Gustav Mahler: A Jew?

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Gustav Mahler: A Jew?


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Gustav Mahler, one of the greatest composers and conductors of symphonic music, who died just a hundred years ago, was, unquestionably, born a Jew; whether he died as one is in dispute. His non-Jewish wife Alma said he often used to say that "I am thrice homeless. As a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. "Everywhere an intruder; never welcomed." (1) But does not the fact that Alma repeated what he said on a number of occasions indicate that she, at least, believed that he remained a Jew? His conversion to Catholicism was surely an act of opportunism--as a means of obtaining the most senior musical post in Vienna when he realized that his origins were a major obstacle to his career. (2)

Mahler once said "They will understand me in fifty years. My time will come." It certainly took far less than fifty years for his compositional work to be accepted as being in the same class as that of masters such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. He is now universally recognized as one of the greats, although his music and his conducting were not at first very popular in some countries.

New York's Musical Courier (1904) was scathing in its criticism of Mahler's wonderful Fourth Symphony, describing it as "grotesque." Its reviewer wrote that he had to spend one hour listening to "the most painful musical torture." In 1913, the New York Sun thought his manner ponderous and his matter imponderable. The eminent critic Paul Rosenfeld viewed his five last symphonies as being boring, and the Christian Science Monitor in 1924, moaned, "Alas for the music of Mahler! What a fuss about nothing." Even as late as 1952, the Down Beat journal of Chicago was complaining, "If you are perverse enough to endure over an hour of masochistic aural flagellation, here's your chance--symphony of a thousand." Two of the conductors who followed Mahler in the U.S.--the great Arturo Toscanini and Walter Damrosch--described his symphonies as tedious, and some in Britain felt that they lacked the vital spark of inspiration. Leonard Bernstein, however, had no doubts about the quality of Mahler's compositions and was a great promoter of his work. As for Germany and Austria, his music was

not very well known in the early post World War II years simply because it had been banned by the Nazis.

There is some dispute on whether he was in any way a devout Christian. His wife did call him a "Christglaubiger Jude," a Jew who believed in Christ, but he never confessed and never celebrated religious rites or festivals. He apparently was encouraged to convert by those Jewish friends of his youth who changed their names and were baptized. It has been claimed that his only visit to a church for religious purposes was for his marriage on March 9 1902 in one of Vienna's most prestigious churches. Incidentally, his beloved sister Justine to whom he was very close married Arnold Rose, concert master of his orchestra in Vienna on the following day, but one assumes this was a Jewish ceremony. Their daughter Alma, Mahler's niece, was a violinist who was conductor of the women's orchestra in Auschwitz where she perished. The cellist husband of his sister Emma died in Theresienstadt.

According to Mahler's wife Alma, her husband loved Gregorian chant and the smell of incense, and he also believed in some kind of after-life. Alma claimed that Mahler was attracted to Catholic mysticism, but nevertheless, she admitted that the Jewish question certainly touched him. (3)

Despite her marriage to two converted Jews, she had significant antisemitic tendencies. Was her testimony reliable? She once said he was a Christian Jew who was married to a Christian pagan who was able to "get off scot-free." Otto Klemperer, another Christian convert who championed Mahler's music, said that he became close to Catholicism but contradicted himself by saving also that Mahler was typically irreligious. …

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