Another offering of scene in my own fiction:
Gustav Mahler’s name has long been associated with Vienna. Most know the story of his turbulent years as director of the Court Opera from 1897 to 1907.
Indeed, the early years of his directorship are, in part, the subject of my novel, Requiem in Vienna. Court intrigues, recalcitrant singers who balked at Mahler’s perfectionism, the omnipresent anti-Semitism in Central Europe of the day, musical prejudices, and professional jealousies–all these deviled Mahler’s years in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But there were compensations, as well: Mahler wrote some of his most significant works in the summers of these years; he married the volatile Viennese, Alma Schindler, daughter of landscape painter Emil Schindler and stepdaughter to Secessionist painter Carl Moll and began a family; he rose internationally in stature as a conductor of note.
What is less well known is that this was actually Mahler’s second sojourn in Vienna.
He first came the capital as a fifteen-year-old music student, a star turn in his native Iglau in Moravia, but a rough distiller’s son in the cosmopolitan world of Vienna of 1875. This was a Vienna that helped shape Mahler and many other young men like him. “A most peculiar attitude of hedonistic pessimism, joyful skepticism touching on morbid sophistication, became the dominant trait in Vienna’s intellectual climate,” wrote fellow musician, Ernst Krenek (who briefly married Mahler’s daughter, Anna) of Vienna at the time. For the impressionable Mahler, the city must have seemed like one giant candy shop of musical goodies: this was the city of the music critic Eduard Hanslick and the no-holds-barred battle between composers Brahms and Bruckner, the latter of whom became a lifelong friend of the much younger Mahler.
Mahler enrolled at the at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory in the fall of 1875 and remained there for three years, studying piano with his mentor Julius Epstein, harmony with Robert Fuchs and composition with Franz Krenn. The Conservatory, attached to the Society of the Friends of Music and its concert hall, the Musikverein, was founded by Antonio Salieri, famous now not for his incredible musical output, but for his intense competition with Mozart. In Mahler’s day the director was Josef Hellmesberger, an archetypal Viennese who wore make-up and a wig that fooled no one in a desperate effort to appear younger than his fifty years; his Franz Josef mutton-chop whiskers also belied this attempt. Opinionated and autocratic, Hellmesberger was said to have three dislikes: his successor as leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, nearsighted people (!), and Jews.
Mahler managed to irritate the Conservatory director not because he was a Jew, but because he, Mahler, did not suffer fools gladly. Even in his student days, Mahler was known for his self-confidence bordering on arrogance. He often let his instructors know what he thought of them and cut classes when he had better things to do. Though Mahler was an accomplished pianist, by his second year at the Conservatory he had decided that he would never be a professional on that instrument. Hearing the great pianists of his day in Vienna such as Liszt and Anton Rubinstein convinced him of this. Thus he focused his attention instead on composition, winning Conservatory prizes each year of his attendance. Though he failed twice to win the prestigious Beethoven Prize, his second attempt witnessed a remarkable submission: Das klagende Lied.
But in many ways it was his life outside of the classroom that was most defining for Mahler. He was roommate for a time with future master of the lied, Hugo Wolf; fellow
students included Rudolf Krzyzanowski, Anton Krisper, and the enigmatic Hans Rott, who died young and left behind a small body of work that only began to achieve international recognition in the 1990s. Mahler felt that the unfortunate Rott was the most talented of them all. It was during these Vienna years that Mahler also became friends with the Rosenblum brothers, who later changed their name to Rosé. Arnold and Eduard, accomplished musicians, later became Mahler’s brothers-in-law (much to the disgust of Mahler, it might be added, who did not want to lose the domestic comfort his sisters provided him as a bachelor).
Graduating from the Conservatory in 1878, Mahler stayed on in Vienna another two years, sporadically attending university courses. These years, however, are not as well documented as are his Conservatory years. In a way, these eighteen or so months are mysteriously void of historical documentation: Mahler’s la vie boheme days. It is known that he was under the thrall of Wagner in these years and became a member of a strongly nationalistic student organization whose other members included influential left-wing politicians such as Victor Adler, founder of the Austrian Social Democratic party. Mahler and his cohorts reveled in a rather odd mixture of Wagnerian Gesamtkunst, Nietzschean philosophy, socialism, vegetarianism, and pan-Germanism. But maddeningly (for the researcher) little is known of his day-to-day activities.
This period of his life comes back to haunt Mahler in the pages of my novel, Requiem in Vienna. In the novel, the wife of Victor Adler, Emma, describes this coterie–in not terribly flattering terms–to, her friend Berthe, the wife of my protagonist:
“Mahler,” Emma whispered once Berthe had finished her explanations. “Such an odd wee man.”
“Yes, isn’t he? You were friends of his once, as I recall.”
“Victor was. I only met him a few times. But Victor was full of tales about Mahler.” Emma smiled. “Of course this was donkey’s years ago, when we were all young and bohemian. It was about the time Victor and I first met, in 1878. He had established the Vegetarian Society–we were all great advocates of Wagner and his claim that vegetarianism could save the world. We wanted so desperately to save the world then, by the most direct means available.” She shook her head, dusting the back of one book before placing it in the crate. “We’ve since learned that the world is a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes it doesn’t even want saving. Impertinent world.” She laughed lightly.
“I was hoping you or Victor could tell me about Mahler’s friends from that time.”
“Ah, collecting a lot of suspects from his past?” Emma said. “But there’s really not much to tell. They would meet at a miserable dingy little cellar restaurant at the corner of Wallnerstrasse and Fahnengasse… the Ramharter. Yes, that was the name. Lord, I have not thought of that dim cold place in years. I accompanied Victor to a few unappetizing dinners there, but it was quickly obvious that those oh-so advanced males did not want a woman in attendance. Yet it was there I first met Mahler. He was sporting a beard in those days, a big, furry mess of a thing. He must have thought it made him look older than his age. He was only eighteen, nineteen at the time. But already so full of himself.”
“The eternal artist,” Berthe said, almost a sigh.
“Eternal bore, more like it. I mean how can you be eighteen, in the bloom of youth and fine health, and be forever going on about Sehnsucht, a longing, for death? But the others were little better. There was Hermann Bahr as well, a young rather bovine looking writer hoping to make his way. Which in fact he has done. And Engelbert Pernerstorfer. You know him, he is still at the center of our socialist movement. At the time, he edited their little paper, Deutsche Worte. Oh, yes. In addition to being socialists and vegetarians, they were all great German nationalists. What a laugh. A gaggle of Jewish intellectuals all cozying up to those anti-Semites. Victor left German nationalism behind when its Jew hatred had become all too obvious. My brothers, Heinrich and Otto, were also part of the group, and the journalist Richard von Kralik. Hugo Wolf sometimes made an appearance, as well, but he was more likely to be found at the Café Griensteidl, where all the young would-be artists of the time gathered. The Café Megalomania, I liked to call it. And then there was that poor boy Rott.”
“Him I do not know,” Berthe said.
“A great tragedy, to be sure. Hans Rott. He was at the conservatory with Mahler and Wolf. A great genius, by all accounts. But he went completely mad in 1880, died in a sanatorium four years later. Such a pity. They all laid it to Brahms.”
Such a pity. And years before Mahler was known to the world for his monumental symphonies, his dramatic conducting style, his dogged persistence of the perfect performance. Vienna made the man as it made so many other musical geniuses before and after, but it was the Vienna of the 1870s that did the job, not Vienna 1900.
(This article was originally published in the Wunderhorn newsletter of the New York Mahler Society.)