Habitually deriving symphonies from songs, Mahler created an intertextual web in which his own life, his own body, is both revealed and concealed. Complex cross-references make it perilous to connect specific events in the life to specific moments in the music, as de La Grange and other critics would like to do. If anything, the music seemed to predict events, not record them. In 1906, when his marriage and career seemed carefree, Mahler completed the Kindertotenlieder and the Sixth Symphony, known as the "Tragic." In the Sixth, Mahler composed his only extended romantic slow movement, a second, expanded musical love letter to Alma that uncharacteristically sounds like ripe Rachmaninoff; but in the finale, the fragments of that love music are trampled repeatedly under the sounds of a relentless death march, punctuated by three fatal strikes with a huge hammer. The following year, as if he were composing not just music but his life as well, Mahler would be forced out of his position in Vienna, his first daughter would die and doctors would tell him, not quite accurately, that his heart was defective and his days numbered. Mahler later deleted the final hammer blow from the Sixth, but Alma reinstated it with her sanatorium tryst in the summer of 1910.
Infirma. The two non-Jews closest to Mahler, his wife and the set designer Alfred Roller, fixated on his fleshly condition with a mixture of veneration and repugnance. Roller was Mahler's most important artistic collaborator; together they revolutionized operatic production in Vienna. Yet Roller felt impelled to rid Mahler of lingering traces of Jewishness. Roller claimed that Mahler "never made an issue of his Jewishness. His sense of being chosen by God came from personal, not racial roots." He implored Mahler to commemorate his conversion by composing a Mass; Mahler resisted, saying he could compose all the movements but the credo, but when he completed the Eighth he told Roller that it was, in effect, the Mass he had demanded. Roller also thought that conversion had to manifest itself in the flesh. He wrote a minutely detailed description of Mahler's physique after keenly observing his friend's body during a sunbathing session, and tended "to make of Mahler a sort of 'honorary Aryan.'" Compounding unconscious homoeroticism and inverted racial fear, Roller touches on Mahler's small feet and perfect toes and calls his body "faultlessly beautiful." In Roller's eyes, the immaculate body proved that the spirit was similarly unblemished.
Infirma. The story of Mahler's marriage, when he was 42, to a woman nineteen years his junior conveys how the dark waters of racism turned even murkier when they converged with an equally pervasive sexism. Alma Schindler, beautiful, brilliant, cultured and musically gifted, was at once a victim of the period's sexism and a skilled navigator of its treacherous currents. Bereft by the early death of her father, a famous artist, and stymied by social convention, she seduced older men, most but not all Jewish and ugly (the terms were interchangeable for her) who craved her devotion and were easily wounded by the slightest sign of her displeasure. As Mahler's partner, though, Alma found herself forced to play the roles of child-bearer, helpmeet, hausfrau, shiksa goddess and trophy wife; before Mahler married Alma, his sister Justine had fulfilled all the nonconjugal duties of the job. Mahler also exercised his conjugal rights by demanding that Alma forgo her work in musical composition; her job was to serve him alone.
In New York City, Alma inhabited the role of Frau Mahler with flair, charming the high society that supported music. But it was hard work, and she would return each year to Europe in a state of exhaustion, which her husband barely noticed. Increasingly he acted more like a mentor than a lover, showing his affection through lengthy discussions of Kant or Goethe. He was turning into Gustav von Aschenbach, the fictional character whose physical features Thomas Mann based on Mahler's; or worse, he was becoming an absurd pedant like Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrat. Alma, his blue angel, held the keys to his destruction. When Alma rejected her husband's body and began a passionate affair with Gropius--young, handsome and Aryan--Mahler's universe collapsed; he completed no music after he discovered the affair, and he died less than a year later. But before Alma betrayed him, Mahler had already composed his own death, twice.
Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth, both composed after the move to New York, could be termed Mahler's New World symphonies. Unlike Dvorák, however, Mahler showed little interest in American music or American culture. His command of English was so rudimentary that he could not read a newspaper. And yet these symphonies (he avoided the generic title for Das Lied out of superstition) summon a cultural universe different from their predecessors'. The Chinese poems Mahler set in Das Lied make no reference to God or the afterlife; mankind appears without divisions of race or nationality. Whereas the early symphonies progressed from death to resurrection, the six movements of Das Lied survey the ages of man from youth to death and locate eternity on earth rather than in heaven. Death itself appears, in the last song, "The Farewell," not as the tragic blow of the Sixth but in a luminous, protracted fadeout as a singer repeats the word ewig (eternal).
Mahler had now composed a definitive musical farewell, but there were two earthly cycles to come. In the summer of 1909 he composed his Ninth; the ease with which it appeared seems inexplicable, given its emotional and musical complexity. It begins as if in continuation of Das Lied, with a melody still intoning ewig and a harp sounding like a Chinese lute; but these peaceful echoes resound against a repeated, unsteady rhythmic figure, its three notes divided asymmetrically between cellos and horn. Mahler upturns the values of Das Lied while at the same time affirming them. One could say, using terms Mahler would have scorned, that the Ninth becomes a Talmudic commentary to the Song-Symphony's Torah. Mahler confronts the Eastern, pentatonic themes of Das Lied with contorted, all-too-European chromatic melodies of longing and pain; he marks one such passage "Leidenshaftlich," molto appassionato, not the passion of eros, but of suffering. Rewriting Das Lied with its two drinking songs, Mahler seems to chastise himself for dulling human misery with Chinese wine.
And yet the earthly vision of Das Lied does not allow Mahler to revert to his old heaven-seeking path. Instead he adopts the design of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, the "Pathéthique" (Mahler claimed to detest the Sixth and only conducted it, apparently without much conviction, in his final New York season). Tchaikovsky had placed two contrasting scherzos in the middle of the symphony and ended with an adagio movement, an imagined death that fades slowly to silence--and Mahler followed this via crucis precisely, though he felt obliged, as a good German composer, to enrich Tchaikovsky's structure with thematic elaboration and dense counterpoint. Mahler also imitated Tchaikovsky's thematic dualism, his tendency to build movements out of two big tunes with little in common but in a manner that also seems derived from the cyclical worldview of Das Lied. The contrasting themes don't interact or evolve; they recur over and over like the completing principles of yin and yang.
In his analysis of the Ninth, de La Grange castigates Leonard Bernstein's doomful reading of the symphony--especially in his Harvard lectures, The Unanswered Question--as a work that not only foretells Mahler's death but the death of music too. In particular, he questions Bernstein's characterization of the opening unsteady rhythmic theme as the sound of a cardiac arrhythmia. As if whistling in the dark, de La Grange reminds us that in the summer of 1909 Mahler's heart problems seemed to have subsided and his marital crisis was a year in the distance. Still, Bernstein's interpretation gains credibility from the fact that Mahler borrowed the heartbeat gesture from the opening bars of Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration," in which its meaning, thanks to Strauss's genius for musical depiction, is unmistakable. But Mahler's figure is not a personal EKG--it is a universal arrhythmia. Or, heard in a different way, it is Mahler's nervous gait transformed into an emblem of human vulnerability, which his music fleshes out with a compelling mixture of self-knowledge and compassion.