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           Gustav Mahler’s excruciatingly beautiful music is laden with the melancholy and presentiment of hopelessness that often infused late nineteenth-century Romanticism.  His large-scale symphonic works often require large numbers of performers (in great variety), and can challenge the endurance of the audience, as well as that of the players.  More recognized in his time as conductor than as composer, he assiduously composed in summers, while pursuing a strenuous conducting career that was brought to an early end by heart disease.  He was married in 1902 to the famous--some would say infamous--and beautiful Alma Schindler, a woman almost twenty years his junior. They had two winsome daughters, one of whom, Maria (“Putzi”) died tragically at the age of four in 1907.  It is said that Alma bitterly blamed him for tempting fate by writing his Songs on the Deaths of Children.   Constant bickering with singers and the virulently anti-Semitic press in Vienna led Mahler to New York City in the same year, where he became a star conductor with the Metropolitan Opera.  His success there led him to an appointment with the New York Philharmonic in 1909 as principal conductor--a rival of Toscanini.  Life was fulfilling, for he enjoyed working with the professionalism of the players there; but that year was marked not only by great success with the première of his Eighth Symphony, but by grief at the discovery of Alma’s affair with the famous young architect, Walter Gropius of Bauhaus renown.  Mahler was heartbroken, and even consulted Sigmund Freud.  After one more season in New York Mahler’s ill health forced his return to Europe, where he died of bacterial endocarditis in May of 1911.

            Against this backdrop of personal stress and grief, Mahler seems today to be the perfect creator of intense, existentialist reflections on the dual nature of human existence, banal, yet transcendent.  His personal--and to my mind it is uniquely so--rumination on life’s meaning can be somewhat prolix and repetitive at the symphonic level, or penetratingly aphoristic in his songs.

            What is perhaps Mahler’s most well known music is the famous “Adagietto.”  It is an added (standing in fourth place) movement in his expansive, fifth symphony, and gained worldwide fame for its ubiquitous use in the film, Death in Venice (1971), and in innumerable other places.  Simply put, it’s an intense love offering to Alma, written in the summer of 1902, right after their marriage.  He worshiped her, and it shows eloquently here, almost painfully so--especially considering the checkered relationship that plagued them almost from beginning to end.  He met her while she was having an affair with her music composition teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, and he died while she was in the notorious, semi-public affair with Gropius.  Mahler’s letters to her, his anguished notations in his musical scores—they’re almost embarrassing—are a testimony to his long-suffering devotion to her.   But, in the moment there was happiness, even if he exaggerated it in his mind.   Not only newlywed bliss, but also incredible beauty—all in the music.  After his death she blithely went on to collect serially other geniuses as her lovers.   If the purity of the love he expressed was only in his mind, well, irony was Mahler’s middle name.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2024 William E. Runyan