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Presenting Mahler’s Marriage

The most vivid writings about composers’ lives, I find, are the ones they produce themselves: letters, articles, books. A case in point is Gustav Mahler — a copious and gifted correspondent. I have yet to find a Mahler biography that as vividly or poignantly limns the man as Gustav Mahler: Letters of his Wife, as edited by Henry-Louis de La Grange and Gunther Weiss in collaboration with Knud Martner.

In fact, this decade-long series of exchanges between Gustav and Alma, cannily interspersed with Alma’s diary entries, reads like a play.
For the Pacific Symphony’s performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony a week ago, I had the opportunity to turn the Gustav/Alma correspondence into a half-hour pre-concert playlet, with two gifted actors: Nick Ullett and Jennie O’Hara. The audience responded volubly — and, in the case of Gustav’s marriage demands, incredulously.
Mahler, on Dec. 1901, 1902, composes 2,000 words setting forth such conditions as:

“From now on you have only one profession: to make me happy! Do you understand, Alma? I do realize that if you are to make me happy, you yourself must be happy. But in this drama, which could develop equally well into a comedy or a tragedy, the roles must be correctly cast. The role of the ‘composer,’ the ‘bread-winner,’ is mine; yours is that of the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade. Are you satisfied with it? I am asking much of you, very much – but I can and must do so, because I also know what I have to offer (and shall offer) in return. Almschi, I beg you, read this letter carefully. Before we speak again, we must have clarified everything, you must know what I demand and expect of you, and what I can give in return – what you must be for me. . . . I bless you, my dearest love, no matter how you react – I shall not write tomorrow, but wait instead for your letter on Saturday. A servant will be sent round and kept waiting in readiness. Many tender kisses, my Alma. And I beg you: Be truthful! Your Gustav.”

“This letter!” Alma responds. “My heart missed a beat – give up my music – abandon what until now has been my life. My first reaction was – to pass him up. I had to weep – for then I realized that I loved him. Mama and I talked it over till late at night. She had read the letter. I find his behavior so ill-considered, so inept. It might have come all of its own, quite gently. But likely this will leave an indelible scar.”

Then the tables turn: Alma falls in love with Walter Gropius. Mahler rescinds his demands. He now writes:

“My darling, I am possessed by dark spirits; they have cast me to the ground. Come and dispel them. Abide by me, my rod and staff. Come soon today, that I may rise up. Here I lie prostrate and await you; and silently I ask whether I may still hope for salvation, or whether I am to be damned. . . . Almschli, if you had left me, I would simply have been snuffed out, like a candle starved of air. When will you be arriving, dear heart? As you know, I am a schoolboy at heart, but a trace of the husband, or whatever you prefer to call it, still remains, and that part of me wishes for news of my dearest! But I’m longing for you! Longing! Longing!”

In fact, the Pacific Symphony’s “Music Unwound” presentations of Mahler’s Ninth included two prefatory segments — the second of which, at concert-time, was a mini-lecture by conductor Carl St. Clair combined with three Ruckert Songs (memorably sung by Chris Nomura) and a tape-recorded reminiscence of her father by Anna Mahler, from the 1960s.

As notable as what all this incorporated was what it did without: the orchestra was not onstage until 8:50. That is: no excerpts from Mahler’s Ninth were performed. Rather, the entire exercise was one of contextualization: creating conditions for maximum emotional and intellectual engagement. The vast majority of the listeners had never before encountered this long and challenging work. A propitious ambience was secured. And the impact of 100 musicians purveying Mahler was reserved for the performance itself.

St. Clair pursued a similar strategy contextualizing Bruckner’s Ninth last season — a “Music Unwound” concert I wrote about at the time. What this conductor — a ripe and impassioned advocate of music of the spirit — has achieved is a listening sanctum the more remarkable (and necessary) given the Pacific Symphony’s locale: California’s Orange County. He has successfully negated the freeway experience preceding the symphonic experience. He has found a way to slow the speedy, fractured pace of daily lives, to ease his audience into fresh and unexpected realms of personal adventure.

The rapt silence accorded Mahler’s symphony — 90 minutes long in St. Clair’s fraught rendering — registered discovery. Many stayed post-concert, nearly until midnight, to share their discoveries in intimate detail. A community of listeners was created and sustained.

“Music Unwound” — creative contextualization — feels necessary: something many orchestras should attempt. In Orange County, it’s supported by the NEH and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Orchestras elsewhere lack comparable subsidies. But maybe all they need is a push. “Music Unwound” doesn’t require expensive soloists. More often than not, there is less music to rehearse. One can’t generalize that it’s more expensive than business as usual.
Meanwhile, I’m going to expand my playlet into a full evening, with interpolated music by Gustav and Alma both.


  1. adrienne sirken says

    Thank you for this description of a fascinating evening’s concert. In an era when we are all searching for the “hooks” to bring audiences into the invaluable world of great orchestral music, this creative melding of compelling biographical drama with the composer’s music is very valuable. It sounds like it could be a wonderful venue for orchestras through the country. Wherever there are people having relationships there will be interest in the windows into the artistic expression of the complex feelings that relationships evoke….
    I hope to hear of future events such as this one. Maybe even one on the east coast where I live !

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