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Bust of Gustov Mahler in Vienna State Opera. all photos by Rhonda Spivak

Inside Vienna State Operase

Inside Vienna State Opera

Freud Museum, Vienna, where Sigmund Freud practiced


Editor in Belvedere palace Vienna


*Mahler's Music Later Banned by the Nazis

by Rhonda Spivak, October 16, 2015





The Winnipeg Symphony’ Orchestra will be celebrating the life and music of the great composer Gustav Mahler, in a week-long Mahlerfest which runs from October 23-31, 2015. 



I first became interested in the musical genius of  Gustav Mahler ( 1860-1911) when I toured the State Opera House in Vienna last summer and  my tour guide pointed out a bronze bust of Mahler, who was the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera for ten years  from 1897-1907, that was sculpted by August Rodin. My guide  explained that Mahler was born Jewish, but had converted to Catholicism due to intense  antisemitism, which  barred him from becoming the artistic director of  the Vienna  Court Opera as a Jew.( Interestingly enough, Theodore Herzl, the father of modern  Zionism who also lived in Vienna in the 1880's like Mahler, toyed with the idea of converting in response to the growing antisemitism of the day in Austria, but ultimately chose to promote the notion of  Jews needing to form their own state in the land of Israel.) 



What makes the case of Gustov Mahler particularly striking is that Mahler's music was rarely performed in the years immediately following his early death in 1911 at age 50 from a blood infection. Mahler's music was also later banned during the Second World War by the Nazis as "degenerate" music since he was a Jew. But over the last five decades, the compositions of Mahler, who was a restless and conflicted personality, have undergone a steady revival, and Mahler is now recognized for the tremendous musical genius that he was.  As award winning Jewish author and musical commentator Norman Lebrecht, who is an expert on Mahler says, "Along with Picasso, Einstein and Freud, he [Mahler ] was a maker of our modern world,” and   is “the most influential symphonist of the twentieth century." Lebrecht is joining the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on October 31 to host the Manitoba premiere of "Mahler’s 10th: The Last Word," an event which will culminate the Symphony’s week-long Mahlerfest. On October 29th, there is also a special evening with Lebrecht where he will speak and share insights Mahler's life and music. (Click on the ad on the right side bar of this website to purchase tickets.)



Mahler was born in Kalischt Bohemia  (now in the Czech Republic) to Bernhard and Marie Mahler, German speaking Austrian Jews who owned a brandy distillery.  He was the second of twelve children, six of whom died very young and one of whom committed suicide. (According to Lebrecht, Mahler had both a bris and a bar-mitzvah, and was raised in a Jewish home, with his father being the chair of a synagogue education committee). When Mahler displayed a talent for music his father paid for piano lessons for him and by age 1O Gustav gave his first public recital before finding his way to the Prague Gymnasium and Vienna Conservatory. Mahler conducted while earning a sparse composing income, working through the smaller halls of Bohemia and Hungary and then obtaining appointments in Prague, Leipzig , Budapest , Hamburg , and, ultimately, Vienna. 



Throughout his career, Mahler had to contend with the anti-Semitic views of Vienna's musical establishment. Some commentators say that a significant theme from Mahler's early masterworks like the ''Songs of a Wayfarer'' and the Symphony No. 1 to the final ''Das Lied von der Erde'' is the theme of homelessness and wandering. "I am three times homeless", Mahler said "as a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew anywhere in the world.”  Of course, this theme of homelessness captured the situation of Diaspora Jews, and the foundation for the modern Zionism of Theodore Herzl, Mahler’s contemporary.  According to Lebrecht, who is the author of  the book “Why Mahler ?" The element of the wandering Jew is present in some of  Mahler's  work,  but not explicitly."  (As an aside, Lebrecht says that Mahler and Herzl were neighbors as students in Vienna. "Mahler knew of Herzl. Mahler also knew of the rise of Zionism. But we can't be sure if he and Herzl actually met.") 



One other significant Veinnese Jew that Mahler definitely met according to Lebrecht is famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1910, as he had a four and a half hour consult with Freud about his troubled marriage to Alma Maria Schindler , who was  not Jewish and twenty years younger than he. Their marriage almost ended in divorce given their by their age difference, his identity problems, and the death of their five-year-old elder daughter. As Lebrecht explains, "His consult with Freud enabled him to continue with the marriage. It was the longest consultation Freud ever had, since the usual consultation was one hour. His consultation with Mahler was the only one in which Freud considered the patient to be intellectually and spiritually his equal."



According to Lebrecht, in his sixth symphony in 1904, Mahler "warned of imminent world war." As he told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, "It definitely foreshadowed death and ends without a shred of hope. When he wrote it Maler was happy in his personal life.  To write a symphony of complete blackness says something about what he sees in the world. It's prophetic. Even in Mahler's third symphony [about ecological damage] which was the  most pastoral and sunniest, we hear the march of tramping boots. Mahler was a man filled with a terrible sense of premonition at a time when the world was very complacent with its future."



In a 1981 article titled "Mahler: The Time has Come" famed composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was a key figure in the revival of Mahler's music, said that  in essence Mahler's music is about "conflict." As Bernstein wrote:



"… all of Mahler's music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the creator vs. Mahler the performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate...But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler's music." (



As Bernstein concluded, the "doubleness" in Mahler's music captured  " the doubleness of the man":



"Mahler was split right down the middle, with the curious result that whatever quality is perceptible and definable in his music, the diametrically opposite quality is equally so," Bernstein wrote.




As a result, according to Bernstein, Mahler is unique in that his music expresses his divided and conflicted life of  both triumph and heartbreak.  Mahler's music is both simultaneously "refined" and "raw", "confident" and "insecure", "subtle" and "blatant".  As Bernstein explains, it was as if Mahler music had one foot in the nineteenth century (a century of optimism) and the other in the twentieth century.



According to Lebrecht,  Mahler's  First Symphony tackled the issue of child mortality . "It was a protest that society as a whole devalued the life of a child. At the time in Moravia a half of the children born did not live to age five. Only five of the Mahler siblings lived to adulthood."



Lebrecht notes that Mahler's second symphony "denied Church dogma" and "the Fourth proclaimed racial equality.” In his book, “Why Mahler?” Lebrecht also says in that some of the connections he makes are also open to debate. "The opposite" Lebrecht adds "as so often in Mahler, may also be true." 



In an article in 2009, Lebrecht interestingly links Mahler's music to his Jewish roots and also to the Yiddish language (



"What makes his [Mahler's] music unmistakable are its Jewish cliches, many of which have been shouted out by Leonard Bernstein - the klezmer theme in the first symphony, the possible shofar blast in the second, the sighs and whispers of the ninth...  While writing a new study of Mahler… I arrived at the conclusion that the most Jewish aspect of his music is to be found in forms of expression that derive from the way the Yiddish language is spoken.



“Yiddish is the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews, a dialect developed over ten centuries of oppression to a degree where the same phrase could express one thing to insiders and another to outsiders, depending on the way it was spoken. Yiddish was both evasive and precise, a warning of danger and a treasury of Jewish history, a rich, ambiguous terrain that no composer had exploited before. Mahler, raised in a German environment, heard his parents and grandparents speak mameloshen at home, giving his unconscious mind the spark to create music with multiple meanings. Being Jewish is the source of Mahler’s invention."



Tickets to Mahlerfest and tickets to each individual event can be purchased by visiting or at Ticketmaster. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the WSO box office at (204) 949-3999. Student tickets are also available. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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