Mahler's Love Life Comes into Focus in Discovered Letter

Monday, July 07, 2014 - 08:00 AM

Studio 360 Episode 903, Hancock, McEwan, Mahler Gustav Mahler (Gustav Mahler/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Comments [7]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

HOW DUCKY that a composer whose sexual angst is represented in all his works, including his DAS LIED VON DER ERDE and his LIEDER EINES FAHRENDEN GESELLEN should be revealed as a sexually repressed individual !!! MAHLER's music needs no asterisk, it speaks magnanimously for love and its deprival. The pitch for composers should be their talent not their idiosyncratic personalities. If people knew the political or sexual background of painters, sculptors, authors, actors, musicians or singers would that steer them away. I doubt it.

Jul. 15 2014 12:59 AM

Hmmm, Mahler's love life seems to have fizzled out -- many years later. DD~~

Jul. 13 2014 07:22 PM
gerald rindler from new York

Regarding Mahler's conversion to Christianity, it was just a technical
conversion lacking any real religious motivation. To be the music director of the Vienna State Opera you had to be Catholic. In a movie about his life he is quips "no cross, no concert" While the writer states that Jews do not find it necessary to convert for professional reasons today, this was not the case in Europe. Heinrich Heine id it. Mendelsohn and his sister were converted at the insistence of their parents, Disraeli
became Anglican at his father's wish, to gain entry into English
political life. I could go on and on. Even in the U.S.Mr. Pulitzer (of the
prize fame) converted as of course did the Goldwaters.And quite a few other notables. One can not take today's social climate in the U.S. and
apply it to a very different European culture.

Jul. 10 2014 03:40 PM
Bernie from UWS

I was going to say the same thing, Dead Duck. All of the commenters who complained, "I don't want to hear about this crap - just give me the music" are nowhere to be found on this post. Funny how that works.

Jul. 08 2014 09:48 PM

Whoa, whoa whoa! I thought we were supposed to only care about the music -- and not what these composers did in the bedroom! Or is the bedroom OK only for the heterosexuals?!? DD~~

Jul. 08 2014 07:30 PM
Ben from Chicago

I'll be late to work this morning and it's WQXR's fault. Just could not tear myself away from the sublime Mahler 4th by Abbado. Wow!

Jul. 08 2014 07:51 AM
Sam Eisenstein from Pasadena, CA

I wonder if Mahler's birth Jewishness even troubled him through his years of conversion to Christianity? Many of us, non-professing Jews, do not find it necessary to convert for professional reasons, as I assume Mahler did. But there could have been a certain amount of guilt, repressed even as his passionate nature apparently was. Please, someone with knowledge, elucidate me.

Jul. 08 2014 12:49 AM

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