Saturated with lachrymose melodies, dirgelike rhythms and the ghastly, fatal oompahs of sad waltzes, the songs and symphonies of Gustav Mahler prophetically mourn the victims of twentieth-century catastrophes the composer died too soon to witness, or perhaps even imagine. At least that’s how his work sounds today, converging in our ears with music about various horrors written by composers he inspired: Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein. Because of their achievements, and the Mahleresque tones of composers as different as Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schmidt, Anton Webern and Kurt Weill, Luciano Berio and George Crumb, Mahler seems like a far more central figure than he was during his lifetime, when French composers dismissed him as German, Germans considered him to be Viennese and the Viennese either admired or detested him for being a Jew.
After his death, Alma Mahler described her husband as a “Christgläubiger Jude,” a Jew who believed in Christ. Henry-Louis de La Grange’s inability to discern the many shades of this statement and other racial and religious characterizations of Mahler undermines his monumental biography of the composer, of which the fourth and final volume, A New Life Cut Short, has finally appeared in English. Its 1,758 pages chronicle less than three and a half years of Mahler’s fifty-year life, from his arrival in New York City in December 1907 to his death in Vienna in May 1911.
For the Mahlers, Manhattan offered an escape from mounting artistic and political opposition at the composer’s musical home, the Vienna Court Opera, and a change of scenery after the death of their youngest daughter from diphtheria. Although his supporters viewed his dismissal from the directorship of the Court Opera as the squalid end of a glorious era–Gustav Klimt was heard to exclaim, “Vorbei!” (It’s over!) as the train pulled away–Mahler arrived in Manhattan not as a disgraced exile but a visiting celebrity, a star maestro with a glamorous young wife. Enticed by lucrative offers from the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, the Mahlers resided in grand hotel splendor for a musical season of roughly four months and then returned to Europe, which remained their center of gravity. During the summers Gustav retreated to an Alpine resort, where he would take refuge in a prefab cabin–shipped from Vienna and fenced off from admirers–and toil away at compositions on an upright piano. The summer of 1908 brought forth Das Lied von der Erde; the summer of 1909, his Ninth Symphony. During the summer of 1910, while sketching a never-completed Tenth, Gustav learned that Alma, who was in a sanatorium convalescing from nervous exhaustion, was having an affair with another patient, the architect Walter Gropius. During the innovative but stressful New York musical season later that year, Gustav developed flulike symptoms stemming from an incurable infection. Death in America was unimaginable. The Mahlers returned to Vienna, and on May 18 the composer died.
Much of Vienna’s artistic community turned out for his burial. Schoenberg and Webern later wrote aphoristic, bell-haunted compositions that memorialized the moment Mahler’s body was lowered into the ground next to his daughter’s grave. But such tender notes of commemoration were drowned out by Mahler’s anti-Semitic critics, who persisted in accusing Mahler of having destroyed the prestige of Viennese musical culture. The Deutsches Volksblatt wrote that he had earned “the universal hatred of the artists of our artistic institution [the Vienna Court Opera] as a result of his arrogance. He contributed much to the deplorable Judaization of that institution.”
Raised a Catholic, Alma Mahler remained sporadically observant and casually anti-Semitic throughout her adult life, and by calling her deceased husband a “Christgläubiger Jude” she buried him in a categorical minefield. “Christian” and “Jew” were loaded terms and shaped Mahler’s life daily; as Sander Gilman explains in The Case of Sigmund Freud, the opposite of “Jew” in late-nineteenth-century Europe was not “Christian” but “Aryan.” Alma could have called Gustav a “Christian” or even a Catholic, since he had been baptized in 1897. Or she could have identified him as a German, as Mahler had done with vehemence to a New York journalist in 1910, denying that he was Czech, despite his Moravian birthplace, and not even mentioning his Ashkenazi background. De La Grange, oddly repeating the sanitizing efforts he accurately detects among some of Mahler’s non-Jewish associates, spends many pages trying to prove that Mahler lacked any connection to Judaism, did not know either Hebrew or Yiddish and had not observed the bar mitzvah ritual at 13. But these are irrelevant, if not dubious, claims because in Mahler’s day “Jew,” like “Christian,” had become a racial term, detached from questions of creed.