Jul 072020

Today is the birthday (1860) of Gustav Mahler, an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. 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 his compositions were rediscovered 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.

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). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors of all time, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Mahler’s œuvre is relatively limited; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are generally designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists. These works were frequently controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Second Symphony, Third Symphony, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910.

Mahler’s First Symphony has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and was probably also a favorite of Mahler himself, given that he conducted it more often than any other of his works. In fact, he conducted 10 premières in 10 different countries from 1889 (world première) to 1909 (U.S. première). Here is a passable version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XbHLFkg_Mw The opening is virtually impossible to capture adequately because it is so quiet and yet so complex, but once it gets going the performance is not bad.

Mahler, in his younger days, was a vegetarian. There’s a story, recounted by one of his biographers, about how he was teased by fellow musicians in a restaurant when he refused meat, instead asking for spinach and apples. Mahler might have become vegetarian after reading an essay by Richard Wagner. In 1880 — the same year Wagner published an essay endorsing vegetarianism — Mahler wrote to a friend:

For the last month I have been a total vegetarian. The moral effect of this way of life, with its voluntary castigation of the body, is enormous. I expect nothing less than the regeneration of mankind. I advise you to eat suitable food (compost-grown, stone-ground, wholemeal bread) and you will soon see the fruit of your endeavors.

Eventually, Mahler gave up his vegetarian diet, but a string of health issues meant that he always watched what he ate. We do know, also, that his sister, Justine, baked a prize Marillenknoedel — traditional Viennese apricot dumplings. One of Mahler’s friends, Ludwig Karpath, recalled the composer’s shock at finding out that Karpath wasn’t a fan of Marillenknoedel. “What!” Mahler shouted, “is there a Viennese to whom Marillenknoedel means nothing? You will come with me right away to eat the heavenly dish. My sister Justi has her own recipe for it, and we will see if you remain indifferent.”
There are numerous ways to make Marillenknoedel dough. I have no idea about Mahler’s sister version, but this one is serviceable: