Mahler Soars to the Light, Contains World: Manuela Hoelterhoff

Gustav Mahler
Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Source: L.A. Philharmonic via Bloomberg

Every summer, Gustav Mahler shut the door on his hut by Austria’s Worthersee far from the snake pit of the Vienna opera, determined to compose symphonies that contain the world.

His heart gave out early, in 1911 just before his 51st birthday. But by then he’d even captured the universe beyond.

“I will soar to a light never pierced by eyes,” he wrote -- and took us with him in the Symphony No. 2, called “The Resurrection.”

In Los Angeles last week, I heard it conducted from memory by the remarkable Gustavo Dudamel leading Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Symphony.

Dudamel, the 30-year-old Venezuelan music chief of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, presides over both orchestras as part of The Mahler Project.

The huge, unprecedented undertaking makes Los Angeles the center of music as Dudamel conducts all nine symphonies with the two orchestras in three weeks.

I spoke with Norman Lebrecht, author of “Why Mahler,” who was in town for lectures and a public discussion with Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s dynamic president.

Hoelterhoff: I thought Mahler was rather death-obsessed. But the symphony makes the case for optimism. That view of the light was affecting.

Lebrecht: He isn’t death-obsessed. He is life-obsessed. His hope is that there is something beyond death that makes sense of it all.

Hoelterhoff: It’s astonishing to think Mahler was a part-time composer. His main job for 10 years was director of the Vienna opera.

Adolf Hitler

Lebrecht: Where he conducted more than 100 performances a season. He had unbelievable energy. And as director he was in charge of running the house, sacking and hiring people, determining repertoire.

Hoelterhoff: I gather he actually ordered singers to act!

Lebrecht: Yes, you couldn’t just sit on a sofa and die. And through his wife, Alma, he gets access to the world of the visual arts, people like Moser, Klimt and a crabby academic of no prior distinction, Alfred Roller. They start talking about “Tristan” and he hires him.

Roller uses electricity and experiments with light changes so that the colors onstage matched the colors in “Tristan’s” music. That was revolutionary.

Hoelterhoff: Hitler must have heard him conduct even though he was a Jew, albeit a convert. Hitler spent his youth rooted in standing room at the Vienna opera.

New York

Lebrecht: Decades later, he’s chancellor and summons Roller to Berlin and is all over him remembering every detail of his “Tristan.” He also showers the Isolde of his youth, Anna Mildenburg, with honors.

Hoelterhoff: In late 1907, Mahler, Alma and 40 suitcases depart for New York. Why?

Lebrecht: He’d worked his butt off in Vienna and still wasn’t paying his bills and his lifestyle wasn’t extravagant. He was disgusted with the anti-Semitism and felt the need to get away. What’s the phrase in Handel? Despised and rejected.

The Metropolitan Opera offers him five times the amount and no executive responsibility.

And it worked. Initially Mahler’s mere presence made everything seem better and sound brighter. Then he gets squeezed out by Toscanini and the anti-Semites on the board, like J.P. Morgan.

My Own Orchestra

Hoelterhoff: Plus ca change. So that’s when he goes to the New York Philharmonic?

Lebrecht: Yes. A group of women get the money together to basically recreate the orchestra in 1909. He is incredibly excited about it -- for a time. I have my own orchestra!

Hoelterhoff: What do you think of Mahler’s wife, Alma. Has your view changed over the years?

Lebrecht: It’s deepened. She was totally without a concept of trust: To love her was to be betrayed. She had the gift of great beauty and modest intelligence.

But Mahler was not an easy man. What drew me to him was the passion of Alma’s ambivalence. A man who could inspire that ambivalence in the person closest to him is a person of fascinating complexity.

One has to keep in mind that he is nearly 20 years older. The expectation of marriage was different and they did not succeed in bridging it. She rejects him sexually quite early in the marriage.

Sigmund Freud

Hoelterhoff: She betrays him with that architect Walter Gropius, who marries her after Mahler’s death, and also blights New York with the Pan Am building.

Lebrecht: Mahler goes to see Freud and has what was surely one of the most interesting conversations ever.

On August 29, 1910, they talk for four and a half hours and it provides him with a measure of relief. Freud shows Mahler how aspects of his childhood have affected the way he writes music. He explains what Alma might be wanting.

My reading is: If you want to hold on to her let her carry on with this affair. He’s a street-corner architect. Be secure in that.

On the way home, Mahler writes a fabulous poem to her in which he says: I don’t care what you do, I am yours forever.

Hoelterhoff: In Visconti’s “Death in Venice,” Aschenbach looks like Mahler and the sad, ravishing music is the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5. What’s the connection between Thomas Mann and Mahler?

‘Death in Venice’

Lebrecht: Mann was friendly with Bruno Walter, the great champion of Mahler. When Mann finally meets Mahler in 1910, he writes that this is the first person he has come across who is filled with greatness.

Does he see Mahler as a gay man? No. But he took some qualities and transferred them to Aschenbach, and, most importantly, gives him the name Gustav.

Hoelterhoff: In recordings, Leonard Bernstein spends close to 12 minutes on the Adagietto; Mahler apparently nine and a half; others conduct it even faster. I find that incredible.

Lebrecht: It is pretty much without parallel. You’d think it was impossible. How can a piece of music be extended to twice its length without losing its place in the house in which it sits?

It’s a miracle.

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(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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