12 December 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
13, Gustav Mahler and
the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) … a 1902 portrait by Emil Orlík (Wikipedia/Galerie Bassenge, Public Domain)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my visit to Vienna last month to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

The composer Gustav Mahler, who studied in Vienna and later lived there for the last 20 years of his life in Vienna, is linked inextricably with the city. Yet he once described himself as ‘thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world – always an intruder, never welcomed.’

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was one of the leading conductors of his generation, but his music was banned in much of Europe during the Nazi era. As a composer, he is a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century, and has influenced composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten.

Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire, to German-speaking Jewish parents on 7 July 1860. He later converted to Roman Catholicism to secure a prestigious appointment in Vienna, but always saw himself as Jewish and throughout his career, especially in Vienna, was constantly the target of hostility in the anti-Semitic press.

The Mahler family had humble origins in east Bohemia: his grandmother had been a street pedlar. The family belonged to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and were also Ashkenazic Jews.

His father, Bernhard Mahler, a coachman and later an innkeeper, and bought a house in Kalischt (Kaliště), a village halfway between Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia, in the geographic centre of today’s Czech Republic. Bernhard’s grandfather had been a shohet or Jewish ritual slaughterer.

Gustav Mahler, the second son, was born on 7 July 1860. Three months later, in October 1860, the family moved 25 km south-east to the town of Iglau (Jihlava), where Bernhard Mahler built up a distillery and tavern business and was one of the founders of the local synagogue.

Gustav Mahler began playing the piano at four, gave his first public performance at 10, and was accepted as a pupil at the Vienna Conservatory at 15.

After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of posts in the opera houses of Europe. From conducting musical farces in Austria, he rose through various provincial opera houses, including important engagements in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg.

Mahler was baptised early in 1897, making it easier to secure his appointment later that year, at the age of 37, as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper), a post he held for 10 years.

His innovative productions in Vienna and his insistence on the highest standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. But it was a testing time too for Mahler, who often had to prove his German cultural credentials to appease his employers and did so with some storming concerts conducting Wagner.

His ten years at the Hofoper represent his more balanced middle period. His new-found faith and his new high office brought a full and confident maturity. He married Alma Maria Schindler in the baroque Saint Charles Church in Vienna on 9 March 1902, and they were the parents of two daughters, born in 1902 and 1904.

By then, anti-Semitism in Vienna had become ‘a virtual obsession.’ Mahler became the target of an outrageous anti-Semitic campaign in a press that questioned whether a Jew could maintain the German character of the opera. This in part drove from the company in 1907, and at the of age 47 he became a wanderer again. He moved to New York, where he directed performances at the Metropolitan Opera and became conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Nonetheless, he returned to the Austrian countryside each summer to compose his last works. On 21 February 1911, he conducted his final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was severely ill afterwards and confined to bed. He travelled back to Vienna and died there on 18 May 1911.

In the 1930s, Mahlerstrasse in Vienna was renamed, the Nazis decreed Mahler’s work was degenerate and it could be played only by Jewish musicians for Jewish audiences.

After periods of neglect, his music gained wide popularity and his reputation soared in the mid-20th century. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Leonard Bernstein, his music received international attention, and a recent survey of conductors placed three of his symphonies in the top ten symphonies of all time.

The religious element in Mahler’s works is highly significant. His disturbing early background, coupled with his distance from his ancestral Jewish faith, brought about a state of metaphysical torment that he resolved temporarily by identifying with Christianity. But his Jewish background remained a source of much of the hostility he suffered.

Many say they can identify the influence of Jewish folk music in some of his work, including the third movements of his first and second symphonies. One critic is convinced these were used as models for Fiddler on the Roof, although it is probably difficult to argue that Jewish folk music was central in Mahler’s musical project. Others say Jewish clichés make his music unmistakable, including the klezmer theme in the first symphony, the possible shofar blast in the second, the sighs and whispers of the ninth.

The thrice-homeless Mahler felt most homeless as ‘a Jew throughout the world.’ Scholars are going to keep asking Mahler’s ‘Jewish question,’ continue searching for Jewish musical themes in his symphonies and continue to ask the extent to which he continued to feel he was a Jew.

Mahler’s grave is in the Catholic cemetery in Grinzing, a wine-making village now on the northern outskirts of Vienna, and his gravestone is a simple upright slab. In Jewish tradition, visitors regularly place small stones on top of the gravestone in his memory.

A decorative plate with the Ten Commandments for a Torah Scroll in the Jewish Museum at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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