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A Composer On The Couch: Mahler Meets Freud

(To mark the 150 anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth, conductor Marin Alsop and author-director Didi Balle focus on a famous meeting between the composer and Sigmund Freud.)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a turn-of-the-last-century Viennese Mick Jagger. His slight stature (5 feet 4 inches) was in inverse proportion to his outsized reputation as a conductor and composer of such renown that fans chased him down cobblestone streets seeking the maestro's autograph.

But with fame came detractors, and Mahler ruffled more than a few feathers in his tenure as director of the Vienna Court Opera. He riled the rich by forbidding patrons to enter the concert hall after the opera had begun, robbing them of fashionably late entrances attracting all eyes to their finery and jewels. His notoriously high standards, demanding technically perfect performances, did little to endear him to musicians and singers unaccustomed to a maestro who was both taskmaster and visionary. He tussled with management, endured the petty grievances of sopranos and weathered personality clashes as he forged ahead.

"I demand that every note must be heard exactly as it sounds in my inner ear," Mahler said. "To achieve this, I exploit all means available to the utmost."

As a child, Mahler's worldview was shaped by poverty, domestic violence and the deaths of seven of his 14 siblings. When his favorite brother, Ernst, became ill, Gustav attempted to cure him by sitting on his bed and telling him stories, but to no avail: His little brother died in his arms. He witnessed his father beating his mother, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and could do nothing but flee to the streets. Luckily, he displayed a talent for the piano and music became his salvation and refuge. The childhood themes of death and dread, longing and loss, fate and redemption reverberate in myriad and haunting forms in his symphonies and song cycles.

Mahler's instinctive sense to probe the depths of his past make him the first musical artist to delve into the unconscious to self-analyze and self-observe his internal life as the source of inspiration. He embodied a contemporary self-awareness of the unconscious as the point of departure on the creative journey.

"My need to express myself musically -- symphonically -- begins at the point where the dark feelings hold sway, at the door which leads to the other world -- the world in which things are no longer separated by time and space," he said.

The dark feelings of which Mahler spoke crescendoed in the three final years of his life, beginning with the death of his beloved 4 1/2-year-old daughter in 1907. It was an unmitigated loss further compounded by his quasi-forced resignation as director of the Vienna Court Opera and his diagnosis of heart disease, for which there was no cure. In 1910, as he was preparing for the Munich premiere of his Symphony No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") and composing his Symphony No. 10 (as well as maintaining a demanding conducting schedule in Europe and abroad), he made the devastating discovery that his young wife of eight years, Alma, was being pursued by an ardent and persistent suitor who had asked for her hand in marriage. He was an up and coming 27-year-old architect by the name of Walter Gropius.

The discovery of their mutual attraction took its toll on Mahler's weakened heart and precarious psyche, prompting the introverted composer to seek a session with the father of psychoanalysis, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Imagine: two of Vienna's most famous and remarkable men spend four hours together discussing infidelity, love, loss, childhood, conducting, composing and possibly even demons and dreams.

Mahler and Freud's summer afternoon session -- weaving a storyline of Mahler's life with excerpts of his music -- is the subject of my latest program, titled "Analyze This: Mahler and Freud," a commission by the Baltimore Symphony that premieres Nov. 5 and 6, 2010.

This fascinating program is written and directed by Didi Balle, with whom I collaborated on another exciting look into the life of a composer, in "CSI Beethoven." It is our shared desire to create programming that demystifies the great creators so that people may experience a real human connection with the composers' music and their lives -- coming to know the "greats" as if they were a friend, or someone with whom one could spend a few, life-enriching hours. -- Marin Alsop

Didi Balle is a writer-director based in Washington.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Going to be a big summer for Gustav Mahler in symphony halls across America and Europe. The Austrian composer and conductor was born 150 years ago this July 7th. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be among those honoring Mahler when it opens its season this fall with the performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Of course we're joined by our friend Marin Alsop, musical director of the BSO. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Musical Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): It's great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And I should mention, we left this piece out, that Mahler died in 1911...

Ms. ALSOP: Right. But do you know...

SIMON: ...in case people are expecting a big birthday party.

Ms. ALSOP: We like to try to extend and expand these anniversaries as much as possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yes. All right, well, he was considered a bridge between centuries, wasn't he?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, absolutely. As my great mentor and teacher Leonard Bernstein said, Mahler was the prophet of the 20th century, and I really think that's true. I mean, he was pushing the envelope of composition in terms of length of symphony. Every symphony becomes an epic journey. It becomes about the exploration of not only the world around him but his inner psyche and his relationship to humanity and spirituality. So you know, this was something new.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: I believe a great observer of the music scene, you, said that to understand what Mahler's presence was like you have to understand what it's like to be a rock star now.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, definitely. He cut a pretty dashing figure. You know, he was very slim, very mysterious, quite exotic. He always wore a cape. And so there was this mystery about him and people were just he was magnetic, I think, as a person. And people were - gravitated toward him like magnets.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You've chosen Mahler's Seventh to open the season in September. Why that?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, the Seventh Symphony, for me, is every single Mahler symphony, I should say, is an adventure. It's a journey. You know, because Mahler, in each symphony, he's not just trying to capture one idea, he's trying to deal with the entire question of life existence, after life, why we're here. It can get pretty heavy, you know, and he's trying to cover a lot of territory.

The Seventh Symphony has two movements that are called Night Music - Night Music 1, Night Music 2. So in the midst of these huge orchestrations, you know, 120 people on stage, suddenly there are these little almost intermezzi, you know, intimate song-like experiences. In the fourth movement he uses a mandolin and a guitar. It's such a quiet, intimate experience in the midst of this insanity, you know, of dealing with the destruction of civilization to suddenly have this beautiful moment.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: Also there's another fascinating quality for me about his music, which is that he loves to incorporate popular music. You know, people think Mahler's so inaccessible, but suddenly a klezmer band breaks out or a funeral band marching away.

SIMON: Cowbells...

Ms. ALSOP: Cowbells. He puts cowbells in. I mean, for us today it sounds a little bit odd. But of course in the time it would've been extremely evocative of, you know, rural life of the day.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: That's Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, 1966 recording.

How well received was he as a composer as opposed to a conductor in this time?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, as a composer it was secondary, if not completely subservient to his renown as a conductor. He changed everything about conducting. You know, conducting, when Mahler did it, suddenly took on a leadership role. He was the one, for example, who demanded that the Viennese public arrive on time to the opera or they couldn't get in until there was a break in the music.

SIMON: Try that with your major donor circle these days.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, really, exactly, you know, those kinds of things. Or he was the first person to demand that people not applaud in the middle of pieces or between movements because it would break his concentration. I mean, you know, he really changed and upped the ante tremendously for conductors. And as a matter of fact, in his own music it's really fascinating. He leaves little notes for the conductor don't do this and this and be sure you do this and don't forget about this all over the place. And, you know, and they're now footnotes in the published scores, because he knew that the conductors around him wouldn't pay as much attention to the detail as he wanted.

So it's interesting. It's kind of fun to do his music because you have all these direct little notes and you're going along Marin, don't, no, no, I told you not to do that.

SIMON: Is that intimidating? I mean, it's a note from Gustav Mahler.

Ms. ALSOP: It is a little intimidating, especially when you decide to ignore the note.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: Which I do occasionally, but not often, I promise. I promise.

SIMON: You make a comparison between Mahler's Symphony Number Five and Beethoven's Fifth.

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, Mahler felt that Beethoven was his almost, you know, to use the lingo of the time, archetypal father figure. And he put Beethoven, as most composers did and continue to do, on a pedestal, unlike any other. And he revered his Fifth Symphony. Of course we all know the opening, ba-ba-ba-ba, to the Fifth Symphony, so much that in Mahler's Fifth Symphony, he opens with the same figure. It's slightly different, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Well, they say great artists don't borrow, they steal.

Ms. ALSOP: That's true, isn't it? I mean, it's fantastic. And this idea, also, of the Ninth Symphony having some kind of superstitious connotation because, you know, Beethoven wrote nine and he started on his tenth, and of course died. So Mahler tried to avoid this fatalistic experience and instead of writing a ninth symphony at the time, he wrote "Das Lied von der Erde." And then went on to compose his ninth symphony, and then died right after his ninth symphony while he was working on this tenth.

SIMON: Goodness gracious.

Ms. ALSOP: It didn't work.

SIMON: Yes.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Not background music, is it?

Ms. ALSOP: Definitely not. It's every Mahler symphony to me is a it's really an adventure. And every time I conduct a Mahler symphony, at the end I feel that my life has been changed somehow.

SIMON: Wow.

Ms. ALSOP: Wow, I know. I'm sorry. I don't mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I don't think you've ever I've never heard you say that about another composer.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, well, you know, I just I really feel strongly about these symphonies. And immersing myself in the Seventh, you know, as we're going to open our season with the Seventh, I end up feeling, ah, this is definitely my favorite Mahler symphony. But then I just recently conducted "The Resurrection," the Second Symphony in London with a chorus of 600 people. And of course all I could think all week was, oh, this is definitely my favorite.

So, you know, it's one of those I'm thrilled that he wrote so many symphonies and that we can all have this year to celebrate and explore his music. Who knows, maybe people will really understand what an incredible rock star he was.

SIMON: Marin, thank you.

Ms. ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is opening its season this fall with a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony Number Seven.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: To hear more music by Mahler and read about Gustav Mahler's (unintelligible) meeting with Sigmund Freud - you wonder, did Freud bill by the hour? You can go to our Web site, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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