On May 18, 1911, composer Gustav Mahler died, at the age of 50. Opinion was mixed about Mahler while he lived, and in the decades after his death, he could be said to have been deliberately “disappeared.” Only in the mid-20th century did his work and his reputation begin to soar, in large part thanks to the efforts of Leonard Bernstein.
Mahler converted to Catholicism specifically to advance his conducting career – he was not in general a believing man – and he married not only a non-Jew, but a notorious Jew-hater. Nonetheless, his Jewish background was a source of much of the hostility he was subjected to. (His imperious personality didn’t help him either.) Hence, Mahler’s “Jewish question” continues to engage musicologists and other scholars, who search for Jewish musical themes in his symphonies, and parse over the extent to which he continued to feel that he was a Jew.
Very Jewish roots
Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in Kaliste, Bohemia, today in the Czech Republic. His father, Bernhard Mahler, was the upwardly mobile son of a peddler: He began his working life as a coachman and advanced in standing to become an innkeeper. Bernhard’s grandfather had been a shohet (ritual slaughterer), and he himself was one of the founders of the synagogue in Iglau, where the family moved a half year after Gustav’s birth.
Gustav’s mother, the former Marie Hermann, bore 14 children, only six of whom survived beyond infancy. Gustav was the oldest of them.
His musical talent made itself apparent during childhood, after he began to play his grandparents’ piano, and he gave his first public performance at age 10. A few years later, at age 14, Gustav wrote an opera in memory of his younger brother Ernst.
Though Mahler is today considered one of the greatest composers of all time, during his lifetime, he made a living as a conductor, and every few years he had a different job. After studies at the Vienna Conservatory, he held a succession of positions with provincial orchestras or operas before landing a long-term contract with the Leipzig Opera, in 1886.
Admirer of Wagner
It was in 1897, when he was vying to become director of the Vienna Court Opera that he converted, as the institution had a bylaw preventing it from being led by a Jew. That was the same year that Karl Lueger became mayor of Vienna, and anti-Semitism was the bon ton. Mahler went out of his way to prove his German credentials, scheduling works by Wagner, one of his favorite composers, and Mozart.
Nonetheless, he was the object of an ongoing anti-Semitic campaign in the press, which wondered aloud if a Jew could maintain the German character of the opera, and helped drive him from the company in 1907.
By then, Mahler had been married to the beautiful and brilliant Alma Mahler for five years. Their marriage was perhaps destined to be an unhappy one after Gustav demanded that Alma, a gifted composer in her own right, give the writing of music in order to serve him and his needs. But she also had a strong dislike of the Jewish “race.”
When Mahler discovered, in 1910, that his wife was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius – handsome, young and non-Jewish – he was crushed, and the revelation overshadowed the critical success of his newly premiered 8th Symphony.
Mahler consulted with Sigmund Freud about Alma, and the couple decided to remain together, but Alma kept up the relationship with Gropius, to whom she was married briefly after Mahler’s death. (Gropius was followed by the Jewish novelist Franz Werfel, whom she at one point described as a “short, ugly, fat Jew.”)
Within less than a year, Mahler was dead, having contracted heart disease while resident in New York, and returning to Austria to enter a sanatorium, where he died on May 18, 1911.
During the Nazi period, Mahler’s work, deemed “degenerate,” could be played in Europe only by Jewish musicians for Jewish audiences. After World War II, thanks to the efforts not only of Bernstein, but of such figures as Aaron Copland and Leopold Stokowski, his music was finally given the attention it deserved internationally.
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