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Austrian-Jewish composer and conductor.

Career Summary

Born in Bohemia, Mahler came to Vienna to study at the Conservatory, 1875-78, with Julius Epstein (piano), Robert Fuchs (composition), and Franz Krenn (theory). After a series of appointments in other cities, he served as Music Director (Kapellmeister) of the Vienna Hofoper for ten turbulent years, 1897-1907, where he raised the standard of the opera house to among the finest in Europe, and established himself particularly as a conductor of Mozart and Wagner, later also of Richard Strauss, Puccini, Pfitzner and others, numbering among his assistant conductors Bruno Walter and Franz Schalk. After his enforced resignation, partly out of anti-semitism, in 1907 he was succeeded by Felix Weingartner. He was also Director of the Vienna Philharmonic Concerts 1898-1901. From 1907, he worked in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House and also as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, returning to Vienna for the last few months of his life.

Mahler and Schenker

Federhofer comments: "We do not know what kind of relationship [Schenker] had with Mahler ..., for Schenker expressed his views only briefly and very rarely regarding his works and achievements as a conductor. He valued him as a conductor, but he rejected his works" (Nach Tagebüchern, p.62). Schenker described a performance of Smetana's Dalibor in 1897 as "excellent, and under G. Mahler's direction, to whom we take this opportunity to pay tribute also for his truthful performances of the Nibelungen tetralogy, the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Czar und Zimmermann, etc." (Federhofer, Essayist, p.358).

Schenker's diary comments include the following: [1898]: G. Mahler. (Symphony) Annoyingly immature, and good-for-nothing, its irreverent pretentiousness all the more ridiculous ..." (OJ 1/4, p.6) [January 3, 1907]: "open rehearsal of Mahler's Sixth Symphony: a work completely devoid of culture, childishly grotesque. A glittering barn-full of percussion instruments, and in the Finale the composer as a musical clown. (OJ 1/5, p.32)

At the height of opposition against Mahler, in the press and in other quarters, Schenker lent him his support, as noted in his diary: [May 22, 1907]: Open letter to Mahler signed on a deliberate whim; situation not without humor. (OJ 1/4, p.41)

Four days later there was a stir in the press over this, and Schenker, in a heavily reworked entry of which this is the final version, wrote: [May 26, 1907]: "ttack by Dr. Robert Hirschfeld in the Feuilleton of the Extrablatt over the signing of the Mahler open letter: in this he shows himself quite simply incapable of understanding that, even though I may have serious criticisms to level against Mahler in the most forceful manner, that does not mean that I should at the same time make him suffer for the highest, highest conceivable standards to which I hold him, [standards] that could indeed still less be applied to the other musicians around him. It is, however, quite futile to try to instruct on such a subject someone who thinks that taste alone governs art, especially a virtually uneducated taste. People want to speak only of a "genius" (on account of their own vanity!) or to criticize the artist (as it were, out of desire for revenge, because "genius" has not manifested itself in him); but they cannot understand how one might seriously criticize someone's achievement without also thereby ... wanting directly to press for their personal removal, especially when, as was the case with Mahler, removal would be bound to cause greater disadvantage than gain. (OJ 1/6, p.42)

Mahler himself wrote thanking Schenker; this is the only item of correspondence that exists between the two men: OJ 12/48, undated note: Dear Doctor, My heartfelt thanks to you for your friendly good wishes. Yours most truly, Mahler.

Following Mahler's resignation, Schenker wrote the somewhat self-righteous entry (undated, probably October/December 1907), perhaps with Hirschfeld's attack in mind: Gustav Mahler: People acclaimed him, people rated him as a genius in all that he thought, undertook and completed. In the end, many, many years later, it dawned on them—over the course of time—what he really represented. Now all those who have extricated themselves from their error are angry with—of all people!—me, who from the very beginning had taught them to perceive how all-too-lowly the extent of artistic mastery in Mahler was. Isn't it a merry qui pro quo that they consider me to be contradictory instead of realizing that it is they themselves who are contradictory? It is just like the illusion that the fields are rushing past one, while in fact it is the train in which one sits that is doing the rushing past. The person who is moving believes the unmoving to be in motion." (OJ 1/4, p.27 = OJ 1/6, p.50)

Later in his career, Schenker continued to make adverse entries in his diary about Mahler as a composer.

Mahler in Schenker's Writings

Surprisingly, there is no reference to Mahler in the unpublished Niedergang der Kompositionskunst (Decline in the Art of Composition) (c.1905-09) —Schenker's first sustained public attack on Wagner and his legacy in Bruckner, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. In Der Tonwille, Schenker refers to Mahler's "touchings-up" of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Heft 8-9, p. 54; Eng. trans., vol. II, p. 122), which had previously been the subject of a brief aside in his 1901 article "Beethoven-'Retouche'" (Federhofer, Essayist, p. 266).There is one reference to him in Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, vol. III, p.18 (Eng. trans., p.6).

Sources:

  • Federhofer, Hellmut, Heinrich Schenker nach Tagebüchern und Briefen ... (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1985)
  • Federhofer, Hellmut, Heinrich Schenker als Essayist und Kritiker ... (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1990)
  • NGDM

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Correspondence

Diaries

Lessonbooks