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Mahler's Body | The Nation

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Mahler's Body

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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.

About the Author

David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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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.

Despite the prevalence of anti-Semitism, Mahler took full advantage of the piecemeal emancipation--freedom of movement, freedom to own a small business, access to education--that gradually allowed Jews to enter mainstream Viennese society. He also revered a pantheon of German cultural heroes: Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe, Kant, Nietzsche. For Mahler, cultural identification trumped ethnic and political affiliation; even though he lived most of his life within the Hapsburg Empire, he thought of himself as a German rather than an Austrian. As a believer Mahler was also more culturally German than narrowly Austrian. Though nominally a Catholic after his baptism, Mahler drew his religious ideas from lesser-known thinkers, such as his friend Siegfried Lipiner (also a Jewish-born convert to Christianity), who espoused a pantheistic humanism far removed from both doctrinal Catholicism and the acute Nietzschian skepticism that the non-Jewish Richard Strauss could bring to life musically (in Also Sprach Zarathustra) without fear of being labeled a rootless cosmopolitan.

Hardly a raving Jewish anti-Semite like Otto Weininger, Mahler nevertheless perceived his Jewishness to be an encumbrance, even a physical disability. He told a friend that being a Jew was like having one arm shorter than the other. As it happens, Mahler did have a physical impediment. His right leg twitched uncontrollably, leaving him with a notoriously unsteady gait that was seized upon by others as a stereotypical marker of Jewish bodily degeneration: caricatures of Mahler at the podium portrayed him as a puppet pulled by strings, lacking any kind of spine. His appearance was protean to an uncanny degree. Even people close to Mahler described him in contradictory ways: old, young, sickly, strong, pallid, swarthy. His face was grotesque, a cross of the features of Beethoven and Goethe. His body appeared either divine or demonic. Schoenberg called him a saint; Oscar Fried called him a messiah of music. Alma once found his white flesh Lucifer-like; but near the end of his life she wrote of "his naked, painfully emaciated body. No one felt any shame. It was Christ's Entombment. This was the thought that came to all of us."

Mahler's life and work were ruled by a double bind: the more he distanced himself from whatever aspects of his Jewish background society found debased, the more strongly people saw his Jewish identity inscribed forever, as in Kafka's story "The Penal Colony," in the flesh. Mahler was snared by this infernal trap many times during the last years of his life, the most public episode being the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in the fall of 1910, one month after the revelation of his wife's infidelity.

The Eighth, immediately dubbed by promoters the Symphony of a Thousand, was unprecedented, even though it drew on Beethoven's Ninth and Liszt's Faust Symphony. A summa--at once symphony, oratorio and opera, and even a mass, as Mahler told his friend Alfred Roller--it deployed vast choral and instrumental forces to set two texts, the seventh-century Christian Pentecost hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" and the closing scene from Part II of Goethe's Faust, ending with the "Chorus Mysticus" in praise of the Eternal Feminine. Never before had Mahler set a text of Christian liturgy, but by coupling it with Goethe's heterodox vision of redemption he created an ecumenical musical cathedral (the first sound is made by an organ) consecrated to the totality of European (German) culture from the early Middle Ages to the present, a culture based in Christianity but transcending it.

Despite the audience's ecstatic cheers, Mahler's musical embrace of Germanness, even on such an unprecedented scale (or perhaps because of it), was quickly assailed. De La Grange notes: "The general feeling throughout Germany and Austria was that the overwhelming reception accorded to the Eighth had been largely a Jewish phenomenon." As the composer Max Reger said at the time, "This Mahler affair is becoming a problem--all these on whom the Lord has bestowed a Semitic nose are naturally enthusiastic supporters of Mahler, since the Jews have urgent need of a great composer!" Never mind the sublime notes; it all came down to the nose. Even Adorno could not separate the music from the countenance: he titled his close reading of Mahler's music, written in 1960, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Yet Adorno's harsh assessment of the Eighth as a formulaic example of the "genre chef-d'oeuvre" is also a valuable reminder that not all of Mahler's critics were anti-Semites. Or wrong.

Infirma nostri corporis. These words, reiterated so as to rise from the hymnal text, inspire one of the few personal moments among the hollow hosannas of the Eighth Symphony. Our bodies are weak. Mahler was proud of his athleticism, but he was short and slight. People said his coffin could have held the body of a child. Yet like Leonard Bernstein, who was similarly built, Mahler loomed large: he conducted expansively with his entire body, unlike his tall friend Richard Strauss, who never sweated on the podium.

Infirma nostri corporis. Mahler knew of bodily weakness early on. His older brother died in his first year from an unexplained accident. In all, eight of Mahler's thirteen siblings would die in early childhood: of his three surviving younger brothers, one died in early adolescence; one was mentally unstable and fled, untraced, to America; and the last committed suicide. Mahler had to live with the dual legacy of the survivor: a sense of guilt and an equally burdensome sense of inexplicable luck. From his very first composition, a funeral march introduced by a polka, Mahler's music would be death-ridden, but defiant rather than elegiac. The first three symphonies employ the familiar musical archetypes of the funeral march and the hymn to map an ascendant route from death to life eternal. In the First, the grotesque dirge of the third movement leads directly to an affirmative finale in which the brass section blasts the tune from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" over the words "And He shall live forever and ever." The Second, whose first movement was originally titled Totenfeier, or funeral rite, repeats the journey but more expansively, adding a chorus and offstage brass to transport the listener beyond the end of days to general resurrection. The Third inflates the pattern once more into a two-hour musical ascent through the great chain of being, from mere matter to divine love.

Repeated and magnified in these three symphonies, growing ever longer and louder, the journey to life everlasting begins to sound like a desperate fixation, or maybe just a bad musical habit. Perhaps this was Mahler's point as he retraced the archetypical plotline of the nineteenth-century symphony, a journey from doubt to faith heard in Beethoven's Ninth, Brahms's First and Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Fifth. For Mahler's audience, the plot was familiar but the style new and unsettling; Mahler, like Strauss, was a musical realist. Both composers thought of their sophisticated techniques of orchestration, thematic development and polyphony as quasi-scientific tools. Mahler aspired to both the condition of the novel, with its power of psychological analysis, and the photograph.

Also like Strauss, Mahler wrote that all of his symphonies were autobiographical. Strauss struck an autobiographical note in an opera and two tone poems, but with the same clear-eyed objectivity he applied to Don Juan or Salome; he enjoyed painting himself as a card-playing everyman, an ordinary guy who happened to be a genius. Mahler's autobiographical presence is far more devious and elusive. Memories of loss and rejection are secreted away in the texts of songs whose melodies have become wordless themes. The funeral march of the First Symphony quotes a tune from "Songs of a Wayfarer": "The two blue eyes of my sweetheart have sent me out into the world." The funeral march of the Fifth alludes in passing to the song cycle Kindertotenlieder: "Now will the sun rise as brightly as if no misfortune had befallen in the night."

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.

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