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Gustav Mahler: Ahaseurus - The Wandering Jew

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Alabama Birmingham
Birmingham, AL, USA

This is the sixth consecutive December in which the Links steers our attention to Great Musical Composers and how they enhance our cultural and creative side of what we do for and in the ISHLT. (see 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. From Dvorak, Beethoven, and Mozart to Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, we turn to a summary on the life and works of Gustav Mahler encompassing a personal expression of his inner world characterized by a sense of alienation and loneliness. This sense relates to our theme of Volume 8 as we gain a better handle of what our patients deal with while suffering from a failing heart and/or failing lungs. Mahler was once quoted - "The symphony must be like a world: it should contain everything." In his symphonies and song cycles, Gustav built a complete world, involving every kind of human experience, from childlike innocence and wonder to anguish and despair. To achieve this, he wrote music for a huge orchestra, sometimes with voices added. He pushed musical form to the limit with exciting new harmonies. Listening to his music can be overwhelming and rewarding. His most famous work, Symphony No. 8 was known as "The Symphony of a Thousand" due to the large orchestra and choir it requires, this piece includes church text and a section from Goethe's Faust.

He was born to Jewish parents in Kalischt, Bohemia on July 7, 1860 in what was then part of the Austrian Empire and today, the Czech Republic. Like many emancipated Jews, the Mahler family considered themselves as Western European Jews and spoke German at home, not Yiddish. His life centered on isolation and alienation in part due to a brutal father and the racial tensions of outright anti-Semitic hostility in Austria including the Viennese Press. Mahler wrote, "I am thrice homeless, as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world, everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." As a young man, Mahler identified himself as Ahaseurus, the Wandering Jew. His intense suffering from anti-Semitism extended beyond his life insomuch after his death in 1911, his music was condemned and banned by the Nazis as being both degenerate and Jewish. His music went largely unnoticed for nearly 50 years.

As a defense against this abuse, hostility and loneliness, Mahler retreated into a fantasy world enabling him to create extraordinary and fantastic music-scapes. He became entranced by music which began with an unbending devotion to the piano and yearning to compose. He developed morbid tendencies resulting in bizarre juxtapositions of tragedy, humor, despair, passion and rage that disappeared as quickly as they suddenly and explosively erupted in his music. Such expressive themes resulted in great orchestral pieces distinguishing him as a father of musical expressionism, the actual recipe which influenced and continues to influence many theatrical composers today. The environment that shaped Mahler's soul, his musical and emotional landscapes were fortunately united by him with tortured emotions stemming from his childhood into rich and original music. Take particular note of his first Symphony, Movement 3, - and notice the tune of "Are you sleeping?", "Frere Jacques," or "Bruder Jakob" named by him, the Funeral March. Mahler considered this tune quite morbid for children and provides an example of his obsession with death and the ritual sadness of a funeral march followed by the joy of dance. This joyous dance theme may have influenced Jerry Bock to compose the tune - "If I were a Rich Man" and the instrumental "Bottle Dance" from Fiddler on the Roof in 1964.

In 1875, Mahler studied music at the Vienna Conservatory and was regarded a marvel. He was influenced by Richard Wagner and listened in person to Wagner and Brahms conducting and Liszt and Anton Rubinstein playing the piano. By 1880, Mahler was not a rich man. Tired of living in constant need of money and knowing that composers made money by conducting, he turned to conducting even though he never conducted. He began his career as a conductor at a small theater in upper Austria and immediately found his calling. He became an exceptional conductor rising up from the Landestheatre at Laibach, the Stadttheatre in Olmultz (Moravia), Landestheatre in Prague and Neues Stadttheatre in Leipzig to an appointment as music director and first conductor of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest and assumed the post of conductor at the Hamburg Stadttheatre, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera theater in Europe. At his height, he would conduct nineteen different operas a month with an uncompromising and tireless style. He was a merciless crusader against mediocrity with extraordinary attention to detail. All of these elements would make up his later compositions. In 1897, Mahler applied for the position as conductor of the Vienna Opera. In February that same year, he converted to Catholicism, not for religious reasons, but because it was the only way he could secure the position as conductor and music director in Vienna. It was ten years later that the anti-Semitic Viennese press drove him out of Vienna.

In November 1901, Mahler, at the peak of his career as a conductor in Vienna met and married Alma Schindler. He experienced the best years of his life from 1902 - 1907 when he and Alma had a family and a summerhouse where he could compose. His Symphony No. 5 was a superb example of expressionist art movement with progressive emotional states of the grieving process. In movement 2 of Symphony No. 5 he provided the mourners of death time to reflect on the loss of a love one filling them with rage. Then near the end of this movement is a glimpse of joy that "all things will pass."

1907 was the beginning of the End for Mahler with three morbid blows to his psyche: 1/ his forced resignation from the Royal Viennese Opera; 2/ the death of his elder daughter, Maria; and 3/ the diagnosis of his diseased heart. He had been the music director of the Royal Vienna Opera for 10 years when he was decidedly exhausted and disgusted with the ungrateful public who booed him from the promenade seats behind the orchestra. He was weary from the ongoing battle with careless and mediocre singers and was ultimately humiliated when his request for a new contract was publicly turned down. And of course the anti-Semitism of the Viennese press didn't help matters. After living in one place for a decade, he once again became Ahaseurus, "the Wandering Jew."

Upon return to their Summer home in June, 1907, Gustav's daughters fell ill from a combination of scarlet fever and diphtheria. His younger daughter, Anna recovered, but his older and favorite daughter, Marie, required a tracheostomy with lingering suffering for two weeks before her death. However, the pain of her illness was most unbearable for Mahler. Upon Marie's death, Mahler was diagnosed with a serious heart condition with valvular abnormalities - but his doctors at the time assumed the worse and advised him not to engage in any exercise or sports. Mahler had been an avid swimmer and vigorous hiker through the mountains. Reportedly, Mahler never spoke about the death of his daughter, and he forbade his wife Alma from wearing mourning clothes. He was able to cope by reading and composing voraciously.

Afterwards, at age 47, Mahler became a wanderer again and landed a four-year contract with New York's Metropolitan Opera where he conducted three months a season. After each season in New York, he would return to the Austrian countryside to compose his final works. He composed Das Lied von der Erde and his 9th and 10th symphonies. In the summer of 1908, he slaved over the melancholy poems of Das Lied which allowed him to deal with the grief and anxiety over the death of Marie and his constant fear of his own heart ailment. Interestingly, Mahler had intended to call Das Lied von der Erde his 9th Symphony, but he took the curse of the ninth symphony very seriously. The superstition that Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak met their death was the culminating blow to what happened to him only preceded by the death of Marie and his own heart condition. Mahler wrote, "At one blow, I have simply lost all of the clarity and quietude I ever achieved. Now I'm at the end of my life, again a beginner." He decided not to tempt fate and named his 9th Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde. His Symphony No. 9, actually his tenth was his last completed symphony.

The six songs of Das Lied came from the texts by Hans Bethge's translation of Chinese poems. Mahler arranged the songs to create progressive drama about loss, grief, memory, disintegration and transfiguration, sort of an autobiography. His Symphony No. 9 (actually the tenth) was filled with premonitions and contemplations of his own death. The introduction of the first movement of Symphony No. 9 depicts his own heartbeat followed by a "fluttering sound" of his leaking valves. He was then resigned to his heart disease with a fatal heart attack in this first movement. His music was now about resignation and acceptance. Mahler was composing Symphony No. 10 which remained incomplete when he died. He had returned to New York for his fourth and final season in 1910. He was tired and developed a sore throat. By February, 2011, his sore throat lingered when he started spiking fevers up to 104 degrees. He was examined by Joseph Fraenkel and reportedly by Emanual Libman in New York. He was febrile, pale, and clubbed. A loud murmur, splenomegaly and conjunctival petechiae were described. Streptococcus viridans was cultured from his blood. He was among the first to have an accurate microbiological diagnosis of subacute bacterial endocarditis. At that time, antibiotics were unavailable and there was no cure. He wished to die in Vienna to be buried with his daughter. He traveled by ship from New York to Cherbourg, then by train to Paris. Then, he took the Orient Express to Vienna where he was placed under the care of Franz Chvostek at the Loewe sanatorium. He was prescribed an experimental antistreptococcal immune preparation along with oxygen, caffeine, digitalis and radium compresses for his acutely swollen joints. He died on May 18, 1911 in Vienna, his last word was "Mozart."

The New York Times called Gustav Mahler, "one of the towering musical figures of his day." With a compositional career that began when he was six and to its end, his music focused on the lonely isolated individual attempting to cope with romantic rejection, the struggle between hope and despair, the questions of death and redemption, and the grieving process. Mahler also had an exceptional career as a conductor. He was the first all-powerful maestro and the model for many other famous conductors of the 20th century.

Mahler believed that sorrow "made the man." He praised it as the defining element of life and believed that sorrow endowed a person with emotional richness and depth. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Lebrecht, Norman. Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.
  2. Fischer, Jens Malte. Gustav Mahler - translated by Stewart Spencer
  3. Bauer-Lechner, Natalie. Recollections of Gustav Mahler
  4. Greene, David B. Mahler: Consciousness and Temporality
  5. Mahler, Alma. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, third edition.

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