Last summer, the slow days of July were suddenly enlivened by the news of a discovered letter from Gustav Mahler's confidante and sometime lover Natalie Bauer-Lechner, offering new details on the composer's fraught love life – and naming names.
Sensing its historic value, two Mahler scholars spent the past year translating and annotating the letter, and have published their findings in the June 24 online edition of The Musical Quarterly, in time for the 154th birth anniversary of the composer on July 7. "Among all such sources pertaining to Gustav Mahler," write the scholars, Stephen Hefling and Morten Solvik, "none has proven more informative and significant than the recollections and reflections of Natalie Bauer-Lechner,"
The letter, called "Brief über Mahlers Lieben" ("Letter About Mahler’s Loves"), was written from Bauer-Lechner to a friend and heir, Hans Riehl, in 1916, four years before her death. In 60 hand-written pages in German, Bauer-Lechner describes the composer's various romantic liaisons, including those with Marion von Weber (then wife of the grandson of composer Carl Maria von Weber), and several opera singers (all sopranos), before his marriage to Alma Schindler in 1902.
While all of these affairs have been documented or implied in other historical accounts, the letter – discovered in a rare bookseller's shop in late 2012 – provides first-hand corroboration. It also suggests that Mahler was not quite the ascetic workaholic as has often been suggested.
According to Bauer-Lechner, Mahler was, on one hand, gripped by a deeply rooted asceticism that "won over his spirit at an early age as a defense against a strongly sensual nature, all the more, perhaps, because there was in him considerable inconstancy and unreliability when it came to his proclivities for people.” At the same time, she writes, “it was precisely his reserved and extremely chaste lifestyle that made him so needy and kept him in a state of perpetual infatuation."
The letter offers new details about Mahler’s relationship with his sister Justine, who it seems, had a controlling streak. "Justi, as she is called, emerges as a dragon at the lair keeping all potential mates at a distance from her beloved brother,” write Hefling and Solvik, “thereby exacerbating Mahler's already excitable emotional state and perpetuating an unnatural, quasi-incestual union between brother and sister. Bauer-Lechner makes no secret of her opposition to this arrangement.”
Bauer-Lechner and Mahler met as students in 1890; he went on to compose monumental symphonies and bittersweet songs, she became an accomplished violinist and a member of the distinguished Soldt-Roeger String Quartet. For over a decade she kept a journal of their relationship, apparently aware that history may be looking over her shoulder (it was published in 1923). But the journal evidently left out some crucial details.
Mahler scholars have considered Bauer-Lechner's accounts to be generally reliable and untarnished by her personal feelings. Hefling and Solvik point out that the letter does contain some factual errors and they suggest that she may have placed too much blame on Mahler’s jealous sister, Justine. Nevertheless, she appears to have been motivated by a sense of historical duty; even though she knew Mahler was engaged to Alma in early 1902, she maintained her journal up through the first Viennese performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony that year.