Was Mahler killed by his own symphony?

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler Credit: Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive

His ‘Eighth’ offers an inclusive, idealistic world vision, but it may have taken a fatal toll on the composer  

In 1910, right at the end of his life, Gustav Mahler finally made his breakthrough as a composer. Until then, music-lovers across the Western world saw him as a great conductor who also composed. Yet such was the brilliance of the Eighth Symphony, right from that thunderous, organ-enhanced invocation of the Holy Spirit at the opening, that any doubts were swept away. 

The audience in Munich, including representatives of several European royal houses and an impressive number of A-list musical and literary names, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, roared its approval.  

The symphony premiered at a difficult time for Mahler. Not only was he in ill health but, just months before, he had made the horrifying discovery that his wife and muse, Alma, was ready to leave him for Walter Gropius, the architect. 

Yet, when he filled Munich’s vast new music hall for two successive evenings (due to a brilliant, intensive and very modern-looking PR campaign by Mahler’s impresario, Emil Gutmann), this tiny, physically frail figure appeared charged with demonic energy from the moment he raised the baton.

However, opinion on the quality of the Eighth has proved divisive over the past 110 years. Verdicts of the great and famous have varied from “ecstatic” and “heaven-storming” to “empty”, “laboured” and “shameless kitsch”. Opinion is also divided over the meaning of the Eighth. Shortly after its premiere, Mahler died from pneumonia at the shockingly young age of 50. Was it the colossal exertion of this do-or-die performance that ushered in his final decline, and his death only months later? Does this reflect back in some way on the content of the Eighth Symphony? 

Caricature of Gustav Mahler from 1900 Credit: Imagno/Hulton Archive

Certainly not in the context of his final two works – the Ninth Symphony and the “song-symphony” Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), both unperformed at his death. With these works it was clear – or so it seemed – that Mahler had seen his own end coming, and bid the world he loved an agonised protracted farewell in two astonishing scores. 

He was also looking boldly into the future, whereas the Eighth, as the philosopher Theodor Adorno later stated, was a monumental mask. With its Catholic-flavoured mysticism, it belonged to the past – the Austrian Imperial past that the First World War was soon to sweep away. 

Given that he was a Jew who was at the vanguard of the cultural revolution of Vienna in the early 1900s, this seems extraordinary. But Mahler’s relationship between past and present, between different countries, is complex. He called the new symphony, “My gift to the entire nation,” by which he clearly meant Germany. 

Over the years “Germany”, for Mahler, evolved into something much more ideal; an inclusive, humanist tradition embodied in Goethe and Beethoven, whose choral Ninth Symphony had famously offered a “kiss for the whole world”. Mahler believed in the notional unity of German-speaking peoples that was felt to transcend national, and even imperial borders, and disregarded race or religion. 

And just look at the symphony’s manifest content: Goethe, the iconic German “universal man”, whose Faust provides the setting for the final words of Part Two; and in Part One a medieval hymn composed by Rabanus Maurus, the archbishop of Mainz, who was then treasured as the “Teacher of Germany”. Furthermore, in his student days, Mahler had belonged to a pan-German nationalist movement, the Pernerstorfer Circle. 

Gustav Mahler with his wife Alma and Daughters Maria and Anna Credit: Heritage Images/Hulton Archive

And what about his famous comment, made in the year the Eighth was finished, that “the symphony should be like the world”, drawing everything into its embrace? 

 In the wider German world there was, of course, a sinister side to this world-embracing ambition. As the historian Golo Mann pointed out, the year 1910 was a time of strenuous German colonial expansion, a time when the word “world” (Welt) was prefixed to many German nouns: the world-city Berlin, German world-standing, German world-trade, world politics, world history and, most ominously of all, world power. Could it be that Mahler was in some way cheering on the Kaiser? It seems unlikely. Mahler’s interest in politics (if that’s what it was) dwindled rapidly after his student days. He wanted to escape the world, not to march in with sleeves rolled up intent on changing it. 

As a Jew, and as a self-confessed “outsider everywhere”, Mahler would have had a very different kind of Germany in mind from that espoused by the more strident political breed of nationalists. It was a belief in humanity, or rather in human potential, liberated by sublime art and thought, and represented in the sacred figures of Goethe, Kant and Beethoven, and later in Wagner and Nietzsche. 

If those two last names ring alarm bells given Mahler’s Judaism, it should be remembered that Nietzsche turned against nationalism and anti-Semitism as he turned against Wagner. There is a story that someone presented the philosopher with a pamphlet entitled “German culture without the Jew”. Nietzsche handed it back with the words: “What German culture without the Jew?” 

For educated, assimilated German and Austrian Jews in the late-19th and early-20th centuries these figures opened up an ideal, even transcendent world of culture and art, with music very much at the centre. In that case, Mahler’s stupendous gift to the nation held out an image to German-speaking people everywhere – and through them to the rest of the world – not of what they were, but of what they might become. 

For this reason it is important not to endorse the suggestion that the Goethe text in the symphony’s Second Part is an expression of genuine, or would-be Roman Catholic faith. (Mahler had converted in 1897, almost certainly for political reasons.) There is no mention of God the Father in the final scene of Faust, and although Christ is referenced, he doesn’t even get a namecheck. 

There is also the question of Mary, Queen of Heaven in the Eighth, the eternal goddess who, as Mahler made clear at the time, represents the female creative principle at work in the male mind – a force contained within the divine figure of Eros, that is hymned so ecstatically in the symphony’s closing pages. 

Mahler was no “musician’s musician”: he was a Viennese contemporary of Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud and eventually consulted the psychoanalyst when the dangerous intensity of his obsession with Alma became all too clear.

But Mary is also something else. The fact that those in the higher circles of heaven appear to be female was iconoclastic at the time and it is clear that she is also Alma. Thus the Eighth took on a more urgent personal significance – it must now be the instrument to win Alma back. Did Mahler succeed, if only momentarily, or only in part? The answer to that question appears to be a tantalising yes and no.

So how should we see the Eighth Symphony now? Blowing away long-held misconceptions is important, of course, but a reconnection with Mahler’s world-embracing, inclusive vision is vital. In this age of strident identity politics, where people divide into groups and fling accusations and abuse across the e-barricades, Mahler’s Goethean notion of “world-citizenship”, in which each embraces the other, and we all face the contradictions within ourselves, is a message well worth reaffirming.

The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910, by Stephen Johnson, is published by Faber