“Those who loved him became a part of his being.”

People around Mahler

Gustav Mahler and his favorite sister Justine
(Photo: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many supporters and friends of Mahler were present when the Seventh Symphony was premiered in Prague in 1908, among them Alban Berg and the conductors Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. Although Mahler was an individualist in many respects, he sought personal and professional exchange with others. His contacts tell us a great deal about Gustav Mahler and his world.

When Gustav Mahler was rehearsing for the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in Prague, he worked with his usual meticulousness. He reportedly rehearsed more than twenty times with the orchestra in two weeks, observed by a group of friends, admirers, colleagues and pupils.

His wife Alma recounted: “Many friends had come to Prague. Privy council Neisser, Berliner, Gabrilowitsch, and the young musicians were there: Alban Berg, Bodanzky, Keussler, Klemperer. They all helped Mahler make corrections to the score and the parts, because he noticed inconsistencies in the sound up to the final rehearsal, so he continued to make changes as long as there was a possibility to do so before going to press.”

One of those involved – the conductor Otto Klemperer – remembered these rehearsals differently, however: “Every day he took all the orchestra material home with him, made improvements, polished it, retouched it. We young musicians who were there – Bruno Walter, Bodanzky, von Keussler and I – wanted to help him. He wouldn’t allow it and did everything alone.”

Mahler fled from superficial conversation

There is much that is typical about this snapshot: people quickly gathered around the charismatic Mahler, but he kept himself aloof from them. Mahler thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by life. Coming from a large family, he was accustomed to companionship. He almost always travelled with a small group during his summer holidays – his sister Justine, sometimes with other friends, then after his marriage to Alma, with his own small family – only during the last few years did he need more peace and quiet.

Everywhere he went, he was welcomed into intellectual circles: he was a guest in the most fashionable salons, even though he often just sat there without speaking. As soon as the conversation deteriorated into superficial talk, however, he fled. Thus, there was always a circle of friends around Mahler. Many friends from his youth and student days – Friedrich Löhr, Arnold Berliner, Emil Freund – offered him intellectual stimulation and affirming empathy.

Intimacy and trust were expressed in letters with them; Mahler revealed his innermost feelings, occasionally even insights into his creative inspiration. Yet few of these friendships lasted his entire life. Mahler was sensitive and easily offended. Most of his relationships simply came to an end, however, as soon as physical distance separated them.

Mahler’s marriage ended many old relationships

Others accompanied Mahler continuously and faithfully. “There were already many, many of them during his lifetime,” recalled the music critic Paul Stefan in 1920. “[Those] who loved him became a part of his being which lives on.” They included the conductors Arthur Nikisch and Hans von Bülow, as well as former assistants and pupils such as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Oskar Fried, Oskar Nedbal and Willem Mengelberg.

Those who were closest to Mahler personally enjoyed the most intimate relationship with him, however. That was first and foremost Mahler’s favourite sister Justine, who also resembled him in appearance. When their parents and sister Leopoldine died in 1889, Mahler, as the oldest, had to provide for his four siblings.

Justine stood by him, kept house for him from that time on, while Mahler supported the younger three financially. During his tenure as chief conductor in Hamburg, she was always with him, and in Vienna as well, where Mahler was appointed director of the court opera in 1887, they initially shared a home. Alienation only came with Mahler’s wife Alma. Justine reportedly paid back Alma’s jealousy with caustic sharpness: “I am happy about one thing; I had him young, and you have him old!”

The musician, author and feminist Natalie Bauer-Lechner met the two-year-younger Mahler in 1877 during rehearsals for one of his symphonies, where he made an “indelible impression” on her.

A closer friendship began with Bauer-Lechner’s visit to Budapest in 1890, and between 1892 and 1901 she accompanied Mahler during summer holidays in Berchtesgaden, Steinbach am Attersee, Tyrol and Maiernigg am Wörthersee, together with his sisters Justine and Emma.

She shared Mahler’s joy in swimming, hiking and bicycling – and enjoyed his trust during long conversations about life and music, which she meticulously recorded for posterity. They included candid remarks about his works and his self-image, for example, when he declared that he did not write “for other people, who will understand it least of all – What I create, I create for myself.”

In her recollections Natalie concludes: “Thus the days flew by in which we came to know and care for each other as if we had always known each other and lived as brother and sister. And this feeling was perhaps all the more secure in that it was not illuminated, but also not overheated and blinded with passion.” She discreetly did not mention that she hoped for more from Mahler. There was no longer a place for Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s sublimated love after Alma entered his life, and she disappeared from Mahler’s circle without a trace.

Support for the opera reformer

She shared this fate with many people who were close to Mahler before Alma. The same thing happened with Siegfried Lipiner, a poet and Mahler’s only friend from his student days. He came from a Jewish family in Galicia and went to study in Vienna, where he met Mahler, came into intense but brief contact with Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche and became the librarian of the Austrian parliament.

Lipiner’s texts inspired Mahler during the composition of both the Second and Third Symphonies, but their relationship broke down because of the mutual dislike between Lipiner and Mahler’s young bride. Bruno Walter brought the lost friends together again when Mahler, in a distressed emotional state, was sketching his Ninth Symphony: “A questioning search for God, for the meaning and goal of our existence, and for the reason for the unspeakable suffering in the whole of creation, darkened his soul. He took this crisis of the heart . . . to his dearest friend, the poet Siegfried Lipiner. The joy with which Mahler spoke to me of those conversations will always be to me a happy and touching memory.” Lipiner survived Mahler by only a half year and died in December of 1911.

Many other names could be mentioned: the musicologist Guido Adler, who already knew Mahler during his time in Prague, the publisher Emil Hertzka, the journalists and Mahler champions Paul Stefan and Richard Specht. As director of the court opera, Mahler advocated sweeping reforms of the ossified opera scene and found kindred spirits among Vienna’s progressive painters, writers and intellectuals – Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Alfred Polgar, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud.

The painter Alfred Roller, whom Mahler brought to the court opera in 1903 as “director of design”, deserves special mention as a worthy partner; he supported Mahler’s efforts towards reform, including an epochal new production of Tristan und Isolde, which remained in the repertoire for four decades. In 1920 Roller established the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt and Richard Strauss.

Almost a friend: Richard Strauss

The latter is perhaps the most important of those people who could have become a friend. Two undisputed masters met, almost the same age, both talented composers and conductors, both ultimately active as opera directors in Vienna, with great ambitions but middling success. They shared a comparable level of expertise, but their approach to art was different enough that they did not get in each other’s way. And both supported the work of the other.

Mahler immediately recognized the importance of Salome, which made an “overwhelming impression” on him, and wrote to Strauss: “It is the best thing you have done so far! Nothing you have written before can compare with it. . . . You are the born dramatist!” He immediately campaigned for a performance in Vienna – unsuccessfully, in the end, due to censorship. Strauss, in turn, referred to himself as the “first Mahlerian”, admired the “grand structure” of the Second Symphony, regarded the Third as a “marvellous”, a “beautiful work” and lavishly praised the Adagio of the Fourth: he could “not have written” such a thing.

Mahler seems to have wished for a closer connection. But they only nearly became friends – Strauss was too pragmatic, Mahler too enigmatic for that. The Munich native was careful with his money, talked freely about royalties at formal receptions, once even burst into Mahler’s dressing room with jovial remarks after Mahler had just completely worn himself out during a concert. Mahler’s nervous system could not bear that; he found Strauss “cool”, even “cold”. After a disappointing encounter, he wrote to Alma: “I am now completely confused by myself and the world when I experience something like this again and again. Are people made of different stuff than I?” The old Strauss, by then 82, read these lines in the collection of letters edited by Mahler’s widow – and noted tersely in the margin: “Yes.”

Malte Krasting

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