“My time will come”

Gustav Mahler 1898

Gustav Mahler 1898

“My time will come!”

This is an often-quoted remark of the composer Gustav Mahler. What did he mean by it?

Well, first of all, did he actually say this?

Not quite. But he wrote it in a letter of 31 January 1902 to his fiancée, Alma Schindler. (They had become engaged on 23 December 1901: they were to marry on 9 March 1902.) Two days earlier Mahler had conducted the première of Richard Strauss’s opera Feuersnot at the Vienna Court Opera. He subsequently took a couple of days off in the Semmering, just outside Vienna, to recover — it would seem as much from the ordeal of having to put up with Strauss and his wife, Pauline de Ahna, as from the pressures of the première itself.

Mahler wrote to Alma about the evening they had had to spend with the Strauss couple, probably after the première:

“…der ganze Abend war für mich unbefriedigend. Die Atmosphäre, die Strauss um sich verbreitet, ist so ernüchternd — man wird sich ordentlich selbst fremd. Wenn das die Früchte sind, die an einem Baum hängen — wie kann man den Baum lieben? Du hast mit Deiner Bemerkung über ihn in’s Schwarze getroffen. Und ordentlich stolz bin ich darauf, daß Du so spontan das Richtige getroffen. Nicht wahr, lieber zusammen das Brot der Armuth essen, und im Licht wandeln, als sich so verlieren an das Gemeine! Kommen wird die Zeit, da die Menschen die Spreu vom Weizen gesondert erblicken werden — und meine Zeit wird kommen, wenn die seine um ist…”

“…the whole evening was unsatisfactory for me. The atmosphere that Strauss radiates around him is so disillusioning — one really loses contact with oneself. If these are the fruits that hang on a tree — how can one love the tree? You have hit the bull’s eye with your remark about him. And I am really proud of it, that you hit the truth so spontaneously. Is it not better to eat the bread of poverty together and walk in the light, rather than lose oneself thus in the dirt! The time will come, when men will see the chaff separated from the wheat — and my time will come when his is up…”

Mahler was upset by Strauss’s overwhelming interest in making money, and suggested that he found both the man and his music superficial. The implication of his remark in the letter is that the public would one day see through Strauss’s music and would recognise his own as more genuine.

How could Mahler be so sure? As far as I know, even Beethoven did not make any such claims for his own late string quartets, which languished unrecognised for many decades. Even more amazingly, his Hamburg friend, Ferdinand Pfohl, reported that shortly after the completion of Mahler’s Third Symphony the composer declared to him, “Meine Sinfonien wird man noch spielen, wenn man vergessen haben wird, Beethoven aufzuführen.” (One will still play my symphonies when one will have forgotten to perform Beethoven.) Pfohl was quick to rebuff this outrageous statement by replying that he feared Mahler would have to wait a long time before Beethoven was forgotten.

Mahler was wrong with both his predictions. Although his time has come, it has not led to the eclipse of Richard Strauss, and even less of Beethoven.

It is generally reckoned that Mahler’s time came at some point in the 1960s when his music began to be played and appreciated more regularly, having never really taken off during his lifetime or after his death (1911), and having been banned by the Nazis from the 1930s onward; but did Strauss suffer thereby? This is not clear. Undoubtedly, the fortunes of composers rise and fall. As the most favoured German composer of his generation, Strauss had been overexposed and now seems to have found his level in the repertoire — by no means as lowly a place as some others of his contemporaries. Mahler’s lifetime coincided with a rise in the popularity of Beethoven’s music, and this is reflected in the frequency with which Mahler conducted Beethoven’s works. Neither Mozart nor Haydn were box office successes in Mahler’s day; their time came later. Strauss is still popular with orchestras and audiences.

One thing that has happened is that, whereas at one time orchestras would take on tour a work like Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, nowadays their warhorse is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, as a replacement for his overplayed Fifth Symphony. Is this because the Seventh is a better work than any of Strauss’s major tone poems — the wheat rather than the chaff? It is hard to make a case for this, indeed the Seventh is one of the most difficult of all Mahler’s symphonies to understand, and considered by many to be an overall failure, despite the beauties of the middle movements. The notes are, however, a challenge to the players, and the virtuosity and stamina they demand, plus the loud ending, are capable of bringing an audience to its feet, whether it is populated with Mahler lovers or no. This probably explains the frequency with which it is programmed today.

As far as Mahler’s “prophetic” words are concerned, his time has come; but not in the way he predicted.

I have written more essays about Gustav Mahler here

© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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