18 May 1911 Death of Gustav Mahler – Composer, Jew and Catholic? #otdimjh


Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.


Alma Schindler, who married Mahler in 1902 (from 1902, possibly earlier)

Born in humble circumstances, Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper).


The Vienna Hofoper (now Staatsoper), pictured in 1898 during Mahler’s conductorship

During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had [supposedly – see below] converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 15.20.58

Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner and Mozart. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.


Mahler’s conducting style, 1901, caricatured in the humorous magazine Fliegende Blätter

Mahler’s œuvre is relatively small; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor.


Mahler’s grave in the Grinzing cemetery, Vienna

Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists. Most of his twelve symphonic scores are very large-scale works, often employing vocal soloists and choruses in addition to augmented orchestral forces. These works were often controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 3, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910.


Silhouette by Otto Böhler

Some of Mahler’s immediate musical successors included the composers of the Second Viennese School, notably Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler. The International Gustav Mahler Institute was established in 1955 to honour the composer’s life and work.


Reflection and prayer: The question of the genuineness and reasons for Mahler’s conversion to Roman Catholicism has been much discussed. The majority of commentators and biographers do not see sincere motives of faith, but business and practical reasons, to secure the position of director of the Vienna State Opera. However, there are religious and Christian themes in Mahler’s music, and who are we to judge?


Thank you Lord for the beauty and drama of Mahler’s music, which well match the tumultuous life and challenges he faced. Only you O Lord can discern our inner thoughts and motives. Have mercy on us, we pray. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.




Click to access t08051.pdf



Mahler’s Conversion



Gustav Mahler was born on 7 July 1860 in Bohemia and died on 18 May 1911 aged 50. His father was an innkeeper, and Gustav was the second of 14 children, though many of his siblings died as children, and his musical gifted brother Otto committed suicide in 1895.( http://www.mfiles.co.uk/composers/Gustav-Mahler.htm)

In 1901 he married Alma Schindler and they had two daughters together, Anna and Maria. His early marriage seemed to be happy, and some love themes in his works depict Alma or his relationship with her. Strains began to show in their marriage after the tragic death of Maria, aged four, following completion of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. On top of this he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and subject not just to musical criticism but also public expressions of anti-Semitism. Some years later, when Mahler’s works were beginning to receive a certain recognition, Alma had succumbed to alcoholism. At the sanatorium where she was treated she met and had an affair with Walter Gropius.

A life so full of tragic events clearly had a major influence on much of Mahler’s output, though there is also much in his music which expresses joy and hope. Mahler has said that his music is about life, and there is clearly an autobiographical aspect to his works, where a “hero” struggles with the meaning of life, death, love and disappointment. However, Mahler withdrew any programmatic comments he had previously made about his compositions saying that they should be appreciated as pure music and this is indeed the best approach.

Mahler’s musical career:

As a child, Mahler was exposed to many musical influences including military music in a local barracks, folk music of various forms at various events, local musicians playing in his father’s tavern and Jewish bands. Although his family were Jewish he was a chorister in a Catholic Church where he also learned piano from the choir master. He won prizes as a pianist and obtained a place in the Vienna Conservatory.

Although always interested in composing, and having composed a number of works before the age of 20 (most now lost), he pursued a successful career as a concert or opera conductor, including posts at Kassel, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg, Leipzig, Vienna, and latterly regular visits to New York. The hugely successful Vienna post, at the height of his conducting career, he secured by converting to Catholicism, and held for 10 years. To the outside world, composing was a sideline and his works frequently being met with disbelief from critics and public alike. His success as a conductor was without doubt and, in that occupation, he also had a reputation for being uncompromising. However, composing was his first love and he developed a routine for composing first at Steinbach during the summer, then at Carinthia at a retreat specially built for that purpose, and later at Tobalch in the Tyrol.

Gustav Mahler – his Major Works:

Mahler’s major works are his symphonies and song-cycles, though these two genres overlap. Several of his symphonies having voices and choruses and Das Lied von der Erde can be considered to be a hybrid work, which Mahler did not want to overtly call a Symphony because of the superstitious observation that BeethovenSchubert and Bruckner died after completing their 9th symphony. For many years his symphonies had a reputation for being difficult, by virtue not only of their technical demands, but also because of their length and need for considerable resources. However, most major orchestras play Mahler works these days, even including many youth and amateur orchestras.

His Symphonies are often divided into 3 or more groupings, although with differing opinions on the boundaries between these groupings. The first 4 or 5 symphonies are referred to as the Wunderhorn symphonies because of the use of thematic material which appears in the Wunderhorn song cycle. The 5th through 7th come from a mature middle period with interleaving tragic and optimistic elements. Das Lied von der Erde, the 9th and 10th are the late period exhibiting greater complexity, modernistic trends and with increasing thoughts of death. The 8th can be grouped both ways or considered as a stand-alone work. Perhaps the most well-known work of Mahler’s is the Adagietto to his 5th symphony which was used in Visconti’s film “Death in Venice”.

(The score on the right shows the first page of his 6th Symphony.)

Symphony No.1 in D (1884-1888) [originally “Titan” with an additional movement called Blumine]
(Extract of 2nd movement: PlayMIDI or MP3 – Star Trek: Voyager)
(Extract of 3rd movement: PlayMIDI or MP3 – Frere Jaques)
Symphony No.2 in Cm (1888-1894) [“Resurrection” from the text by Friedrich Klopstock, with solo voices and chorus]
Symphony No.3 in Dm (1895-1896) [with solo contralto and boys and female choirs]
Symphony No.4 in G (1899-1900) [with solo soprano]
Symphony No.5 in C#m (1901-1902)
(Extract of 4th movement: PlayMIDI or MP3 – Death in Venice)
Symphony No.6 in Am (1903-1905)
Symphony No.7 in Bm (1904-1905)
(Extract of 2nd movement: PlayMIDI or MP3 – Castrol commercial)
Symphony No.8 in Eb (1906-1907) [“Symphony of a Thousand” or at least several hundred including solo voices and several choirs]
Symphony No.9 in D (1909-1910)
Symphony No.10 in F#m (1910 unfinished)
[The first movement of this last symphony was completed but the remainder was reconstructed by Deryck Cooke in 1964 from extensive sketches left by the composer. Other alternative reconstructions exist.]

Cantata – Das Klagende Lied (1878-1880)
Song Cycle – Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a Wayfarer] (1884)
Song Cycle – Des Knaben Wunderhorn [Youth’s Magic Horn] (1888-99)
Song Cycle – Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children] (1901-1904)
Song Cycle – Funf Lieder nach Ruckert [Five Ruckert Songs] (1905)
Song-Symphony – Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Earth] (1907-1909)

It is worth noting that Mahler revised some of his works to improve things which he wasn’t entirely happy with, so some of these works are available in different versions. Unless you’re a musicologist or a “Mahlerite” (as his most ardent fans are sometimes called), this generally won’t affect your listening and the differences won’t be apparent.

The complete box-set of Mahler Symphonies with Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra can be recommended as an excellent and good value place to start. More in depth reviews by Tony Duggan of alternative recordings can be found at Classical Music on the Web and there is a summary and additional links at www.zzsounds.com. Better still, a live concert can be quite an experience.

Mahler’s style and influences

The peace of his summer retreats allowed Mahler to concentrate on composing, and sounds invoking nature in various ways can be found in many of his works including birdcalls, hunting horns and cowbells. He also used a variety of military and band music styles which presumably the young Mahler picked up from the local barracks and his father’s tavern among other sources.

Mahler is labelled a late Romantic composer denoting the freer type of music which developed after the stricter Classical period. He produced large-scale dramatic works with enormous contrasts in sounds and moods, and has been quoted as saying that his music is “about life”. This is evident from the juxtaposition of tragedy, humour, love, and other extremes of emotion, conveying melancholy and pathos amid joy, strength and consolation within tragedy, and the knowing use of self-mocking irony and sarcasm. Mahler’s music can certainly have much going on simultaneously at various levels, sometimes making it complex and difficult to understand on first hearing but the persistent listener is amply rewarded with some of the most sublime music ever written.

Mahler has clearly been influenced by a number of other composers such as Beethoven for his large-scale symphonic construction, and use of voices within symphonic form, and after a study of the music of J. S. Bach has incorporated elements of counterpoint into his works.Berlioz also seems to have been an influence especially the use of material and its ironic treatment in the Symphonie Fantastique, and perhaps Franz Liszt in terms of thematic development. Mahler has also learned much on symphonic form from his one-time teacher,Bruckner, and through him the work of Richard Wagner in conveying grand emotional dramas. Although not mentioned as a specific influence, the works of Antonin Dvorak andPyotr Tchaikovsky would also have been known by Mahler and have surely had an influence on his symphonic output, particularly the latter’s use of marches and waltzes in his symphonies and the concluding adagio of his 6th symphony “the Pathetique”.

Mahler’s contemporaries included Richard Strauss, with whom he is sometimes linked as a late romantic, the tragic song writer Hugo Wolf, and Hans RottJohannes Brahms was a friend and advisor to Mahler, although musically they shared little beyond the romantic expression within classical forms. Mahler in turn has also had a significant influence onArnold SchonbergWebern and Berg to whom he has perhaps given some early pointers to new musical directions, including a degree of atonality, and the use of off-stage musicians or separate ensembles to add to the normal orchestral sounds. Mahler’s music has continued to influence composers well into the 20th century including HoneggerBrittenSibelius,BoulezStockhausen and especially the soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who adopted Mahler’s taste for martial music and further developed his use of satire to sometimes bizarre and grotesque extremes. Indeed upon inspection there are connections between Mahler’s 1st and Shostakovich’s 4th symphonies. The film composer John Williams has stated that he adopted the late romantic orchestral sound of composers such as Mahler, including most obviously the use of fanfares and marches.

There is no doubt that Mahler was musically the linchpin between the 19th and 20th centuries, at the pinnacle of the romantic era, yet setting the scene for many modernmovements and styles. Although generally not understood in his lifetime, his music now receives the recognition it deserves.

“thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world—always an intruder, never welcomed” (Alma Mahler, Memories and Letters 109; original; see map).

See Steinberg’s compelling argument that Mahler’s conversion resulted from his considered choice, however politically expedient it might also have been. Steinberg sees the decision to convert or not, for some Jews of Mahler’s generation (including two others we have here raised as points of comparison for Mahler, Freud and Herzl) as “a dimension of [his] work and its deepening intellectual and political orientation” (17). A telling anecdote recounted by Magnus Dawison (Davidsohn), a future Berlin cantor who sang in Mahler’s 1899 productions of Beethoven’s Ninth and Wagner’s Lohengrin, implies that the basis of Mahler’s conversion rested on his belief that one had to renounce a narrow musical practice in order to embrace a wider one, even as it poignantly reveals a continued, largely untapped connection to what he had renounced. Thus, after hearing of Dawison’s cantorial ambitions, Mahler replied, “But then you would have been lost to the world of art!”; yet he was soon improvising on remembered synagogue melodies for a spellbound Dawison (La Grange, Gustav Mahler 172–174).

To the Editor:

Gustav Mahler, devout Christian? Yes, insists Nancy Raabe in her provocative but misleading article [”Mahler’s Testament to the Abiding Unity of God and Nature,” Aug. 1]. Complaining that ”[m]uch has been made over the years of Jewish influences in Mahler’s music,” Ms. Raabe takes meager evidence out of context as strong proof of what she terms ”the composer’s allegiance to the Christian faith.”

Central to her argument are indications that Mahler, at the time of the creation of the vast Third Symphony, had in mind Jesus and his sufferings, with which Mahler, the possessed struggling artist, vividly identified.

But in writing about Mahler’s spiritual affinities, Ms. Raabe fails to inform her readers that Mahler was born a Jew, raised as a Jew and suffered intensely from anti-Semitism.

A pronounced theme repeated from his early masterworks like the ”Songs of a Wayfarer” and the Symphony No. 1 to the final ”Das Lied von der Erde” — the theme of homeless wandering — is the earmark of the Diaspora Jews and the foundation for the modern Zionism of Mahler’s great Viennese Jewish contemporary, Theodor Herzl. Mahler himself frequently compared himself to Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, often tormented by his vision in terrifying nightmares.

It is particularly poor salesmanship for Ms. Raabe to cite Mahler’s supposed ”conversion” from Judaism to Catholicism. In both law and common understanding, a choice made under duress is discounted as lacking in free will. Mahler converted as a mere formality under compulsion of a bigoted law that barred Jews from directorship of the Vienna Hofoper.

Mahler himself joked about the conversion with his Jewish friends, and, no doubt, would view with bitter amusement the obtuseness of Ms. Raabe’s understanding of the cruel choice forced on him: either convert to Christianity or forfeit the professional post for which you are supremely destined.

When Mahler was asked why he never composed a Mass, he answered bluntly that he could never, with any degree of artistic or spiritual integrity, voice the Credo. He was a confirmed agnostic, a doubter and seeker, never a soul at rest or at peace.


New York


But he is pandering unnecessarily. The truth of Mahler’s complicated life is more interesting, and more stirring, than Lebrecht’s attempts to cast him as an artistic superhero and a Jewish victim. Consider the case of Mahler’s conversion to Christianity, forced on him as a condition of his appointment in 1897 as Director of the State Opera in Vienna. Mahler resented the obligation, and was annoyed at the dishonesty of it. Lebrecht tells the story this way (citing the conductor Bruno Walter and the Austrian music critic Ludwig Karpath):

He is the most reluctant, the most resentful, of converts. “I had to go through it,” he tells Walter. “This action,” he informs Karpath, “which I took out of self-preservation, and which I was fully prepared to take, cost me a great deal.” He tells a Hamburg writer: “I’ve changed my coat.” There is no false piety here, no pretense. Mahler is letting it be known for the record that he is a forced convert, one whose Jewish pride is undiminished, his essence unchanged.

And here is a fuller excerpt of the letter to Karpath, cited in Henry Louis de la Grange’s epic four-volume biography (with references to Mahler’s pre-Vienna post in Hamburg where Bernhard Pollini was manager of the opera):

“Do you know what particularly offends and annoys me? The fact that it was impossible to occupy an official post without being baptized. This is something I have never been prepared to accept. Of course it is untrue to say that I was baptized only when the opportunity arose for my engagement in Vienna—I was baptized years before. In fact it was my longing to escape from the hell of Hamburg under Pollini that prompted me to contemplate the idea of leaving the Jewish community. That is the humiliating part of it. I do not deny that it cost me a great effort, indeed one could say it was an instinct for self-survival that prompted me to such an action. Inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all.”

Lebrecht is too selective in his interpretation, and does not adequately confront the ambiguity of that last line: “Inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all.” Mahler’s conversion had none of the drama of Heine’s, it was a ticket to employment, not a “passport to Western civilization.” And Christianity had an aesthetic resonance for Mahler it never had for Heine.

Click to access t08051.pdf


Mahler‟s biographers cannot entirely be blamed for their secular treatment of this sacred event because Mahler himself did not actively participate in any organized religion in his adult life, although he is tied to his Jewish heritage even to the present day. The reason for this is explained by what makes Judaism unique among the world‟s religions: that “Jewish identity… was a matter of birth, race, and nation, as well as faith.”2 Therefore, Judaism was a label one carried based on certain social stereotypes, both including and regardless of religious belief.3

Mahler did not hide his background, but he realized that it did stand in the way of his ambition to be appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera. Fortunately for Mahler, the acceptable solution was conversion to the religion practiced by the state. In hindsight, the timing seems quite convenient, his baptism in February 1897 and the appointment to his most desired position not two months later, as well as a bit insincere. So the issue is glossed over by Henry-Louis de La Grange, Michael Kennedy and Norman Lebrecht, explaining it as a career move intended to keep the political harmony in Vienna.

1 Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987) p. ix.
2 Leon Botstein, “Gustav Mahler‟s Vienna,” The Mahler Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) p.

3 Talia Pecker Berio notes that “one can barely suggest a definition of a Jew, let alone Judaism….” in her essay

“Mahler‟s Jewish Parable” found in Karen Painter, ed., Mahler and His World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) p. 89.


Without a doubt, Henry-Louis de La Grange writes the most comprehensive study on Mahler.4 Even in this most detailed biography, Mahler‟s conversion and baptism account for no more than three paragraphs, one of which is in the endnotes. What we learn in those paragraphs is that the conversion was an inadvertent result of Mahler‟s relationship with Anna von Mildenburg, of whose influence on the matter La Grange describes as “determinative.” As for the specifics of the event, “his baptism took place on February 23, 1897, in the Kleine Michaelskirche in the Sankt Angar district of Hamburg….”5 It was performed by a vicar by the name of Swider, and his godfather was a man named Theodor Meynberg. The date is also recorded in Vienna at the Church of St. Carlo Borromeo, where he married Alma Schindler in March 1902.6 After providing the details, La Grange then quotes Mahler writing to music critic Ludwig Karpath (1866-1936), as saying “I do not hide the truth from you when I say that this action, which I took from an instinct of self-preservation and which I was fully disposed to take, cost me a great deal.”7


eaMichael Kennedy, writing for Oxford University’s Master Musicians Series, follows La Grange‟s lead down to the same quote from the letter to Karpath and also categorizes Mahler’s conversion as a career move. However, he does go on to argue that a theory of Leonard Bernstein’s, that what cost Mahler so much was being “ravaged by guilt” for turning away from Judaism, seems highly unlikely and cannot be substantiated.8 Both La Grange and Kennedy allude to a hidden truth about Mahler’s conversion: that it was required to comply with the unwritten rule in Viennese society, was treated as such by Mahler, and that despite Mahler’s

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
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