Vulnerable Beauty: The Composer and Conductor Gustav Mahler
Enlarge image The music of Gustav Mahler, seen here in a 1907 photograph by Moriz Nähr, will be commemorated in 2010 and 2011. (© picture-alliance / IMAGNO/Österreichisches Theaterm ) In 2010 and 2011 the music world will observe the anniversaries of the birth and the death of the great symphonic and lieder composer Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911), who on the basis of the German-Austrian musical tradition built bridges to modernism.
In the tensions of the "fin de siècle"
Gustav Mahler, shaped by his studies in the music city of Vienna, made a career as a conductor that brought him, after stations in Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg, to the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897. In 1907 he moved to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he initially enjoyed great success. In addition to his highly acclaimed work as conductor, he also composed during the two decades round the turn of the century a number of large-scale symphonic works and lieder. They reflect the social and aesthetic tensions of the fin de siècle. On the one hand, his work is deeply anchored in Romanticism, marked by longing Bohemian melodies and folk rhythms from dances and marches. On the other hand, it stands audibly on the threshold to modernism: in Mahler, all beauty, everything rapturous and monumental in music, always sounds vulnerable and fragile.
Bohemian-Jewish roots and delayed recognition
Enlarge image Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, seen here in a photograph from around 1885 (© picture-alliance / IMAGNO/Österreichisches Theaterm ) Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in the village of Kalischt in what is now the Czech Republic. Two facts bound up with his birth are of fundamental importance for his later work: Mahler grew up in the borderland between Bohemia and Moravia, and he came from a Jewish family. Both facts remained active in him and clung to him as early childhood influences and, unfortunately, as a social burden. The elemental music of the region, the woodwind sound (determined by Bohemian clarinets), the dance rhythms and marches, were in his blood. And the Jewish faith made him an outsider throughout his life, although his father, an innkeeper and liquor dealer, sought to protect him against prejudice by having him learn an accent-free German. Mahler, compelled by the increasingly anti-Semitic climate of Austria and Germany, later decided to convert to Catholicism. For the Nazis his work was “degenerate art” and they banned its performance. A sustained Mahler renaissance began only more than fifty years after his death, in the second half of the twentieth century.
Although supported early on by conducting legends such as Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter, Mahler’s works, with their fragility and radicalism, did not have an easy time of it in any case. The indefatigable advocacy of important conductors such as Rafael Kubelik, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Michael Gielen and Claudio Abbado finally made Mahler’s mighty symphonies known and loved in the concert halls of the world.
Important years in Germany
In the 2010/11 concert season, orchestra programs everywhere have given special consideration to the two Mahler anniversaries. In addition to the musical metropolis Vienna, Leipzig and Hamburg have good reasons for holding extensive celebrations. In Leipzig, Mahler was assistant to the famous conductor Arthur Nikisch from 1886 to 1888 at the Neues Stadttheater. As musical director of the Hamburg opera from 1891 to 1897, the composer-conductor caused a sensation in the Hanseatic city. Alone in 1894 he is said to have conducted on 134 evenings at the Stadttheater am Gänsemarkt. In addition, there were rehearsals, concerts and guest appearances in other cities. Leisure hardly remained for composing. And yet in his Hamburg years Mahler found his way to his unique style, wrote a number of the Wunderhorn Songs, developed his First Symphony and drove on with the composition of his Second and Third Symphonies.
To mark the anniversaries, top German orchestras such as the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester and several radio orchestras will play Mahler’s works. In Hamburg, all Mahler’s works are to be performed in a project in which the baritone and Mahler specialist Thomas Hampson will take part. A symposium on “Gustav Mahler in Hamburg” will also take place there from September 17 to 19, 2010. In Leipzig, an International Mahler Festival is planned from May 17 to 29, 2011 for the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death. And exactly 100 years after Mahler’s celebrated Munich premier of his Eighth Symphony, which is based on Goethe’s Faust II, the Munich Philharmonic will crown its Mahler cycle under Christian Thielemann on October 15-17, 2010 with a performance of the Symphony of a Thousand.
Written by independent music critic and music editor of the Kieler Nachrichten Dr. Christian Strehk.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner