By Peter Davison
At the end of May, I was delighted to attend the annual Colorado Mahlerfest to participate in the symposium which accompanies five intensive days of music-making. Founded in 1987 by the conductor Robert Olson, the festival is one of the world’s longest-running Mahler celebrations, taking place under the gaze of the Rocky Mountains in the university town of Boulder. Since 2016, Mahlerfest has been led by the Cardiff-based American conductor, Kenneth Woods. But, with Mahler performances no longer a rarity, his challenge is to find ways to rekindle the festival’s original pioneering spirit.
Woods has followed Olson in performing a single symphony each year, although the emphasis has shifted to contextualising Mahler’s work. In 2023, the Symphony No.2, ‘The Resurrection’ provided the festival’s beating heart, alongside works by other composers ranging from Richard Wagner to the likes of Erich Korngold, Hans Gál, Luciano Berio and Scottish composer, Thea Musgrave.
The day-long symposium provides a more reflective moment in the festival’s busy schedule and a chance to explore the changing face of Mahler scholarship. Among the speakers this year was Joseph Horowitz, a renowned and sometimes controversial commentator upon the American classical music scene, who introduced his newly published novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York.
The book offers a fictional account of Gustav and Alma’s brief period at the heart of American musical life, following Mahler’s acrimonious resignation from the Vienna Opera in the summer of 1907. In truth, the scope of the text extends beyond its title, including significant moments in the couple’s troubled relationship that occurred in Europe such as the revelation of Alma’s adultery with Walter Gropius, the spectacular premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich and Mahler’s fabled meeting with Sigmund Freud in Leiden.
The stresses on the Mahler’s marriage were already present when they embarked for the USA late in 1907, having lost their eldest child Maria in the summer of that year, discovering too that Mahler was suffering from serious heart disease. New York represented an opportunity for creative and personal renewal but, on a pragmatic level, it was a chance for Mahler to earn the money that would allow him to keep composing during the down-season in Europe.
Crucially we are informed that Mahler came to New York as a belated replacement for the Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, who had once been a trusted collaborator of Richard Wagner. Seidl had died unexpectedly in 1898, having won the hearts of New Yorkers with his Wagner performances and encouragement for American composers. His untimely death caused his supporters genuine grief. Mahler, it was hoped, would be a worthy successor, inheriting Seidl’s cultural legacy and further transforming American musical life. But it was not to be.
Horowitz’s contention is that Mahler’s time in New York, where he took on a dual role as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and what became the New York Philharmonic, was a failure because he did not understand the city’s classical music culture as Seidl had done. Seidl had loved New York and even adopted American citizenship. By contrast Mahler was homesick, the perpetual outsider who underestimated the sophistication of the Manhattan cognoscenti, especially its music critics whom he suspected of antisemitism.
The received view is that Mahler was tyrannised by an ignorant ladies committee who preferred to hear Tchaikovsky more than the great works of the German canon, while the orchestra conspired against him. American classical music was a cultural backwater so that its composers lacked a viable tradition in which they could thrive. Whatever the truth of the matter, undoubtedly New York’s monied elites possessed the will to create a concert and opera-going culture of a quality unrivalled anywhere in the world.
According to Horowitz, the ‘Mahler as victim’ narrative stems largely from the fourth and final volume of Henri Louis de la Grange’s vast biographical account of the composer, which idealises him to a fault. Alma Mahler’s reminiscences are also dismissive of the couple’s American hosts, even if she enjoyed the opportunities for socialising more than her husband. By comparison, the author paints a quite different picture in which a weary Mahler engaged only half-heartedly with American composers, treating the public as uneducated and the city’s music critics as inherently hostile. The orchestra’s anger, we discover, was to a degree justified, having learnt that Mahler had recruited a spy among their number who was passing on malicious gossip. The ladies of the committee, acting with forthright intent, insisted the spy should be sacked, and Mahler had to comply.
We are offered by the author a portrait of Mahler that is real. Here was a man of formerly prodigious energy weakened by illness, wounded by his experiences in Vienna and thus prone to paranoia. We can only imagine what might have ensued if Mahler’s American sojourn had not been cut short by his final illness. Would he have fully embraced the opportunity before him, realising that Seidl had bequeathed a well-informed and open-minded audience? Would Mahler ever have engaged with a musical innovator like Charles Ives, for example, with whom he potentially shared so much in common?
There’s reason to take Horowitz’s view of events seriously since, aside his trenchant opinions about the current state of classical music in the United States, he is acknowledged as a leading expert in the fin de siècle period of American musical history. He has also run orchestras and programmed concerts, knowing at first-hand how conversations unfold between celebrity artists, promoters and wealthy board members. His reconstruction of these dialogues therefore has a ring of authenticity.
However, the most striking insights of The Marriage are about Alma. Horowitz told me that he did not set out to portray her in a more sympathetic light but that this emerged from observing her awkwardness in imaginary social interactions. The book lays bare the paradoxes of Mahler’s character which Alma had patiently to endure. His hypersensitivity and infantile insecurities co-existed with a tyrannical willpower which spared no one – particularly not Alma, least of all himself.
We see how Alma was at one level willingly compliant with Mahler’s demands. She needed to be needed, to be lover, mother and nurse, as well as mid-wife to the products of genius. And, we are told, because she projected her father complex on Mahler, Freud predicted that she would stay with him, despite her magnetic attraction to the younger Gropius that was pulling her away. Then Alma was another bundle of contradictions, more unsure of herself in New York society than might have been expected, particularly when faced with independent-minded women such as Mary Sheldon and Mimi Untermeyer who were the negotiators for Mahler’s financial backers. Far from being interfering busy bodies, they proved themselves shrewd and decisive, knowing exactly what they did and did not want from their expensive maestro.
Horowitz reserves his strongest censure for Mahler’s poor relations with the New York press. They were by no means blindly set against Mahler, but nor did they withhold their legitimate doubts. They acknowledged Mahler’s skill as a conductor and the originality of his music, but his reworkings of scores by Beethoven and Schubert, while judged musically effective, were in the end considered a self-indulgence. The critics also found Mahler’s own music a puzzle, juxtaposing moments of great beauty and wilful ugliness. What we may now hear as ironical or exploring the dark side, they interpreted simply as breaking the laws of aesthetics.
We are informed in the novel that Mahler consistently refused to meet his most significant opponent, Henry Krehbiel, the leading music critic of the day, because he did not like Mahler’s music and remained loyal to his deceased friend, Anton Seidl whom he considered to be a superior artist. Yet we learn too that Krehbiel and Mahler were two of a kind. Both were stubborn moralists sharing a Germanic cultural background steeped in Wagner. Both were eager to improve the general public’s taste and knowledge of musical history.
In conclusion, I should draw attention to Horowitz’s use of language, which is vivid – occasionally extravagant. Most impressive are his poetical accounts of Mahler’s music which profoundly acknowledge the composer’s genius, signalling that the author has no wish to diminish Mahler’s musical achievements. Descriptions of rehearsals for the Fourth Symphony in New York and the triumphant premiere of the Eighth in Munich stand out, capturing in just a few words the spirit of these great, if vastly different, works.
The Marriage is a brave experiment, following wherever the imagination leads to fill gaps in historical knowledge and to test the validity of long held assumptions. The approach is demanding for the uninitiated who will need to work hard to unpick the elaborate patchwork of interior narratives, flashbacks, cultural references, archive materials and real events. Helpfully, the author has provided a brief introduction and a twenty-page Afterword which identify key personalities and explain salient issues. In addition, a glossary of main characters will aid those entering for the first time into this esoteric world of big money and high ambition, tormented feelings and inspiring music.
Details of Joseph Horowitz’s The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York can be found at blackwaterpress.com/product/the-marriage/
For further information about Colorado Mahlerfest go to mahlerfest.org