Da Musically Inclined Bomb

DePauw University's First Year Seminar on Writing about Music

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Final Years: On Mahler, and the Musical Meaning of Mortality


It means ‘the awareness of life’s temporality’, but artists have always understood this word to mean much more. Mortality confirms humanity. To be mortal is to die, yes, at some point; but furthermore, to be mortal is to have lived.

It may be fascinating to examine an artist’s early life and influences to explain their work; however, I have chosen to consider an artist’s development – Gustav Mahler’s, specifically - as he realizes his own mortality. What led him to this discovery? Which events changed his outlook? And how, most importantly, was his music affected by this?

In July of 1907, Mahler’s eldest daughter, Maria (nicknamed Putzi) died of scarlet fever and diphtheria at the age of five. His wife, Alma, wrote: “Mahler loved this child so much that he more and more buried himself in his room, saying goodbye to his beloved child in his heart.” Following the tragedy of his daughter’s death, a cardiac specialist in Vienna diagnosed Mahler with a defected heart. The implications of this diagnosis meant that the composer, used to a life of constant physical activity, was restricted to limited movement and forbidden from overexerting himself. To have his child’s death and the threat of his own hit so suddenly and so close to him - one can imagine the sense of doom he must have felt. These events had an immediate affect on his music and his work ethic. He became increasingly productive as a composer and tireless as a conductor – often not returning home until late from the Opera Theatre, complaining of fatigue and the bad manners of coworkers.

As useful a distraction his work was to the composer, it left his wife feeling neglected and put upon. His intensity left her little room for her own interests (composition and painting) so she turned instead to architect Walter Gropius. In 1910, in a letter addressed to Mahler, Gropius declared his true intentions toward Alma – he wished her to be his forever, and leave her husband. Suddenly, Alma was able to tell her husband “how I had longed for years for his love, and how with his immense sense of mission he had simply overlooked me”. Abruptly, Mahler realized how close he had come to losing his wife. Thereafter, he doted on her – writing letter after lovesick letter, poetry, and even dedicating sections of his Tenth Symphony to her. Although she eventually married Gropius after Mahler’s death, there is no evidence of Alma’s affair continuing for the rest of Mahler’s life.

These events led the composer to perceive and accept his mortality. Mahler’s last years, musically, include deepening themes of loss, heartbreak, despair, and dread – clearly reflections of his life on his work - but also, recurrently, of hope. On a trip in New York, Mahler wrote to a friend: “When I hear music – including when I am conducting – I hear definite answers to all my questions – and am completely clear and sure. Or rather, I feel quite clearly that they are not questions at all.” Even amid the turmoil of his failing health, an unsteady marriage, and the ups and down of public opinion, Mahler’s final years find him a changed man – not only aware of his mortality, but accepting of it. By the end, he was able to put all his questions to rest – even the unanswered ones, he knew, would become clear after his mortality was manifested.


All direct quotes from Mahler: His Life, Work & World by Kurt and Herta Blaukopf
Other sources:
Mahler by Michael Kennedy
The Life of Mahler by Peter Franklin
Wikipedia's page on Mahler and subsequent links

Click to hear excepts of Mahler's Symphonies


At 11/12/2006 11:51 PM, Blogger Godfather Outlaw said...

I Like your whole thing with mortality.


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