Friday, May 11, 2018

Jens Malte Fischer's Biography of Mahler

I've always considered Gustav Mahler to have been, quite simply, the greatest composer since Beethoven.  A tireless innovator who reinvented the entire concept of symphonic music, he was a giant who towered over the twentieth century.  It was he, and not Wagner, who was the true herald of "new music."  As such, he was the inspiration behind the Second Viennese School and even now exerts a huge influence on contemporary composers.  He well deserves then the sympathetic and comprehensive biography that has been given him by Jens Malte Fischer in an excellent English translation by Stewart Spencer.

While today he is known primarily as a composer, during his own lifetime Mahler was lauded as the world's greatest conductor.  Over the course of seven hundred pages of erudite and well written text, Fischer describes the progress of Mahler's career from his earliest positions in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg until finally he was appointed Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera, then universally acknowledged as the world's foremost opera company.  It was there that he took up the challenge of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk and with the assistance of stage and costume designer Alfred Roller introduced a series of revolutionary reforms, many of whose visual elements were taken from the Viennese Secession, in the staging of operatic works.  Few audiences realize how many elements seen in current productions were first put onstage by Mahler and Roller. Fischer then follows this up by paying particular attention to the composer's years in New York City.

Interspersed with the chapters that follow Mahler's conducting career and the intrigues he was forced to deal with at each stop along the way are shorter episodes that chronicle the composition of the symphonies during the summer interludes when he was freed from conducting and administrative duties.  These sections provide thorough analyses that are most helpful to the non-musician seeking to better understand the scope of Mahler's accomplishments.  One factor that is continually brought home is the enormous impact Nature had on Mahler's consciousness and the manner in which he incoporated its aural manifestations into his work.  In a sense, natural phenomena served as much an inspiration for Mahler as folk music (which is notably absent in Mahler's compositions) did for Bartók.

In addition, there is a long chapter entitled "Mahler's Illnesses: A Pathological Sketch" that investigates the extensive health problems that plagued the composer throughout his lifetime and finally led to his tragic death from endocarditis at only age 51.  It would be difficult to fully understand Mahler's life without an examination of these illnesses that were so pervasive that they formed part of his character.

Another chapter, "Jewishness and Identity," is essential to understanding Mahler's own problematical view of his Jewish heritage.  The virulent anti-Semitism that Mahler encountered throughout his career and that finally forced him to leave Vienna at the height of his powers is almost unimaginable today.  That he accepted this heavy burden without rancor says much for his character, but at the same time this revolting anti-Semitism was an inescapable trial for any Jew living in Europe, particularly Austria, at the turn of the twentieth century.  Reading of the horrors Jews were forced to endure in so "civilized" a city fundamentally changed my view of Secession-era Vienna.

As for Alma, I think Fischer's treatment is fair.  True, she was fatuous and at times dishonest, but it must be remembered that she was a product of her times.  Women in 1900 Vienna were forced to lead such stifling existences that it would be strange indeed if these conditions did not to some extent warp their personalities.  To his credit, Fischer does not attempt to absolve Mahler himself of all blame for the failure of his marriage.  It was his failing libido and almost total absorption in his work that led inexorably to Alma's affair with Gropius.  Before faulting Mahler, however, for marrying someone so many years younger, one has to sympathize with his desire to join his life with that of a woman who was not only from the most elite social circles but also "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."  Mahler was, after all, only human and as susceptible to a mid-life crisis as any other man.

Finally, Mahler, whose works generally went unappreciated during his lifetime, serves as an inspiration for all creative artists who have gone unrecognized.  In the twenty-first century his claim that his music would best be understood by future generations has now been validated beyond his wildest expectations.  Every struggling artist should then take consolation from his famous remark when asked why he did not do more to promote his works: "Do you have to be there in person when you become immortal?  Sooner or later, they themselves [the musical works] will do whatever is necessary."

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