Gustav Mahler - Life and Death

By Matthews, David | Musical Opinion, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Gustav Mahler - Life and Death


Matthews, David, Musical Opinion


Musical Opinion 2010-2011 - VII

Mahler Studies

The composer David Matthews who, with his brother Colin, worked with Deryck Cooke and Berthold Goldschmidt on preparing a final performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, continues our series of Mahler Studies.

Mahler's music is intimately bound up with his life. His symphonies and his songs are his musical autobiography. His music is rooted in a childhood full of sorrow: seven of his thirteen brothers and sisters died in infancy and his favourite brother Ernst at the age of thirteen. Gustav was the first child of the Mahler family to survive, and his parents, recognising his talent, encouraged their favourite son towards a musical career that quickly became successful.

Mahler's early works are an attempt to understand and confront the pain of his early life. The first two symphonies are full of turbulent emotion. Both contain funeral marches, but death appears as something to be fought and overcome, and both works end triumphantly. In the Third Symphony Mahler expresses a vision of the whole of nature striving towards God - it is his happiest work. As well as symphonies, he was also writing songs, settings from the anthology of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn ('The Youth's Magic Horn'). Some of these songs express naive happiness, many have wry humour, others lament arbitrary deaths.

In February 1901, a few years after he had taken on the prestigious but arduous job of Director of the Vienna Opera, Mahler suffered an almost fatal haemorrhage. His compositions later that year reflect this near encounter with death. He wrote his last two Wunderhorn songs, 'Revelge' and 'DerTambourgs'eir, both of them about soldiers going to their deaths, before turning to the Romantic poet Friedrich Ru eke rf s Kindertotenlieder, poems on the deaths of children. Rückert wrote almost 400 poems in response to the deaths of two of his children, one of them a son significantly named Ernst. Two of Mahler's five Kindertoteniieder were composed that summer, and he also began his Fifth Symphony, whose first movement is the most anguished of his funeral marches.

Towards the end of this disturbing year, he met the young and beautiful Alma Schindler, immediately fell in love with her, and married her the following spring. Life reasserted itself: in the summer he finished his Fifth Symphony in a blaze of jubilation. They soon had a daughter, Maria, and in 1904 another, Anna. That summer, he completed the Kindertoteniieder cycle with three more songs. They end with the serene acceptance of death: the children are at rest, 'as if in their mother's house'. Alma, however, found it incomprehensible that Gustav should be writing about the deaths of children when she had just given birth. She writes in her memoirs that she told him: 'For Heaven's sake, don't tempt Providence!'

Alma's anxiety seemed horribly justified when, three years later, Maria suddenly developed scarlet fever and diphtheria, and died. At the same time Mahler was told that his heart was in a precarious state, and that he should give up the strenuously active life he practised (unwise advice, as we now know). It was a devastating double blow. Grief for the loss of his favourite daughter and an increased sense of his own mortality were to cast shadows over the three remaining years of his life. …

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