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Gustav Mahler: Vienna - Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907)
by Henry-Louis de La Grange
Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-315160-X
Hardback, 1,024 pages, 32 black and white plates, £35.00
Amazon UK £28


This is the third volume of Henry-Louis de La Grange's magisterial biography of Gustav Mahler, one of the greatest literary undertakings of the last century.

This volume describes one of the most turbulent periods of Mahler's life - partly musical, with his problems at the Staatsoper now becoming more dominant, and partly emotional, with the marital difficulties in the Mahler household beginning to manifest themselves and the death, in 1907, of Mahler's eldest daughter, Putzi. By the end of 1907, we see Mahler about to undertake his odyssey to the United States, where he was to become music director of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, and the beginnings of his last creative rush that gave birth to the vast Eighth and Ninth symphonies.

It all began less ominously. August to December 1904 saw the first performance of Mahler's own Fifth symphony in Cologne and a new production of Fidelio, the work that Mahler revered above all others. The Fidelio is interesting because Mahler determined to insert the Leonore 3 overture after the Dungeon Scene - something which caused consternation amongst the critics, but drew support from, amongst others, Richard Strauss. In any event, the general impression of this Fidelio was of an interpretation that restored the work to become 'the opera of all operas'. It fared better than his own symphonies. A performance of the Third under Stavenhagen in Munich brought dismal reviews, a performance under Nikisch in Berlin less so. Mahler was, therefore, not surprised to find that the German critics found the Fifth disconcerting. Only Otto Neitzel found the work universally attractive, whilst others simply could not understand its genesis. The general impression seems to have been of a work that contained thorns as well as roses.

Mahler's productions of Wagner's Tristan had ushered in a new way of presenting the great Wagner operas. Mahler now turned to the Ring, the intention being to stage the complete cycle throughout 1905 with Rhinegold in January, Walkürie in April, Siegfried in the Autumn and Götterdammerüng in late 1905-early 1906. In the event, only Rhinegold was produced during the 1905 season. Part of Mahler's difficulties during this early period were to do with administrative problems at the Hofoper. One with singers was partly down to wage levels which were deemed insufficient for singers to perform just with one organization. It left Mahler exhausted and disillusioned and was one of the principle reasons for his later desertion of Vienna for the New York. Mid to late 1905 proved keystones in Mahler's life. The Seventh symphony was completed, and the Fifth was given performances in Vienna (under Mahler, and savaged by the critics), Trieste (where it was misunderstood) and Breslau (where it was favourably received). Oskar Fried performed the Second symphony in Berlin and it was a triumph, particularly after the disaster of the 1895 premiere.

Mahler's relationship with Richard Strauss had been a long one (if not one of close friendship), but it intensified with Mahler's determination to perform Salome at the Hofoper. Censorship problems created innumerable difficulties for Mahler in Vienna and it was not until after the opera's Dresden premiere, with its 38 curtain calls, that Mahler hoped to be able to perform it. In the event, Austria did not see the opera until its first performance in Graz in 1906 and Vienna had to wait until 1907. The triumph of Salome, wherever it was performed, created something of problem for Mahler. Mahler expressed the conviction that he would not be understood in his own lifetime, and that Strauss' operas were superior to his own orchestral works. Shortly after the Graz Salome, Mahler premiered his own Sixth symphony. Although Alma Mahler noted that the great man seemed unconvinced by the work on the podium (and had difficulties deciding on the order of the second and third movements), he did receive a standing ovation by both audience and orchestra. The critics, however, were less complimentary with Otto Lessmann writing of the work's 'repulsive ugliness' and that the final movement was the 'cacophony of polyphonic labyrinth'. For other critics the work had 'tremendous will and indescribable technique'. For Mahler, it illustrated the differences between himself and Strauss more clearly than ever before.

Although no-one yet knew of Mahler's intention to leave Vienna he launched his final opera season with a formidable programme. Apart from the final two instalments of the Ring, there was also Zemlinsky's Der Traumgörge, Weber's Oberon, Goldmark's Ein Wintermärchen and Mehul's Joseph. But simultaneous with his announcement of the 1907 season, came a devastating attack on Mahler's occupancy of the Hofoper accusing him of almost bankrupting the company by pensioning off over 70 players, of producing playing that was often listless and, most destructive of all, of being obsessed with his own immortality. The criticism that Mahler had lost interest in the running of the Opera and had become preoccupied with the performance and composition of his own works only worsened the situation. It pushed Mahler to a decision he had long prevaricated over. He resigned with the words, 'I can't take it any longer'. Mahler's decade long occupancy of the Vienna Opera was over.

Reaction was mixed with many delighted, but others, most more influential, decimated at the decision. Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Lilli Lehmann, Arnold Schoenberg, Julius Epstein and Gustav Klimt were amongst those who asked him to reconsider. Mahler did not change his mind, instead considering the offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to perform there for six months of the year on a salary of 125,000 kronen (then the highest fee a musician had ever been offered), with free flights. Mahler was perceived as the greatest conductor in Europe and, more importantly for the Met, the pre-eminent conductor of Wagner. The Met would just not accept no and Mahler duly accepted.

The problems, however, continued to mount. The most severe was his diagnosis of a heart ailment (not a fatal heart disease as has so often been misquoted, but most likely a viral infection caused by rheumatic fever). This was not life threatening, but it took Mahler some months to realise this since he had been advised it would be debilitating. As 1909 showed, he conducted a constant 50 plus concerts with the New York Philharmonic per season, plus unlimited rehearsals and with no noticeable effects on his stamina. Putzi's death followed very shortly afterwards, adding to Mahler's grief - the intensity of which was more unsettling because of the short period of time in which the events happened. In December, Mahler left for New York and the beginning of the final phase of his life.

Henry-Louis de La Grange writes of these years with considerable style, drawing on virtually every source known to exist that relates directly to Mahler. The coverage given to Mahler's concert performances of his own works is amongst the most extensive, recalling in detail entire reviews of the symphonies. The 800 pages of actual biography are not the only reason to acquire this vast book. The appendices, which are partly devoted to in-depth analyses of the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies (all written during the 1904-1907 period) are masterpieces of elucidation. They are amongst the finest Mahler analysis I have ever read. Other appendices outline the entire Staatsoper repertoire during the period and all of the singers who performed under Mahler.

The next volume to be published will be Genius Struck Down (1907-1911). It should complete what will surely be not just the definitive work on Mahler, but one of the greatest musical studies of all.

Marc Bridle


Marc Bridle

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