In the period of his Fifth and Kindertotenlieder
by Stan Ruttenberg
In their two essays, Kelly Hansen and Mitch Friedfeld treat the music of the Fifth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder so well and thoroughly that I have nothing musically to add. But I would like to share with you other information that sheds some light on Mahler when he was composing these works.
In the midst of composing the Fifth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder, Mahler's life took a sharp turn - he married the young, vivacious, talented, but self-centered and possibly narcissistic Alma Schindler (9 March 1902). Some two weeks after the engagement (late 1901) had been announced, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahler's friend, musician, and his Boswell, made her last entry into the diary in which for some seven years she had kept careful notes of her conversations with Mahler about his music and his views on life in general.
Natalie Bauer-Lechner, two years older than Mahler, was an acquaintance of his at the Vienna Conservatory. She was a talented violist, and soon after leaving the conservatory played in an excellent ladies quartet and married. In 1890, after the breakup of her marriage, she wrote to Mahler offering to take up an earlier invitation of his to escape from Vienna. She had just visited Budapest where Mahler was enjoying one of his first professional successes as Director of the Royal Opera. Natalie evidently realized that the young Mahler she had known at the Conservatory had matured into a formidable musician. She visited him at Budapest again and several times at his next post at Hamburg.
Mahler's parents had died one and two years prior. His sister Justine lived with him to manage his household affairs. Natalie became a good friend, almost a member of the Mahler family, and became Mahler's musical confidant. She also collaborated with Justine in the management of Mahler's household life. As athletic as Mahler, Natalie hiked and biked with him frequently. During their excursions into nature they held long talks. It is not too far fetched to suspect that Natalie, strongly attracted to Mahler as a rising musical power, was also attracted to him as a man. She did "mother" him a great deal, to which Mahler sometimes objected, asking Justine one summer not to have Natalie join them.
Stuart Feder hypothesizes (Mahler um Mitternacht, Int. Rev. Psycho. 1980, vol. 7) that perhaps Mahler regarded Natalie as a mother figure and had Oedipal problems with seeing her also as a wife. In addition, at the time when Mahler thought seriously about his mortality, following a close brush from an excessive bleeding incident, Natalie was in her early forties. According to the wisdom of the day, she was beyond safe child-bearing age, and it seems that Mahler wanted to assure his immortality by having children. If we look at possibly the only remaining photo of her, we see that Natalie certainly was not an unattractive woman, but Alma claimed that Mahler told her that he had said to Natalie, "I cannot marry you. I can only marry a beautiful woman." I cannot believe that Mahler could have been so insensitive. Whether true or not, Mahler turned to Alma to Natalie's profound sorrow.
Natalie's recollections are a wealth of insight into Mahler the man and the musician, and any reader interested in Mahler is strongly advised to find a copy of Natalie's "Recollections of Gustav Mahler" (Cambridge University Press, 1980). This book is out of print but not too difficult to find from used booksellers). Also highly recommended is Henry-Louis de La Grange's encyclopedic and revised biography of Mahler, published by Oxford University Press (a work in progress -two volumes are now available, two more in preparation).
Natalie relates that on one of their long walks in the summer of 1901, Mahler talked to her for the first time about the Fifth, in particular the third movement (Scherzo) - "The movement is enormously difficult to work out because of its structure, and because of the utmost artistic skill demanded by the complex inter-relationships of all its details. The apparent confusion must, as in a Gothic cathedral, be resolved into the highest order and harmony." He also remarked that a theme by a local musician, An dem blauen See, had worked its way into the second movement, but that song seems now to be lost. Mahler told Natalie that he conceived of this symphony in four movements, but later, perhaps after he met Alma, incorporated another movement, the lovely Adagietto, which Mengelberg claimed that both had told him was a love song to Alma. Natalie's relationship with Mahler broke off before Mahler had completed his work on the Fifth and Kindertotenlieder, so from then on we lack her accurate and invaluable notes, having only Alma's own writing to bear witness.
From Natalie's diary we see no evidence that Mahler discussed with her the many Rückert poems on the death of children, from which he drew five to set as his Kindertotenlieder. However, in the forward to the English edition of Natalie's recollections, de La Grange speculates that perhaps three of the Kindertotenlieder were included along with in manuscripts of Wunderhorn songs which Mahler gave to Natalie. It seems that Mahler gave many manuscripts to Natalie as a way of preserving them. Mahler himself was careless about his papers, hardly ever dating them, spontaneously giving many to friends, and losing some in his desk (e.g., Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz', performed in Mahler's own version at MahlerFest XII). Dr. Feder surmises that Mahler, knowing that Natalie kept an extensive diary, spoke with her in a way that he felt would preserve his thoughts after he was gone, i.e., as if he were dictating his own memoirs.
Alma Schindler's father was Austria's foremost landscape painter. He died while Alma was young, but she adored her father all her life and looked up to him as an artist who set artistic principles first, never mind the personal consequences (just as did Mahler). Alma resented that her mother remarried and never had a close and warm relationship with her stepfather Carl Moll.
Most of Mahler's biographers relate that the first meeting of Alma and Gustav took place in the home of Berta Zukerkandl on the occasion of a dinner party for her sister Sophie Clemenceau, 7 November 1901. There, the 20-year old Alma, who claimed that she was a "reluctant" guest that evening, was the 'life of the party," making raucous conversation with Gustav Klimt (one of Alma's "conquests") and Max Burckhard (Director of the Burgtheater and another of Alma's admirers). Mahler, who almost never attended such dinner parties, "happened" to be there, was intrigued by this lively, intelligent and attractive young girl, and was induced to "join the fun." As we know, the rest is history. But is it, really? Jonathan Carr in his book Mahler (1997 Constable, London) adduces other information on the probable earlier meeting of Alma and Gustav. Alma's Diaries from 1898-1902 also allude to earlier encounters, e.g., while bike riding in the Salzkammergut, and to Alma's admiration for Mahler as the eminent conductor of the Court Opera, but not an admirer of his music.
On 29 December 2001, just following the engagement, the Vienna paper Fremden-Blatt, carried an article relating that Alma and Gustav first met two years before during the summer holidays in the lake region of the Salzkammergut. As Carr describes in his biography, this article might be ignored as possibly spurious except for the fact of the existence of a postcard postmarked 5 July 1899, in Mahler's handwriting, addressed to Frl. Alma Schindler, stating, "Sole genuine signature, protected by law: Gustav Mahler. Beware of imitations." This card was made public only in 1995.
Some extracts from Alma's diaries show her feelings for Mahler and shed light on the postcard incident. Sunday, 4 December 1898, "As for Mahler - "I'm virtually in love with him." Friday, 30 December 1898, "Dr. Pollack gave me [a picture of] Mahler, my beloved Mahler, with his autograph." Sunday, 19 February 1899, "Mahler conducted [orchestra concert] and was received with demonstrative applause. Everyone had been longing for a true conductor. Mahler is a genius through and through." Friday 7 July 1899, "On 23 June the whole clan [some of Alma's cronies] was at Hallstatt. I stayed home as I had ear-ache and stomach pains. When they returned, they told me that Mahler was there too, indeed that they had spoken to him. They recounted even the tiniest details. And then the day before yesterday, this postcard arrived. One further thing: they told me they'd sent me a postcard and that Mahler had signed it. Gustav [Geiringer] allegedly gave it to the waiter, but the card never arrived. So the day before Gustav told me the whole story: not a living soul had ever set eyes on Mahler, the whole thing was pure fabrication, a pack of lies. At my cost the story has kept them heartily amused for two whole weeks. Anton Geiringer arrived here a few days ago. On the way, in Ischl, he met Dr. Boyer, who was on the point of driving to Aussee to see Mahler. They let him [Boyer] into their little secret, and he passed it on to Mahler, who just for fun, really did write to me. The whole thing was arranged very cleverly, and I'm delighted about the postcard." Tuesday 11 July 1899, after a bike ride during which Alma took ill, "We were just leaving Gosamühle, when Mahler rode towards us on his bicycle, behind him an old woman, followed by his sister [Justine] and Rosé (probably Arnold who was in love with Justine). I cycled past quick as a flash. The Geiringers dismounted, the others too. Mahler asked if this was the way to Hallstatt. Christine said it wasn't, and offered to show him the way. By this time I was riding more slowly. They caught up with me and said: Mahler is following us. He soon overtook us, and we met four of five times. Each time he struck up a conversation, staring hard at me. I jumped on my bike and rode some distance. The Geiriringers were angry; they had wanted to introduce me, and he was expecting it also. Judging by the way he looked at me, he appears to have perceived the connection between myself and the postcard - which I found most embarrassing. Anyway, I felt no urge to meet him. I love and honour him as an artist, but as a man he doesn't interest me at all. I wouldn't want to lose my illusions either." Of course, time was to tell a different story!
To return to the famous dinner party in 1901, to paraphrase Carr's description in his biography, Alma's mother, Anna Moll, phoned Berta Z's husband that Alma was feeling out of sorts, depressed, coming home from the opera every night crying, and spending hours at the piano. Anna suspected that Alma was suffering under the spell of the magnetism of "the musician" Mahler. And, wouldn't an invitation to Berta's for dinner help cheer up the girl? Thus it is possible, almost probable, that the famous spontaneous encounter between Alma and her victim, Gustav, was not so spontaneous after all.
Be that as it may, Alma was devoted to Mahler. She eventually grew to admire his music, managed his finances and household well, managed to get along with Justine, and was mother to two lovely girls of whom tragically only one, Anna, survived. In spite of being an incurable flirt, and a "collector of men," Alma remained true to Gustav until the summer of 1910 and her torrid affair with Walter Gropius (which she whitewashed in her memoirs), but that is another story told in the booklet of the MahlerFest CD recording of the Tenth Symphony. She also almost got herself into hot water much earlier, e.g., with Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Max Reger, and who knows with whom else? Anna Mahler related that Alma had impossibly blue eyes and, being slightly hard of hearing in one ear, always leaned close to a man when they were conversing, thus seemingly being coquettish.
Alma was a gifted musician herself, a good piano player, and an aspiring composer of songs. She was a great help to Gustav just after they married and settled in for the summer at his recently constructed villa (designed two years or so before with the help of Justine and Natalie) on the shores of the Wörthersee, at Maiernigg, in the southern region of Carinthia.
Alma was Mahler's copyist, making the fair copy of the Fifth Symphony, in a fine and very legible hand. The story is told that Alma, on reading the score, burst into tears and told Mahler "You have composed a concerto for percussion." A related story is that Mahler then smiled, and said something like, Almschi, look at my revision, I have already reduced the percussion. The manuscript of this symphony now resides in the J. Pierpont Morgan Museum, New York. Mahler scholars who have inspected this score report that the percussion used is nothing extraordinary and differs little from the final score. Perhaps Alma did react to an earlier draft, or perhaps the story was just another one of her little embroideries.
In summary, the years when Mahler started his Fifth and Kindertotenlieder were good years for him, in his beautiful lakeside villa and comfortable composing hut up the hill in the woods. In the year he married, Mahler finished the Fifth and the songs, was also a father-to-be, and happy in his new life. Why was he moved to write such a funeral march to open the symphony and compose the songs on the dreadful event of the deaths of children? Unless new material come to light, we can only speculate and, after all, does it really matter?
Anna Mahler, the surviving daughter, was only a girl when Mahler died, but remembers walking with him in Central Park, during the New York years, and
events at dinner time. When she misbehaved or balked at dinner, Mahler would
ask her to leave the room and return as another person, Gladys. Gladys was
then a perfect little lady at dinner. That Mahler hit upon such a clever
scheme is an example of his innate understanding of human nature, though as a
indomitable perfectionist and idealist, he no doubt was his own worst enemy in
dealing with his superiors, his musicians, and the press. However, Siegmund
Freud, after the famous four-hour walk with Mahler through Leyden, Holland,
noted that he was impressed with how quickly and well Mahler grasped Freud's
ideas about psychoanalysis and the "talking" cure.
Anna herself didn't like to be known as "the daughter of Gustav
Mahler," but as "Anna Mahler, the artist." She left a large collection of
fascinating sculptures, two of which reside today in Boulder, many at UCLA,
and many at her former home in Spoleta, Italy. She was also a most gifted
pianist and musician, as was Alma. Both of them could sight read an orchestra
score at the piano and transpose the orchestrated music into a piano version.