Gustav Mahler

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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), photographed in 1892

Austrian composer and conductor (b. 7 July 1860 [N.S.] at Kalischt [now Kaliště, Czech Republic]; d. 18 May 1911 [N.S.] in Vienna).

Mahler was born into a German-speaking Jewish family and grew up in the small garrison town of Iglau (now Jihlava), where the sounds of the military brass-bands left an indelible impression on him, later to be reflected in some of his symphonies. He showed musical talent at a very early age and enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory in 1875, where one of his teachers was Anton Bruckner (1824–1896), whom the young Mahler admired greatly. He was also interested in philosophy and an avid reader, one of his favourite authors being Fyodor Dostoyevsky, about whom he once said: "Reading Dostoyevsky is more important than counterpoint" [1]. After a series of more or less temporary conducting jobs in various towns and cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (including Prague in 1885, where he directed Wagner's Ring cycle), Mahler was appointed to his first important post in Leipzig (1886–88), where he was assistant to Arthur Nikisch at the Städtisches Theater, but nevertheless had the chance to conduct the whole repertoire.

Tchaikovsky and Mahler

It was during Tchaikovsky's first concert tour to Western Europe that Mahler fleetingly met the Russian composer for the first time: at a musical soirée in Leipzig on 16/28 January 1888 [2]. Later that year, Mahler would become director of the royal opera-house in Budapest, where his exacting artistic standards and uncompromising character led to intrigues that forced his resignation three years later.

In 1891, Mahler was engaged by the Hamburg Opera as principal conductor, and this would be the longest appointment of his career so far (he stayed there until 1897). Bernhard Pollini, the director of the opera-house, invited Tchaikovsky to come to Hamburg in January 1892 to conduct the first performance in Germany of Yevgeny Onegin (after Prague in 1888, only the second time that this opera was staged outside Russia). Tchaikovsky duly arrived in Hamburg on 6/18 January and conducted the dress rehearsal, where he was delighted to find that the singers and orchestra all knew their parts very well. However, because the opera was to be sung in German, he had trouble following the recitatives and so he refused to conduct the actual performance. Mahler, who had been rehearsing the opera before Tchaikovsky's arrival, was thus given the honour of conducting the German première of Yevgeny Onegin on 7/19 January 1892 in the composer's presence. The previous evening, Mahler had also conducted a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser which greatly impressed Tchaikovsky, as we may see from the letter he wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov on the morning of 7/19 January, in which he also expressed his doubts as to whether Onegin would go down well with the German audience:

By the way, the conductor here is not some second-rate fellow, but positively a genius, and he is burning with eagerness to conduct the first performance [of Onegin]. Yesterday I heard him conduct an astonishing performance of "Tannhäuser". The singers, the orchestra, Pollini, the stage directors, the conductor (his name is Mahler) are all in love with "Yevgeny Onegin". However, I still doubt that the Hamburg public will be captivated by it immediately [3].

Tchaikovsky's misgivings were partly based on his experiences four years earlier, when the concert featuring his own works which he had conducted in Hamburg on 8/20 January 1888 had not gone down too well with the conservative audience (see Chapter X in the Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad). These misgivings about the German première of Onegin proved to be well-founded, since the audience's reaction was lukewarm. Moreover, whilst some critics, above all Josef Sittard, praised Tchaikovsky's music, they were unanimous in lamenting what they perceived to be the opera's lack of dramatic vitality [4]. On the other hand, they all acknowledged the loving care with which Mahler had rehearsed the opera with the singers and orchestra-players. Tchaikovsky seems to have attended a small party after the performance, together with Mahler and Pollini, although no reliable account of this celebration has come down to us [5]. In a letter written around that time Mahler described Tchaikovsky as "an elderly gentleman, very likeable, with elegant manners, who seems to be quite rich" [6].

Mahler also conducted the first performance of Iolanta outside Russia, on 22 December 1892/3 January 1893, just over a fortnight after the opera's première in Saint Petersburg. Although Tchaikovsky decided not to come to Hamburg on that occasion, he did pay a brief visit to the Hanseatic city later that year to attend the revival of Iolanta for the next season. At the opening performance on 26 August/7 September 1893 Mahler was again conducting, and the memoirs of Josef Bohuslav Foerster, who was then based in Hamburg, show how delighted Tchaikovsky was by the success of Iolanta there (for more details, see the article on Foerster).

On 6/18 November 1893, the same day that Eduard Nápravník in Saint Petersburg conducted the Sixth Symphony in a concert dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky, who had died twelve days earlier, two extra pieces by Tchaikovsky were played at the Hamburg opera-house before that evening's scheduled performance of Iolanta. These two numbers, which like the opera were conducted by Mahler, were the Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin and the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet (then performed in Hamburg for the first time). Thus did Mahler pay tribute to the late composer [7].

In May 1897, Mahler was appointed conductor at the Vienna Hofoper (later the Staatsoper), and already in October of that year became artistic director. His ten years in Vienna (1897–1907), during which he built up an outstanding ensemble of singers, revealed to the whole world his greatness as a conductor and director. It is significant that one of the first operas he selected during his tenure at the Hofoper was Yevgeny Onegin. The first performance in Vienna of this opera on 19 November 1897 [N.S.] was a tremendous success. Even the formidable critic Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904), who had notoriously rubbished Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as "stinking music" at its world-première in Vienna in 1881 (see Chapter IV in the Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad), praised Onegin for its "artistic sincerity" and the "aristocratic touch" of its "eloquent and beautiful" vocal parts and instrumentation (Hanslick even cast aside some of his habitual anti-Russian prejudices) [8]. It was thanks to Mahler that Yevgeny Onegin became a staple of the operatic repertoire in German-speaking countries. On 22 March 1900 [N.S.] he also conducted the first performance of Iolanta in the Austrian capital.

In 1901, Mahler married Alma Maria Schindler (1879–1964), the daughter of a Viennese painter with artistic aspirations of her own. The following year, on 9 December 1902 [N.S.], he conducted the first performance in Vienna of The Queen of Spades, which he regarded as "the most mature and artistically solid" of all of Tchaikovsky's works [9]. Although his health was already severely undermined by heart disease, Mahler travelled to the United States again for the 1909–10 winter season and, amongst other commitments (including some work on his unfinished Tenth Symphony), conducted the American première of The Queen of Spades on 5 March 1910 [N.S.] at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky (1902–1944), a close friend of Shostakovich, was one of the first to point to a certain affinity between Tchaikovsky and Mahler, specifically as symphonists who aspired to the metaphysical grandeur of Beethoven, but in whom the 'heroic' ultimately receded before the 'pathetic'.

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Notes and References

  1. Quoted in: Casper Höweler, Der Musikführer (Munich, 1952), p. 475.
  2. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 193.
  3. Letter 4593 to Vladimir Davydov, 7/19 January 1892.
  4. Sittard's and other critics' reviews of the German premiere of Yevgeny Onegin are reprinted in Peter Feddersen, Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 115-126.
  5. See Peter Feddersen, Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 115.
  6. Letter to Justine Mahler. Quoted in: David Brown, Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 184.
  7. See Peter Feddersen, Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 153.
  8. Hanslick's review of Yevgeny Onegin is included in Thomas Kohlhase (ed.), An Tschaikowsky scheiden sich die Geister. Textzeugnisse der Čajkovskij-Rezeption, 1866-2004 (2006), p. 212–214.
  9. Letter from Gustav Mahler to Max Kalbeck, 22 June 1901 [N.S.] (Kalbeck was translating the libretto of The Queen of Spades for Mahler). Quoted in Peter Feddersen, Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 213.