen River Neva during which they both caught cold.
It was not, however, simply a honeymoon. It had been added to a pre-arranged concert tour: he led three concerts there (none of his music had been programed) and Alma watched the first from backstage, noticing the intensity of her husband’s face which she thought “divinely beautiful.” The final concert was to include Bruckner’s 4th but when told that Bruckner did not go over well with Russian audiences, he substituted Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony instead – played with 102 musicians on stage!
As soon as the concert was over, the Mahlers were on the train back to Vienna, tired of Russia, its weather and its food, but with enough money in his pocket to help with his outstanding debts. But it did not erase them – there was still the expense of having built his summer home in Meiernigg – and so Alma had to set up house on a thrifty budget.
Their apartment was small so when Mahler’s meddlesome neighbor moved out (the one who hated Mahler’s music and always ordered his servant to play the gramophone quite loudly whenever he’d hear Mahler begin to work at the piano), he took over these rooms as well.
Then came performances of Wagner operas, the famous (or infamous) Beethoven Exhibit by the group of artists known as The Secession (Alma’s step-father was a member, as were Klimt and the sculptor Max Klinger whose statue of Beethoven caused such a controversy though today the name is more likely to be confused with a character from the TV series “M*A*S*H”) with Mahler conducting Beethoven’s 9th at its opening – and, in June, the long-delayed premiere of his 3rd Symphony.
(You can read more about the premiere of the 3rd Symphony in an earlier post, here.)
Considering the complexity of the 3rd compared to the simplicity of the 4th which was so universally criticized, the 3rd proved to be a triumph. In fact, the publishing firm Peters was so interested in this symphony, they signed a generous contract with him for his next symphony with far more favorable terms than any Mahler had previously received.
After a couple weeks of business at the Opera, Mahler and his wife took off for “Villa Mahler.” Inspired by this most recent triumph – not to mention his new bride and the impending child already on its way – Mahler looked forward to concentrating all his creative energy on completing his 5th Symphony.
They soon settled into a routine: Mahler would get up at 6, have breakfast (café au lait, diet bread with butter and jam) which he would eat in his Composing Hut. It was Alma’s job to see that no sound disturbed him at the hut – she even had to stop playing the piano in the house because he could hear it from his hide-out in the nearby woods. She promised opera tickets to their neighbors to entice them to lock up their dogs during the morning hours.
|the piano in Mahler's Composing Hut|
|Interior Shot of Mahler's Composing Hut, now a museum|
The hut contained a piano, a large work-table, two or three other pieces of furniture and a few books – a complete edition of Goethe, for one. The only musical scores there were by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Around midday, Mahler would finish his work, go down to the lake for a swim. Alma would join him, sitting beside him while he sunbathed before taking another dip to cool off (Alma considered this a barbaric custom). He preferred taking walks to napping and walks quickly exhausted Alma who was now five months pregnant. Sometimes, he would stop, jot something down in a notebook, Alma hoping to find a tree-trunk she could sit on so as not to distract him if she became tired.
Despite the tourists from Pörtschach across the lake – a favorite summer resort for Brahms who wrote his 2nd Symphony there – Mahler found it a “splendid isolation,” as if, Alma wrote in her diary, “we were protected by a glass dome.”
It’s interesting, knowing this, to listen to the absolute serenity of the famous Adagietto of his 5th Symphony, which he was writing at this time.
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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Adagietto:
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|Mahler's original MS of Adagietto|
|End of the Adagietto & Start of the Finale|
|Alma Mahler in 1902|
The next day, they had a “bitter discussion” and she told him “everything. And he – with infinite kindness – pondered over how he could help me! And I do understand… he can’t just now! He lives entirely for his composing. I will use this summer to improve myself in every way. I will try to learn… to fulfill, to realize myself! Gustav was happy yesterday – because of the peace of mind I’ve given him.”
But the next day, while he was “wrapped up in his happiness,” she writes she couldn’t share it and “burst into tears again.”
|Anna von Mildenburg, soprano|
One time, while Mahler was working, Mildenburg entertained Alma with several stories from Mahler’s past which, of course, implied there was an intimacy there for who but an intimate would know such things? When she told Mahler about this, he was intent on banning Mildenburg from the house, but Alma suggested a more diplomatic course.
At the next visit, perhaps over dinner, he steered the topic toward Wagner and she ended up singing the final scene from Siegfried with Mahler at the piano – and better, apparently, than she’d ever done on stage. The sound of her voice carried across the lake and by the end, there was applause from the crowd that had gathered in their boats along the shore.
But in the end, Mildenburg gave up trying to win Mahler back – or at least trying to affect his marriage. Later, Alma admitted that she “never stopped being afraid of her and her intrigues.”
It was around this time that Mahler wrote a song especially for her, well aware of the conflict going on in his young wife’s heart. Mahler slipped the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty’s sake”) – another poem by Rückert – into her score of Wagner’s Siegfried which she always had by the piano and often played from, but for about a week it lay there undiscovered. So on August 10th, he finally handed the score to her and, when she opened it, the manuscript fell to the floor.
With its last line – “Love me always, I’ll love you always and forever” – she played through it several times that day. “I almost wept. The tenderness of such a man!” she wrote in her diary, “and my lack of sensibility! I often realize how little I am and possess – compared to his infinite riches!”
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Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Daniel Barenboim: Liebst Du um Schönheit:
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In her memoirs, Alma would recall this story differently: then, she placed the event in the following summer. There are other statements that confuse the issue of when the Adagietto was written: some assume it must have been written the previous summer since it bears a strong resemblance to that summer’s song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost in the world”) but which has an entirely different mood (one could say, “meaning”); another statement she makes indicates it might have been written shortly after they met, sometime between November and Christmas, but with everything Mahler was busy with at the time – and he never wrote during the opera season at any other time – it seems unlikely no mention of it would have survived in their voluminous correspondence during those weeks prior to their engagement.
The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg says he had heard a story “several times” from both Mahler and Alma, how he had finished the Adagietto at Meiernigg their first summer together and sent it to her up at the house with a message about it being a love-token, but there is no mention of this in any of Alma’s diaries, either. While she kept the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” framed on her wall in her New York City apartment toward the end of her long life (she died there in 1964), there was never any sign that the original manuscript of the Adagietto was ever one of her “trophies.”
Two weeks later – on August 23rd, 1902 – Mahler writes to a friend, “At last I have finished! The Fifth is with us!” He mentioned that he was feeling very “fit” despite the prolonged exertion – writing the last two movements of the symphony in two months’ time – and was now facing Vienna again: “Now back into the harness!”
Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Finale of Mahler's 5th:
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When Mahler had finished the work, he took Alma "almost solemnly" up to the hut to play through it for her. She seemed to like it better than she did the 4th until they got to the big Chorale theme in the finale (at 12:17 in the above clip) which, to her mind, was "too ecclesiastical and boring." She got the conflict between Mahler's Jewish roots and his "strong attraction to Catholic mysticism" (he was more of a pantheist than anything, anyway) but still felt her husband's statement that Bruckner had used chorales in his symphonies also was moot: he was very different from the older composer.
On August 27th, Mahler returned to Vienna with the draft score of the 5th Symphony under his arm. All that remained to do, now, was copy the score (a “clean score” to be sent to the publisher). This was winter’s work.
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There was another life-changing event yet to come: Alma had been pregnant during the summer and she was easily tired out by Mahler’s love of walking. The fact this exertion might have complicated her pregnancy was kept from Mahler who, worried about the imminent birth, tended to go walking even more. (Remember his own family history and how his parents had lost seven of their fourteen children, five of them by or before their 1st birthday, all within a span of 22 years.)
Maria Anna (named after both Gustav’s and Alma’s mothers but referred to as “Putzi”) was born on November 3rd, 1902, in their apartment in Vienna. It was a “breech birth” (the result, the doctor theorized, of Alma’s walking too much over mountain paths and through city parks) and a difficult one. And it seems, judging from her diary, Alma’s “maternal instincts seemed dormant,” with no satisfaction in her new-found duties, comparing herself to a bird whose wings have been clipped, “this splendid bird so happy in flight” and now “there are so many heavy ducks and geese who cannot fly at all!”
A few weeks later, the baby became seriously ill and Mahler carried her around the apartment, cooing endearments in her ear as if that alone would help cure her. Alma, meanwhile, complained “how hard it is to be deprived so mercilessly of everything, to be mocked about things closest to one’s heart. Gustav lives his life. My child has no need of me. I cannot occupy myself only with her! Now I’m learning Greek. But my God, what has become of my goal, my magnificent goal! My bitterness is intense.”
The following month, reacting to the sight of a happy Mahler dancing like a young man around Mildenburg at the opera rehearsals, she writes, “He disgusts me so much, I dread his coming home… If only he never came home again. Not to live with him any more…. The thought of him nauseates me…”
But this is a story for another time – especially considering the symphony he would begin next summer, his 6th, which contained a theme he told Alma represented her. He had come down from the hut full of this lyrical theme in the first movement, a theme that was full of his love for her.
But what to make of the rest of the symphony, with its three “Hammerblows of Fate,” the third of which “fells the hero,” the one he kept taking out and putting back in? At times, he called this symphony the “Tragic” Symphony – a dark contrast to the 5th even despite its having begun with a funeral march.
The 5th Symphony was premiered after Mahler had already begun the 6th – what was it like for the composer to face the remembrances of the one summer with the music he was writing now?
As for Natalie Bauer-Lechner, she never mentioned Mahler in her journals again and, in fact, ended up a sad case, dying in poverty in 1921, almost exactly ten years after Mahler. From her journals, her nephew published a condensed volume called Mahleriana in 1923. The original copies, several bound copybooks, passed through many hands over the years before ending up in a Mahler library in Paris, and several pages are missing.
If nothing else, Natalie recorded Mahler’s thoughts about what he was writing and what engaged his mind when he was writing it, even down to the details, for instance, how a laxative had not only helped his constipation but had unblocked his creativity so he could suddenly compose a song in one afternoon.
With Natalie gone, our insights into Mahler’s creativity have been replaced by Alma’s observation of her own situation, as if (at least during these first months of marriage) her husband didn’t confide in her about the music that was so central to his life or that she chose not to record it.
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There can be much more I could tell you about Mahler’s symphony from a technical standpoint – why it’s probably not accurate to refer to it as a “Symphony in C-sharp Minor” because, while it begins in that key, it spends very little time in that key (D Major is the main tonality of the Scherzo and the finale) and how Mahler used what we call a “progressive tonality,” moving from its starting tonality to its final one through some inner logic of its own – or even from a “program notes” standpoint – that it is divided into three parts, the first two movements before the central Scherzo, the last two movements afterward, like a vast arch – but the purpose of these essays was primarily to give the reader (and hopefully, the listener) some idea of Mahler’s life at the time he composed this work.
There’s always an argument how valuable this awareness might be. We can certainly enjoy the music without needing to know about Mahler’s hemorrhoids (which was, unfortunately, an on-going health issue) or what he had for breakfast while he was writing, but I think it’s interesting (if not important) to realize that, first of all, the composers who write these masterpieces we are in awe of, were not marble busts operating in a reality vacuum but had to contend with balancing their creativity against the intrusions of a complex world which, in turn, makes them more complex as people.
True, Beethoven, writing the tragic Heiligenstadt Testament at the time he was near suicidal about his impending deafness, was composing the boisterous finale of his 2nd Symphony that same month. But Mahler (and indeed most other composers) were not Beethoven: everyone, like the rest of us more normal people, are affected by what happens to us in different ways.
If this reality affected the life of Mahler the Man, why couldn’t it affect the creativity of Mahler the musician?
Of course, planning out the details of a work as vast as an hour-long symphony doesn’t mean the ups and downs of reality affected the daily work. No doubt a symphony starting with a funeral march and ending in triumphant celebration could be a general plan and had certainly been done before (Beethoven’s Fifth, the obvious inspiration: even the persistent rhythm of the opening trumpet call, which then permeates the first two movements, brings to mind Beethoven's Fate Knocks at the Door motive) – and no doubt such a plan might have been subtly tweaked along the way without straying from whatever initial idea he may have had. After all, the trumpet call that opens the symphony is a quotation from a list of signals and drumbeats used by the Austrian Army when Mahler was a child, growing up in a Bohemian town not far from the local barracks; the often startling contrasts of sad with vulgar music presumably stems from an often quoted and much dismissed incident in his youth when he apparently ran out of the house while his parents were fighting and heard the music of either a military band or a dance band playing something in a popular vein (it’s a story he told, but one wonders if it’s an actual incident or a fabrication of memory).
So, there you have the incidents of a life at a time a particular work is composed. Draw your own conclusions.
- Dick Strawser
Gustav Mahler died in 1911, four years after their daughter "Putzi" died. Another daughter, Anna, would grow up to become a famous sculptor. Alma Mahler would go on to marry the architect Walter Gropius (their daughter Manon, who died of polio at the age of 18, inspired Alban Berg's Violin Concerto) and then the novelist Franz Werfel. In 1946, Alma became an American citizen and died in 1964. This photograph (above) from Life Magazine was taken of her (I believe in 1960) listening to a New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler symphony.
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Most of the material and all the quotes included in these posts are from Henri-Louis de La Grange’s biography, Gustav Mahler, particularly Volume 2, “Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904), Oxford University Press, 1995 edition. You would need to consult this to reference the accounts of Natalie Bauer-Lechner and Alma Mahler, or Mahler’s own letters to his other correspondents.
For this post, I've chosen the Bernstein videos with the Vienna Philharmonic mostly out of respect for Bernstein who almost single-handedly brought Mahler's symphonies to American audiences.