by Michael Shapiro
In 1911, my conducting teacher and beloved friend Carl Bamberger, then nine years old, returned home from a day at his Viennese grade school to find his mother sitting at the kitchen table staring into space, a newspaper spread out before her. The headline stabbed young Carl straight into his heart: “Mahler is dead!”
To music loving Viennese one hundred nine years ago, the conductor Gustav Mahler was a god. Most music lovers knew that he composed as well, but Mahler was then more famous as the music director of major opera houses, such as the Court Opera in Vienna. A few years before his death he had left Austria (seen off at the station by Gustav Klimt and Alban Berg among many others) for hopefully more lucrative work at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Mahler’s sojourn in the states soon ran into whirlwind opposition by Arturo Toscanini at the Met and the ridiculously short-sighted prejudices of the patrons and lawyers at the orchestra. Mahler fled from New York City with a bacterial infection that would end his life on that day in 1911 when young Carl entered the kitchen to find his mother staring into space.
Carl’s best friend Joseph Braunstein (later a well-loved musicologist and the program annotator of Musica Aeterna concerts in New York) was ten years older and had remarkable memories of Gustav Mahler during those Viennese years.
Braunstein related that he was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, the influential teacher and composer, at the conservatory in Vienna. Braunstein possessed a bold sense of humor and recalled Schoenberg throwing him out of class on more than one occasion. Braunstein remembered seeing Mahler walking alone in the Prater in Vienna, deep in thought. Braunstein, always eager, thought of going up to Mahler and introducing himself, but felt the need to check himself and did not speak, but watched the solitary composer walk by.
Braunstein later played in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the illustrious direction of Richard Strauss and Arthur Nikisch, but Braunstein deeply regretted never having played under Mahler.
One wonderful story remembered by Braunstein was of seeing Mahler at the performance of one of Schoenberg’s premieres. While the Schoenberg piece was being played, several in the audience began to make derisive comments. One audience member was so loud and negative, the music might have been shouted down unless someone acted quickly to prevent a fiasco. Right in front of Braunstein, Mahler stood up and told the objectionable audience member to shut up, sit down, and be quiet. Mahler was immediately dumped upon by the rude audience member that at the premiere of the composer’s Fifth Symphony worse obscenities had been shouted, and now Mahler should shut up and sit down!
One cannot imagine such a reaction occurring today when no one seems to care much about anything.
Yet during this time of pestilence, I have initially had great difficulty in composing or even listening to music. It does not help that I am stressed to the brink in worrying about my loved family and friends.
Gustav Mahler was no stranger to these feelings. His music is full of expressions of worry, life and death concerns, the German word angst nowhere more apt. Just listen to the beginning of the Third Symphony for its representation of the most significant and basic issues we face. Other works such The Song of the Earth, I am Lost to the Earth, Primal Light, Songs on the Death (I cannot finish the title), place Mahler straight up against the worst we may face or are indeed facing.
Carl’s mother was not alone in her shock and hurt in learning about Mahler’s death. The Viennese culture of the period was ravenous in its appreciation of Mahler and his contemporaries. Yet, Mahler had a special place in their hearts as he was Jewish, his conversion to Catholicism never hiding his Old Testament prophesies and cares. And for those that listened to his music, there was something that stuck and was personal. Mahler’s combination of Yiddishkeit, Middle European rootlessness, cosmopolitan virtuosity, and simultaneous passion for old and new galvanized.
The Bamberger family in Vienna was no stranger in its love of Kultur. Carl’s later wife Lotte Hammerschlag (a string player and the first principal viola of the Palestine Orchestra) was the daughter of Alma Schindler Mahler’s personal gynecologist, Dr. Albert Hammerschlag. Dr. Hammerschlag was a neighbor and close friend of Sigmund Freud, etc. etc. When the Hammerschlags visited the Freuds for dinner, little Lotte was dispatched to the nursery only to be psychoanalyzed by Freud’s daughter Anna (who later became a well-recognized child psychologist). Lotte remembered her encounters on Anna’s couch with disgust.
The bottom line was that they all knew each other.
Mahler’s music ponders every moment, asks questions which he often does not and cannot answer. But asks questions that were not foreign to his contemporaries and remain valid now. Macabre dances, marches by vulgar bands, lead into ecstasy or into depths from which there is no escape.
(And there was no escape for Carl’s mother. After the Anschluss of 1938, she vanished into the miasma of the Holocaust, murdered in Theresienstadt.)
Despite the death of Gustav Mahler from a bacterial infection (that a few decades later might have been defeated by antibiotics) and the destruction of Viennese culture by religious hatred that gave us this music, and so much more, Mahler’s lessons still ring true. His titanic symphonies are somehow directly personal, the largest means chosen for their most intimate effect.
I understand and feel deeply his intent in every bar. This is not music one can easily render over time. Musicians must shape every bar, every phrase, every note to give it context. It cannot just happen. It has to LIVE.
I will never forget Carl Bamberger and Joseph Braunstein and certainly, Carl’s dear mother. They link us to Gustav Mahler, whose love and caring will forever carry us through trying times.
One lesson is to care as much as they did. Listening to this music, I cannot avoid doing just that. I look into Gustav Mahler’s face and find peace.