In the summer of 1910, Gustav Mahler consulted Sigmund Freud, seeking advice on his troubled marriage. “Mahler gave me the impression of being a genius,” Freud recalled, “yet at the same time somehow curiously apelike.” Over the course of their four-hour conversation, Freud diagnosed a Holy Mary complex or mother fixation. Mahler had retrieved a childhood memory of running from his home to escape a parental argument, and stumbled upon an organ grinder playing a hurdy-gurdy. This might not have solved his marital problems, but it did provoke an epiphany: “Now I understand something about my music!” he cried out. “I have often been criticised for crude changes from the noblest melody to one that is banal.”
These “crude changes” offended some of Mahler’s contemporaries, but they lend his work a postmodern currency. His music is cinematic in its scope: at once epic and personal, transcendent and ironic. “The symphony should be like the world,” Mahler told Sibelius. “It must embrace everything.”
During his lifetime, Mahler was better known as a conductor, particularly for his pioneering role with the Vienna State Opera. He crammed his composition into summer holidays, working from various countryside “composing huts”. And yet there was nothing part-time about his ambitions: he knew he was composing for the future. “I am to find no recognition as a composer during my lifetime,” he complained to a critic, aggravated at the success of his rival, Richard Strauss. “My time will come when his is up.”
In 2010, Mahler’s time has certainly come, even if Strauss’s time is not yet up. To celebrate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth, orchestras all around the world are programming Mahler cycles. In Australia, every major symphony orchestra except Melbourne’s performs Mahler this year. The Sydney Symphony began its two-year “Mahler Odyssey” in February, with performances of the Symphony No. 1, the Songs of a Wayfarer, and the gargantuan Symphony No. 8, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. “If you are a musician you can’t avoid Mahler,” explains Ashkenazy. “He has an unbelievable gift. And of course the challenge is tremendous, and one wants to have challenges.”
Ashkenazy is one of classical music’s most revered musicians. Midway through a stellar career as a pianist, he moved into conducting, and his appointment in 2009 as Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Sydney Symphony was a great coup for the orchestra. But the coupling of Mahler and Ashkenazy is not an obvious one; where Mahler’s music is drenched in ego, Ashkenazy exudes humility. Offstage, he dresses in white and, with his shock of white hair, the effect is luminous: he seems a small, bright pilot flame of music.
“I wouldn’t listen too much to Mahler myself, because it’s all about himself,” he admits. “Basically it’s all about me – how much I suffer. But this doesn’t matter, because the music grips me. When you conduct it you are defenceless and become a slave of it, basically.”
In the years after Mahler’s death, his works fell out of favour with the public, until Leonard Bernstein spearheaded a revival in the 1960s. But his influence remained strong on a generation of successors: from Berg and Schoenberg to Britten and Shostakovich. Stravinsky, characteristically, resisted his pull, referring to him as “Malheur”, or misfortune. Mahler’s music delivers an endorphin hit and provokes a fandom unusual in the classical music world. (Paul McCartney claimed that “Mahler was a major influence on the music of The Beatles. John and me used to sit and do the Kindertotenlieder and Wunderhorn for hours.”)
Before marrying Alma, Mahler sent her a letter instructing her to abandon her musical ambitions and reminding her that “you have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!” Perhaps the entire future of their marriage was contained in this letter. Alma found such a profession difficult, describing her husband as a “perpetual grief-seeker”, but in fact grief stalked Mahler throughout his life. Born in Bohemia in 1860, he was one of 14 children, seven of whom died young. The death of his brother Ernst as a teenager troubled Mahler deeply; later, another brother, Otto, committed suicide. His marriage was fraught from the beginning, but the couple had two daughters, the eldest of whom died of scarlet fever in 1907. At her deathbed, the devastated Mahler asked the doctor to check his own heart and was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. Despite his great success at the Vienna State Opera, he was the victim of anti-Semitic attacks and so in 1907 he left for the US, to take up roles with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. Four years later, he died, aged 50.
“He was a very tragic personality,” says Ashkenazy. “He had a terrible experience with his wife who was unfaithful to him, very openly, and not once – she was collecting famous personalities. And who knows what he was driven to? Maybe in a way he elevated or graduated or managed to find himself in another sphere of spiritual existence.” Ashkenazy feels this graduation most keenly at the conclusion of Symphony No. 9, which Sydney Symphony will perform on 18 May next year to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death. “There is nothing else like this in musical literature,” he remarks. “I myself cannot help being absolutely taken by it. I always quote a friend of mine, who said that the last note in Symphony No. 9 makes him feel as if the last strain of matter disappears in the universe. And if there’s no universe, what is there?”
In Symphony No. 8, composed three years earlier in 1906, the universe remains very much in existence. Mahler directed a friend to “imagine the whole universe beginning to sing and resound. These are no longer human voices, but coursing planets and suns.” Characteristically, Mahler uses these planetary forces to address his wife. The symphony was dedicated to Alma and stems from a period of truce in their marriage. “Mahler began at that time to have a new and stronger feeling for me,” she remembered, “a conscious feeling in contrast with his earlier self-absorption.” It is a work that idealises the feminine, concluding with Goethe’s lines: “The eternal feminine draws us upwards.”
Nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand”, the work was completed in just eight weeks. It begins with a rousing first movement for choir, orchestra and soloists, in which the creator addresses God: “Veni, Creator Spiritus”. In the second movement, the unnamed soloists move into focus, becoming the protagonists of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and the symphony turns into a virtual opera of the virtual play. Faust’s soul is borne aloft by angels and finally granted salvation by Mater Gloriosa, or the Virgin Mary. It does not take a first-rate analytical mind to uncover Mahler’s Holy Mary complex: Mater Gloriosa is given only two lines to sing, but they are of climactic importance.
Sydney Symphony performed this work with hundreds of performers (rather than 1000), but there was still voltage enough. The first movement was a robust invocation to creativity: a demand more than a prayer. In the orchestral opening to the second movement, the orchestra was at its most ardent, as though driven onward by the Eternal Feminine. When she finally appeared, as a bell-voiced Sara Macliver high in the organ loft, it felt like a blessing. It was not a flawless performance – threatening to come unstuck several times – but as it concluded the large auditorium seemed to take flight, as thousands of people in the audience and on stage were borne aloft by the power of this music. And at the centre of it all, like a tiny Wizard of Oz, was the figure of Ashkenazy: defenceless, enslaved, beaming us up.
Afterwards, there was a reception in a room overlooking the harbour. A corporate sponsor concluded his speech by thanking Vladimir “Ashkena-ry”. “Did I get that right?” he laughed. “I practised and practised and practised!” Ashkenazy did not seem to mind. “This orchestra is so attentive. They saved about three moments of danger – I won’t say whose fault! You know, we lost half a bar here, half a bar there, but there are so many bars in this symphony.”
If a symphony can embrace the whole world, surely it can contain a few flaws. Human enterprise has rarely seemed grander to me than on this evening, in this building, its walls vibrating with the music of hundreds. “We raised the roof tonight – yes?” He grinned. “But the sails are still there!”
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