18 May 2011: Remembering Gustav Mahler
on the 100th Anniversary of his death
(for SCW: O ewigen Liebens – Lebens – trunk’ne Welt!)
“The world has lost its greatest artist. Gustav Mahler is dead.”
(Die Musik, May 1911)
“An artist is like an archer in the night. He shoots his arrows into the darkness not knowing if they will hit anything, but they do hit the mark.” Mahler himself said to Ernst Decsey, quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s Mahler Remembered (Norton, 1988).
Decsey’s memoir of Mahler is “one of the most candid and least known portraits” we have, according to Lebrecht. Observations like the following prove that point:
A fire glowed constantly within him; one never spent an hour with Gustav Mahler in which it did not burst forth, in which one did not gain something from him.
(Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal observed, “where a creative mind is at work, there is drama.”
His 50th birthday tribute (the last Mahler celebrated) continued:
Wherever such a mind operates, it clashes with matter; it is confronted with inertia, miscomprehension and incomprehension. As it wrestles with them, the atmosphere around the conflict becomes the point of interest…A rhythmic process begins…A chaotic and truly heterogeneous entity takes shape, while hostile or indifferent elements band improbably together in opposition. And to the delight of lovers of Art, and the reluctant astonishment of philistines, it becomes apparent that out of many dead elements a living whole can emerge, thanks solely to the miracle of a creative mind.
One of opera’s greatest poets could have been talking about the generative process of artistic creation. He was describing Mahler’s work as an opera administrator in Vienna.
Mahler was fond of quoting Goethe: “a man who seeks to develop will never come to the end of the road.”
(O du, des Vaters Zelle, ach, zu schnelle, zu schnell erlosch’ner Freudenschein!)
Mahler spent the last four years of his life conducting in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
Lebrecht subtitles the remembrances from these years (1907-1911), “I am lost to the world” (from Mahler’s transcendental Rückert song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen).
(Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.)
Decsey recalls Mahler waxing poetic, indeed sermonizing like a preacher of the Arts:
How beautiful the world is! How can any fool say: I am indifferent to it all…To be happy is a gift…
He relates how
a musician told us about a concert where they had booed Mendelssohn… This musician said ‘they can abuse Mendelssohn, it doesn’t concern me.’ When “Mahler burst out angrily.” ‘But of course it concerns you. That’s the trouble…everyone says: it doesn’t concern me. The whole world concerns me…’
Mahler observed that Americans “did not have enough temperament, enough feeling for Art.”
Or have not uncovered enough. Connected enough to the proverbial "source." Tapped into enough potential. Let us discuss.
Erwin Stein noted “a single mind could prove right against a crowd of detractors” in an assessment of Mahler’s life & (his inseparable) career.
In that collection of essays (On Mahler and Britten, Boydell Press), Colin Matthews notes a familiar refrain in the negative critical reception history of Mahler. One of Britten’s primary amanuenses chides “those whose dislike has always stemmed from antipathy towards the intensely personal nature of his music.”
Factors, both professional and private, compelled the Mahlers to seek a complete change of environment. In public [Vienna], Mahler was the subject of regular anti-Semitic attacks in the press…[he] had experienced the death of his parents and ten of his thirteen siblings; he supported the surviving three financially…and in July 1907, two painful blows occurred almost simultaneously: the death of one of his two children and the discovery that his heart was failing (from Mahler’s Last Years, exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall in the early 1990’s).
Stefan Zweig met Mahler on what would be the master’s final voyage (from America to Europe). He saw the ailing artist’s “silhouette – unforgettable, unforgettable – set against the grey infinity of sky and sea.” With poetic diction that would inform his literary career, Zweig continued:
For the first time I saw him, the pillar of fire, in his frailty…There was boundless sorrow in this sight, but also something transfigured by greatness, something resounding into the sublime, like music.
Zweig could be describing the last chapters of Mahler’s oeuvre, “transfigured…
resounding into the sublime.” That IS Das Lied von der Erde. And the Ninth Symphony. And the unfinished Tenth.
Such transcendence is presaged in the early works. It is palpably present in both sets of Rückert poetry. The slow movements of his middle symphonies are the sublime far side of a moon whose apotheoses (the 2nd! the 8th!) are as cataclysmic as any eclipse.
(Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf…)
In his life. In his love. In his music.