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My last sketch left Mahler leaving home aged 15 about to enter the Vienna
Conservatory to undertake piano studies with Julian Epstein. Under his
tutelage Mahler would win prizes at the end of each of his first two years, this
despite his frequent mitching off. His was a Bohemian student existence
well he did come from Bohemia after all - where he struggled financially
although he had some meagre support from his father and parcels from his
mother. When he announced that he could no longer go on, Epstein
personally paid half the tuition fees and passed on paying pupils for piano
lessons. Epstein must have felt let down when Mahler eventually decided
against pursuing piano studies further. This came after Mahler had heard both
Liszt and Anton Rubinstein in concert and concluded that he would never
attain their pianistic heights. For his final year, 187778, he concentrated on
composition and harmony. Few of Mahler's student compositions have
survived, usually abandoned when he became dissatisfied with them. He
destroyed a symphonic movement which he had prepared for an end-of-term
competition. He had copied out all the parts himself and, in doing so, had
made errors in different parts.
The long time autocratic director of the
Conservatory, Joseph Helmesberger, didnt want to know and rejected the
work out of hand. Helmesberger himself both hated Jews and people who
wore glasses. So what chance did Mahler have? When this years New Years
Day concert started, the first work conducted by Mariss Jansons was by
Helmesberger, an innocuous trifle which gives no clue to his reputation as the
obnoxious head of the Conservatory. Mahler according to one prominent
internet source may have gained his first conducting experience with the
Conservatory's student orchestra. in rehearsals and performances. But then
there is no evidence to suggest that he did. He may also have eaten Wiener
schnitzel at the time. In actual fact conducting was not a subject on the
curriculum. There is evidence, however, that Mahlers role in the student
orchestra was as a timpanist.
Student life was dominated by the schism between Brahms and Wagner.
Looking back it is difficult to apprehend what it was about but at the time the
musical world was torn. Both composers were still alive with Brahms himself,
although German, settled in Vienna. Their respective followers saw them both
as the true successor to Beethoven who had died half a century earlier.
Brahms was held out as writing symphonies and chamber music in the true
tradition of Beethoven. At this time he had only written his first two
symphonies. Wagner saw the symphony as dead in the water and that the true
spirit of Beethoven was passed on through his own vast music dramas. Other
composers tried to emulate one or other or both of them in method and sound
world, sometimes switching sides. Smetana and Dvorak are good examples.

The influence of both clan leaders can be clearly heard still in very often the
same work by Elgar, his second symphony, for example, written in 1911.
There was also the divide between the older traditionalists, the conservative
school (Brahms) and the students, moderns (Wagner). Naturally, Mahler and
his friends of whom there were three noteworthy musketeers, Hugo Wolf, Hans
Rott and Rudolf Krzyzkovski, were on the Wagner side. Listening to Mahlers
symphonies the influences sound more Wagner like. Yet take the second
movement of the Resurrection for instance, and it is decidedly more like a
Brahms serenade.
Anton Bruckner (1824-96) was a lecturer at the
Conservatory. I have inserted his dates because the names of Mahler and
Bruckner tend to get linked like Morecambe and Wise when in fact Bruckner
was born ten years almost before Brahms. Bruckner wrote long symphonies
as did Mahler but there any similarity ends. Bruckner was as devoted to
Wagner as a cocker spaniel and dedicated his third symphony to him. Actually
he couldnt remember if it was the second or third and gave Wagner the
choice. What makes this odder is that Wagner would not or could not write one
himself. Mahler was not one of Bruckners pupils but he attended his lectures.
Mahler and Krzyzkovski were at the disastrous premier of Bruckners third but
demonstrated their ongoing support for him by writing a two piano version.
Wolf and Rott both died quite young of insanity, Wolf best known for his lieder,
Rott for one very Mahler like symphony.
Mahler left the Conservatory in 1878 with a diploma despite almost having
been rusticated for leftist activities. He then enrolled at the University of
Vienna at his fathers suggestion to study literature and philosophy for a year.
After that, he scraped some living as a piano teacher in such straitened
circumstances that he probably couldnt afford Wiener schnitzel. He continued
to compose, and in 1880 finished his cantata, Das Klagende Lied ("The Song of
Lamentation"). This was his first substantial work in which his own voice can
be heard but showing some Wagnerian and Brucknerian influences. It is a
curious work written in bits and pieces and seems to get played in different
versions consisting of bits and pieces.
Now came the time to go out into the wide, wide world, but to do what? He
had dropped the only skill he had possessed, the piano. He was showing
interest in composing but he wouldnt find any available opening there in the
labour exchange. His only experience had been to be a percussionist in the
student orchestra. He was recommended to Gustav Lowy to act as his agent
which he did for ten years. It was Lowy who found Gustav Mahler his first and
following posts as he started out to carve a career as conductor, first in the
local opera pit at Bad Hall. Before following his experiences, let me first just
give you a list of the towns and cities where he obtained his successive posts
and then we can take a detailed Cooks tour in Mahlers footsteps:Bad Hall - Olmutz - Kassel - Prague - Leipzig - Budapest - Hamburg

Before setting out for Bad Hall he had been back home to Iglau where he
encountered his fist love affair, with a postmans daughter to whom he was
giving piano lessons. It started happily enough but they werent exactly Tristan
and Isolde. He was then off to Bad Hall, a summer holiday resort where it
rained most of the time. The one feature in abundance in Austria/Germany
were opera houses, operas in every town, big or small, which provided the
most popular form of entertainment of the time. They also needed conductors
who turned out to be of equally variable abilities. Mahler described the theatre
at Bad Hall as a hell. It was small, seating about two hundred and
uninhabitable every time it rained. Mahlers duties turned out not only to be
that of conductor but stage manager, librarian, porter, administrator and, like
Figaro from the Barber of Seville, general factotum.
Bad Hall was as bad as its name suggests and six months was enough for
Mahler. Then it was back to the drawing board and going on to something else.
The quest resulted in two outposts in Moravia, Olmutz where there was the
Royal Municipal Theatre and Laibach. The Laibach season each year lasted six
months during which Mahler with somewhat limited resources mastered and
conducted Verdis Il Trovatore, Gounods Faust, The Magic Flute, Der
Freischutz by Weber and, very popular in the days before electric recordings,
Flotows Martha. (I was put off classical music by my parents records of
Martha with Caruso. The cellos in the pre-electric recording sounded more
like euphoniums). Still Mahler was extending his repertoire and knowledge
better than at Olmutz where he was limited to Verdi and Meyerbeer. Not only
was his repertoire extending but also his ability as he learned on the job. He
was fast becoming a disciplinarian and an improviser. He was not popular
with the orchestras and rehearsed them into the ground. His improvisatory
abilities come from many anecdotes including his whistling the tune when a
singer failed to appear on stage in Martha. It was very much a make do and
get on with it with undersized orchestras and substandard playing. The
incredible thing is that Mahler was not primarily interested in opera but the
symphony and never himself an opera composer apart from his arranging
some sketches by Carl Maria von Weber for Die Drei Pintos. He had not
planned a career in opera any more than an ambition to be a conductor. He
was where he was in 1883, at Laibach, and time to move on, more so when he
heard the crushing news of Wagners death.
Very soon there would be a new appointment at Kassel. His ability had been
noticed and he was engaged there as assistant conductor. Here he was a
smaller fish but in a bigger pond. The chief conductor was one Wilhelm Treiber
who ran the place with military precision and kept the juicier repertoire for
himself with Mahler being left to conduct Flotow and Lortzing. This wasnt for
him. However, there appeared an opportunity when the renowned conductor,
Hans von Bulow arrived to conduct at Kassel. Mahler came to watch him and
was hypnotized, the man entrusted by Wagner to Meistersinger and Tristan
after Wagner had earlier seduced his wife, Cosima. Von Bulow would divorce
Cosima and Wagner marry her. Before then there had been something of a

marital truce but musically Von Bulow switched camps to become an ardent
supporter of Brahms. What else would one expect after being cuckolded?
Mahler now wrote to von Bulow seeking to become his pupil. Von Bulow
passed the letter to Treiber who re-acted by making life as difficult as he could
for Mahler. When the management of the Opera House decided to create a
choral and orchestral festival centred on Mendelssohns St Paul and
Beethovens ninth symphony, which was seen as second rate to opera, they
chose their second in command, Mahler, to be its director. Treier was so put
out that he played the anti-Semitic card and organized the orchestra to refuse
to play under him. Here Mahler displayed his steel and tenacity. He travelled
all over Germany recruiting players, more than there were previously, and then
whipping them into better shape than had ever previously been heard at
Kassel. The result was a resounding success, leaving him with an enhanced
reputation such that Kassel were no longer able to hold on to him. He was
instead soon approached and taken on board by Leipzig.
Whilst at Kassel Mahler was having a passionate fling with a young singer,
Johanna Richter. Little seems to be known of the relationship but it seems to
have aroused him in more ways than one, in particular his writing his song
cycle Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfaring Wanderer).
These songs were taken from the tales which coloured his childhood, Das
Knaben Wunderhorn (The Magic Wonderhorn), a title he would give to a later
song cycle. What is interesting is the format of these cycles. He had earlier
composed in his student days Das Klagende Lied which was a massive vocal
work for two soloists and orchestra. The Wayfarer was scored to begin with for
piano and only later orchestrated. Presumably a piano version had the hope
of a drawing room performance la Schubert but on the whole Mahler was
ultimately aiming at something larger, the concert hall. He was not quite the
first to conceive song cycles bearing orchestral accompaniment - Berlioz had
been there first with his Nuits dt as early as 1845 but Mahler would get to
extend and develop the genre. More importantly, it was his Wayfarer songs to
which he would return five years later to prospect for themes for his first
symphony imbuing it with the magic atmosphere of the Wunderhorn.
Although he had been snapped up by Leipzig his start date would not begin
until 12 months later and meantime Mahler had some severance money with
time on his hands to fill. The German Theatre in Prague was in the doldrums
and Mahler sought a position there pro tem. It is an odd fact that in 1861
Smetana, a German speaking Czech, had taken charge of the Provisional
Theatre in Prague and which had been dedicated to Czech language plays and
operas. Now, the roles were reversed. It was the German opera which needed a
boost and Mahler was engaged. Its principal conductor had just been
appointed to the Metropolitan Opera in New York whilst his number two was
not minded to take on any more. Mahler therefore found himself virtually in
charge. His luck was immediately in as the first two assignments were Das
Rheingold and Die Walkre to be followed by Don Giovanni. Wherever Mahler
took up a new position it always seemed to start with two Wagner operas

followed by Don Giovanni. He became more and more a disciplinarian. Heaven

help the musician who didnt get it right first time and there is no doubt he
made enemies then and throughout his career. The conventional conductor of
the time was a rigid time beater whilst Mahlers style was perceived as
eccentric with his body movements and facial expressions. He attracted added
criticism by deviating frequently from the score and adding his own flourishes.
There is no doubt however that under Mahler musical standards had been
raised and his reputation as a conductor was spreading. He would like to have
stayed on in Prague where de facto he had overall control. On the other hand,
he was contracted to Leipzig where he would be second conductor to none
less than Artur Nickisch, one of the worlds top three. In 1886, Mahler, the
wandering wayfarer, thus took up his position in Leipzig.
It had its pros and its cons. Leipzig, city of the Gewanthaus Orchestra,
founded by Schumann, famed by Mendelssohn and birthplace of Wagner.
Mahler gained much support from Nikisch who was to conducting what
Ranjitsinhji was to cricket, a wizard. There were niggles. Nikisch allotted
Mahler the early Wagner, Rienzi and the like, whilst keeping the later plums to
himself. Then Nikisch fell ill, indisposed for two seasons and Mahler was in
charge of an opera house which seated 1900 and an orchestra of 76 good
musicians if not always true. Fine, but he was doing the work of two. In two
years he performed 54 operas with 200 performances, not counting rehearsals.
He was fast driving himself into the ground and with no break to compose.
Added to this, he had met Carl von Weber, a grandson of the great composer,
and which led to Mahler reconstructing the composers sketches for the opera,
The Three Pintos, and which Mahler got performed. More distracting was Frau
Weber, Carls wife, Marion, where Mahler was again doing the job of two. This
reached the state where the two planned to elope, she leaving her husband
and he his opera house. It was perhaps fortunate that she did not turn up at
the appointed rendez-vous. Goodness knows what it would have done for his
career or his family for that matter. By this time both his parents were ailing,
the elder of his sisters had died. One of his brothers was a neer-do-well and
another would commit suicide. Effectively Gustav was the sole breadwinner.
Having resigned from Kassel, the next port of call would be Budapest and the
Hungarian National Opera. Politically, Hungary had been at odds in the
Austro-Hungarian set up and there was a rising feeling of nationalism. A new
opera house had been built in 1884 and in four years, despite all mod cons
they were running out of funds and audiences. They needed someone new at
the helm and, from all accounts, Mahler, now 26, seemed to be their man. He
was offered a ten year contract but with one overriding condition. Operas had
to be in Hungarian and Mahler should learn the language. He was not put off.
Nikisch, who had turned down the position, would have had better
qualifications in that he was Hungarian and Magyar speaking. Mahler was
music director and administrator and given a free hand. It gave him the
opportunity to choose its repertoire and to update the theatrical side of things
with modern lighting and back projections. His first target was the visiting star

system. Those who had appeared in Budapest commanded large fees.

Moreover, it was a stars right to choose to sing in his/her own language so
that one could find three or four languages being sung in any one quartet.
None of them was prepared to take lessons in Magyar and out they went, to be
replaced by local but passable singers. This brought the prices down and the
crowds and the money back. George Osborne would not have thought of that
but Mahler did. Within two months Mahler had staged Rheingold and Walkre
in Hungarian. Musical standards rose and Brahms commented in Vienna that
the best place to hear Giovanni was in Budapest. Still Mahler had his
It was during his Budapest tenure that Mahlers first symphony received its
first performance in 1888. It included a number of themes taken from the
Wayfarer Cycle. Its strange (to its then audience) images of nature and musical
colours were not well received and its critics were abjectly hostile. It also was
originally in five movements containing an andante entitled Blumine,
originally written in two days as a serenade to Johanne Richter. Mahler would
subsequently change his mind about it and excluded it after the works third
performance. Blumine was lost for many years until discovered by Donald
Mitchellin an American archive and it was given its first performance under
Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh. The first symphony was effectively the first
major Mahler work to be heard in the concert hall and for him to become
designated as composer as well as conductor.
Back in Budapest there were those who felt that he had not gone far enough in
Hungarification and that he ought to have been devoting himself more to
promoting national composers of whom there were precious few available
from whom to choose. Much at the same time (1888) he lost both his parents
in quick succession and family responsibilities became an additional duty to
carry. As head of the family he assumed responsibility for his younger sister,
With a change of Intendent at the theatre at Budapest, Mahler sensed thered
be trouble ahead and quietly lined up an option to take over at Hamburg before
negotiating his early release from his current ten year contract in Budapest
with payment of 25,000 gulden to be paid upon termination. The new Intendent
readily terminated and with this golden handshake Mahler was able to take up
the option with Hamburg and to purchase a flat in Vienna into which he
installed Justine.
Hamburg, second city of Germany with its large opera house and modern
equipment presented itself as a big prize. It was under the musical direction of
Hans von Bulow and managed by Bernhardt Pohl, nom de plume Pollini, a
former opera singer and now an impresario with a nose for making money. He
was nicknamed Monopollini. Mahler had been taken on by him as the hot
property of the day to attract audiences and groomed to take over from von
Bulow. Yet contrary to Mahlers policy at Budapest, Pollini lavished money on
engaging star singers but held back spending out on productions which he

thought did not realize any commensurate returns. His policy was to go for
any opera which got bums on seats, again flying in the face of Mahler who not
only pressed for the great classics of the day but introduced new repertoire
such as Dalibor by Smetana and verismo opera such as Cavalleria Rusticana.
There was no such thing as repertory programming as such but a varied
miscellany of operas differing each night. This would stretch what available
time there was to its limits with the need to be studying new scores and
constantly requiring to rehearse the orchestra and cast to his ever own
demanding standards. Von Bulow, despite his anti-Jewish leanings, held
Mahlers direction of the orchestra in great respect particularly in the way
Mahler was able to procure high standards even on a first reading. However,
as with Brahms, he didnt go for to Mahlers own writing which he found so
modern as would make Tristan and Isolde sound like Haydn. He made this
remark, somewhat malapropos, after Mahler had played over to him what was
to be the first movement of his Resurrection symphony, not knowing that
ultimately it would be Von Bulows own funeral which would deliver to Mahler
the solution as to how to finish that symphony.
It was during his tenure at Hamburg that Mahler produced a revised version of
his first symphony, still then in five movements containing Blumine. The first
symphony had ended in a triumphant blaze. The second symphony started
with a funeral march. What sequel could it have? It was during the funeral
ceremony for von Bulow in 1892 that the hymn, Ode to Resurrection, set to
verses, by Klopsock was played. At the time Mahler was musing upon the
meaning of life, death and creation. The idea of resurrection came to him as
the solution to the musical, if not the doctrinal problem. It would be in this
work that Mahler painted a great musical canvas to contain a vast concept of
the opening of the graves, the rising of the bodies to heaven and resurrection,
in a symphony lasting ninety minutes. For those going to hear it at the Albert
Hall you may need a seat belt for the prevention of levitation.
In Hamburg Tchaikovsky had heard Mahler conduct Tannhauser and invited
him to conduct the first performance of Eugene Onegin outside of Russia.
Mahler did not feel he had succeeded as well as he had done with that
composers opera Pique Dame. Still Tchaikovsky was satisfied that Mahler
was the greatest interpreter he had heard. Within two years Tchaikovsky had
died and Mahler conducted the funeral ceremony in Hamburg.
In the summer of 1892 Mahler paid his only visit London for a four-week
season at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and directed a complete Ring Cycle
which was for the second time only in this country and the first in German.
Henry Wood, then a 22 year old music student, was in the audience as was
Ralph Vaughan Williams who was left sleepless for two days afterwards.
Mahler was a complete success with the audiences if not the critics.
Mahler would not again undertake any further summer engagements but
instead, starting from 1893 took the first of his holidays at Steinbach at Lake
Attersee. Here he was able to relax, walking in the mountains and able to

compose. For this he had built a small summer house by the edge of the Lake.
This was where he would compose every day for three months and amend his
scores and rest when he needed to. He would get up at 6.30 in the morning
and work there every day till 1 pm. It was a strict routine every year in which
he was not to be interrupted. His sister even placed scarecrows about to
ensure that the noise from the birds did not disturb him.
This, for the first time, was Mahler, as the professional composer at work in
surroundings he loved. There he produced his leviathan symphonies,
scheduled over usually two annual summers. Later the venue would change
and a new summerhouse obtained but the ritual remained always the same.
The first composition to be written there was the Resurrection, symphony
number 2 which received its first performance in 1894. One of the conductors
of the off stage brass at that performance was the young Otto Klemperer for
whom Mahler gave a scribbled reference which Klemperer treasured to his
The third symphony of Mahler would be even longer, written in six movements
(originally he had seven in mind), and which gave rise to his claim that the
symphony embraces the whole world. This would receive its first performance
with only its first three movements in 1896 (the second, third and sixth
movements) conducted by Felix Weingartner in Berlin. It was not performed as
a whole until 1902 in Vienna.
Back in Hamburg the strains placed on Mahler had extended since he had
taken over from von Bulow. There was no-one replacing him although he had
taken on the young Bruno Walter as an assistant, more as a disciple. He had
reached his limit with Pollini who was a kind of cross breed between Donald
Trump and Raymond Gubbay. The aims of Pollini and Mahler were different.
For Pollini it was financial success. For Mahler it was I conduct to live. I live
to compose. The time had come to move on and there was only one place
which beckoned, Vienna. This had its problems. There was first of all an
institutional stumbling block.
To become director of the Hofoper it
necessitated a Court appointment and the holder to be of the Catholic faith.
Mahler had been Jewish all his life but non-practising and very much an
agnostic but not an atheist, nor more pertinently a Catholic. First though, he
needed to resign his position at Hamburg. He then left on a concert tour,
taking in Berlin for the first performance of this third symphony under
Weingartner and then on to Russia. On his return to Hamburg he entered St
Marys Cathedral at Hamburg to undergo acceptance into the Catholic Faith.
Most writers view his conversion as pragmatic.
For his planned conquest of Vienna Mahler clearly needed to lay the ground.
Vienna already had the leading conductor of the day, Hans Richter, who was
very conservative and very popular. Vienna was also traditional and content to
live on its laurels. Mahler called upon Brahms who still held influence but there
was nothing coming from that quarter. Richter was opposed. He could not call
into question Mahlers musical credentials but he had his own anti-Semitic

ones. In this he enlisted support from Cosima Wagner who added her dose of
vitriol stating her husband would never have allowed Mahler into Bayreuth.
Viennas mayor, equally anti-Semitic, stated only he could pronounce upon
who was a Jew and who was not. Amongst the turmoil there were those with
influence on Mahlers side particularly the Court Chamberlain. They were
aware that Vienna was living off its past and needed someone like Mahler to
pull it up by its boot tags ready for the twentieth century. The old school were
gradually dying off. Richter announced he would be leaving to conduct at the
Halle in Manchester, after which he would become the first conductor of the
London Symphony Orchestra founded in 1904. Bruckner, the idol of Mahlers
youth, but also ex organist of Linz Cathedral, had died in 1896, soon to be
followed by Clara Schumann. Then in April 1897 Brahms himself died. Within a
month of his death, Gustav Mahler took his place on the podium at Vienna for
his first appearance there, a performance of Lohengrin. Had the great Wagner
himself been there, in person or in spirit, even he would have joined in the
applause at the curtain call. Before the end of the year Gustav Mahler would be
the unchallenged and undisputed music director of the Vienna Opera.