The Maestro Of His Own Fate

A fine new tribute explains why Mahler matters more than ever

Features Music
On the verge of a breakdown, Gustav Mahler (top) consulted Sigmund Freud (bottom) about his volatile relationship with his wife Alma (middle)

Mahler isn’t everybody’s cup of Kaffee mit Schlagobers. Today, when he beats Beethoven himself at the box office, nobody polarises opinion as much as Mahler. Even Wagner is by comparison an acquired taste, requiring a suspension of disbelief in order not to laugh. Mahler, though, demands all or nothing from the audience as a composer, just as he did from his musicians as a conductor. Some find Mahler excessive, immature, adolescent. Like most things Viennese, his music is full of sensuality and sentimentality, even to the point of vulgarity. The erotic and the neurotic are as inseparable in Mahler as they are in Freud. For some, these leviathans of fin de siècle Vienna (though in fact both were provincials from Bohemia) are as dead as the lost world from which they emerged, that amalgam of Jewish culture and Catholic morality that Hitler hated and eventually destroyed. For me, though, and for countless others, Mahler is still our contemporary. There is simply nothing else quite like Mahler’s attempt to “encompass everything” in symphonic form, to explore the outermost limits of existence, its depths of despair and its sublime heights of rapture.

I was an adolescent when I first heard Mahler. At my grammar school, there were a couple of highbrow teachers who allowed me to listen to records with them in the lunch break. One day, we listened to Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection. Steeped in late Beethoven as I then was, I found Mahler’s emotional exuberance overdone — hysterical, even. Mahler was simply over the top. My attitude softened when I saw Visconti’s film Death in Venice, with its sensational Mahler soundtrack, including extracts from the Third Symphony and culminating in the haunting Adagietto from the Fifth. I started listening to recordings with growing awe. But it was only when I heard Mahler live, at the Proms, a year or two later, that I realised that this would be a lifelong passion. And so it has proved. Every time I hear Mahler, he restores my faith in the power of music to redeem us from the banality and irony he expresses so well. 

In Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World (Faber, £17.99), Norman Lebrecht has written a magnificent centenary tribute, worthy of our leading music critic’s uncanny empathy with his subject. This, his second book on Mahler, is as much about the author’s personal quest as it is about the composer, and it includes an entertainingly idiosyncratic but impressively authoritative discography. 

Lebrecht has overlooked nothing, however trivial, that might serve to illuminate Mahler’s life and legacy. With forensic skill, he deconstructs the composer’s wife Alma’s entertaining but mendacious memoirs, trawls though contemporary newspapers, hacks through the undergrowth of myth. He strikes up friendships with octogenarian refugees who provide a link to Mahler’s world: his surviving daughter Anna, who recounted her fondest memory of her father, sitting on his lap while he corrected the score of his Ninth Symphony; his niece Eleanor Rosé, who recalled Mahler with the photographic memory of a child: “He used to dip his spoon in my dessert, to see if it tasted better than his.” Or the composer Berthold Goldschmidt, who helped to complete the unfinished Tenth Symphony. Goldschmidt’s career was blighted by the Nazis. Exiled to Belsize Park, his compositions ignored by the BBC, he was rediscovered in his nineties by Simon Rattle. “Well, we must show them what a Jew can do,” he tells Lebrecht. “What do you mean by that?” “They killed so many of us. The ones who survive must show that it was worth keeping us alive.”

These keepers of Mahler’s flame crop up throughout Lebrecht’s book. They help him to penetrate deeper than previous biographers, and to answer the questions we really want answered. What was Mahler like? How did he come to make such an unforgettable impression on his contemporaries? Why, after his works were eclipsed during the Nazi era, have they come to exercise an influence on our culture that is at once broad, deep and ubiquitous? Mahler matters not only to his devotees, but to countless others too. It is his music to which we turn when tragedy strikes and public mourning is required, from the assassination of Kennedy to 9/11. It is Mahler who has inspired the best of film music, from Hollywood classics of the 1930s to the Harry Potter movies today. Above all, it is Mahler — as “homeless” in anti-Semitic Austria as he was in philistine America — who helps us to understand the inhospitable, incomprehensible world we inhabit today.

Mahler’s life and death in many ways anticipated our culture. For the press, he was always good copy: sex and celebrity, art and money, he was always the maestro of his own fate. It is a myth that Mahler was neglected in his own lifetime: by the time he died in 1911, aged 50, he was probably the best-known musician in the world. His last European concert, at Munich in September 1910, was an incomparable “cultural convocation”, gathering together the luminaries of Germany, Austria and France to hear the première of his Eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand. This work, conceived on an unprecedented scale and, like all Mahler’s mature works, exploring undiscovered regions of tonality and sonority, is received with rapture; taking tea with the hero, Thomas Mann decides that he has for the first time encountered a “great man” and promptly endows Gustav von Aschenbach, the protagonist of his autobiographical novella Death in Venice, with Mahler’s forename and features. In the film, Visconti went much further: Aschenbach becomes a composer rather than a writer, and the Adagietto, which in reality was Mahler’s “love letter” to Alma, is transformed by Visconti into the accompaniment to the cholera-stricken Aschenbach’s death throes, as his fatal attraction for the youth Tadzio culminates in a Wagnerian Liebestod. By cutting Mann out of his story and making it all about Mahler, Visconti reinforced the latter’s transcendent status as a cultural symbol. No other 20th-century classical composer can compete with rock stars, some of whom (such as Pink Floyd) have absorbed his influence.

 Shortly before his Munich triumph, Mahler had asked Freud for a consultation. What strikes me first about this one and only meeting of two of modernity’s greatest minds is the fact that Freud interrupted his Dutch seaside vacation to rendezvous in Leiden, while Mahler took a 30-hour train journey from Austria to be there. It must have mattered a lot to both men. Why did Mahler, who had never taken much interest in psychoanalysis before, suddenly need to see Freud so urgently? He was desperate: Alma’s latest adultery with the architect Walter Gropius, coming on top of professional frustrations and the heart disease to which he would soon succumb, had driven him to the verge of a mental and physical breakdown. One of the movements of his last, unfinished symphony is headed Purgatorio, and Mahler’s predicament during that last summer was indubitably that of a soul in purgatory. There is no other word for the ménage à trois in which he was living, with his wife and anti-Semitic mother-in-law half-expecting, half-willing Mahler to drop dead at any moment, Gropius waiting in the wings and little Anna still traumatised by guilt — the hysterical, self-absorbed Alma having allowed her surviving daughter to blame herself for the scarlet fever that had killed her elder sister three years before. 

No wonder Mahler needed to talk. And who better to listen than Freud, the inventor of the talking cure? Four hours they spent together, sitting in the Gilded Turk (the nearest thing to a Viennese café they could find) and walking the deserted, dusty streets of Leiden. We can picture Freud striding along, a head taller than the diminutive Mahler, whose stamping gait was so peculiar that his little niece Eleanor mimicked it at his wedding and was sent home in disgrace. Yet both loved long country walks and Freud presumably gave Mahler permission to ignore his doctor’s (dubious) advice to avoid strenuous exercise. Lebrecht takes pains to reconstruct their conversation from various first- and second-hand accounts, some contemporaneous, others decades later. He offers no certainty, but enables us to do more than merely speculate.

 So what did they talk about? Sex (of course), but what precisely was Mahler’s problem? Lebrecht thinks that Mahler had tacitly permitted his wife to sleep with Gropius as the price of saving his marriage. Immediately after the session with Freud, Mahler wired Alma, evidently upbeat: “Feeling cheerful, interesting discussion.” Later, more euphoric: “I am living everything as if new.” En route home, Mahler wrote her a poem, in which he declared: “Night shadows are dispelled by a mighty word.” So Freud’s analysis had done the trick, at least initially. But that is the last we hear from Mahler himself: apart from his wife, he seems not to have confided in others and the only other witness was Freud. Needless to say, Alma got her version into the public domain first. In 1989, her memoirs present Freud as taking her side and scolding Mahler: “How dare a man in your state ask a young woman to be tied to him?” What state does he (according to Alma, the ultimate unreliable narrator) mean? 

Freud gave two conflicting answers to third parties. He told Theodor Reik, a disciple who applied psychoanalysis to creativity, that in their consultation he had failed to penetrate the “symptomatic façade” of Mahler’s “obsessional neurosis”. “The visit appeared necessary because his wife at the time rebelled against the fact that he withdrew his libido from her.” Lebrecht interprets this to mean that Mahler had stopped having sex with Alma for fear that the exertion would be too much for his weak heart. If Reik’s version of the Freud-Mahler encounter is correct, Alma justified her adultery on the grounds of her husband’s endocarditis.

Another version, however, emerged later. Princess Marie Bonaparte of Greece and Denmark was one of the more glamorous occupants of Freud’s couch. He gave her a detailed and (as Lebrecht puts it) “lubricious” account of his consultation with Mahler, in which the need to impress her evidently took precedence over patient confidentiality. Fortunately, the princess took notes. According to these, Freud relates that Mahler’s problem with Alma was impotence. Mahler apparently had “an enormous mother-fixation” but also an insight into why “my music has sudden changes from the most noble to an ordinary banal melody”: it all has to do with an incident in his childhood. While Mahler’s parents were quarrelling, the distressed Gustav heard an organ-grinder playing the old plague-song “Ach, du lieber Augustin”, ending in the phrase “alles ist hin” (“everything is doomed”). Freud concludes that their “analytic talk” actually cured the patient: “Mahler recovered his potency and the marriage was a happy one until his death…”

Lebrecht doesn’t buy this “happily ever after” ending, and neither do I. While Mahler is responding to Freud’s “mighty word” with gushing love poetry, Alma is writing to her lover, Gropius: “There is not one spot on your body that I would not like to caress with my tongue.” She proceeds to cuckold her husband at the very moment of his last triumph in Munich, inviting scandal by brazenly sneaking off for assignations with Gropius in full view of everybody. Long after her death, her daughter Anna asks Lebrecht: “How could she do that to Mahler”

Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s ribald song Alma got it right about the Mahlers: “Their marriage, however, was murder./He’d scream to the heavens above,/‘I’m writing Das Lied von der Erde,/And she only wants to make love!'”

Yet Mahler could never let Alma go — even posthumously. Although she had two more husbands, including Gropius, she spent half a century of merry widowhood living for (and from) Mahler’s musical legacy. Alma was a monster. Whenever there was a crisis, the lady vanished. She even missed Mahler’s funeral “on doctor’s orders”. Alma lived to 85.

“Not every civilised person is susceptible to Mahler,” writes Lebrecht. And, one might add, not all of those who have been susceptible to Mahler are civilised.