Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vienna Philharmonic: Mahler's Symphony No. 1

He was not a man who ever deceived himself,
and he knew that people would not forget he was a Jew. . . . Nor did he wish it forgotten. . . . He never denied his Jewish origin. Rather he emphasized it.
Alma MahlerGustav Mahler: Letters and Memories (1946)

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under Leonard Bernstein, here performs Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major; Mahler completed the work in March 1888, while he worked as the second conductor at the Leipzig Opera in Germany. He wrote this piece before his decision to convert to Christianity—a  necessity to secure a prestigious post at the Vienna Court Opera.

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, into a Jewish family in Kaliste, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now part of the Czech Republic. In  February 1897, at age 36, Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism, chiefly to secure a post as artistic director of the prestigious Vienna Court Opera.  It was a procedural necessity at a time when Christian Europe was highly discriminatory in its practices.

Nevertheless, his music retained his Jewish heritage and influences, and if there was any doubt that Mahler owed his allegiances to his Jewish origins, they need be dispelled. "This, in the eyes of those who hated his innovations, far from removing his Jewish stigma, drew attention to it," Paul Johnson, a historian writes in A History of the Jews, quoting from Alma Mahler's book Gustav Mahler: Letters and Memories (1946):
"He was not a man who ever deceived himself," wrote his wife, "and he knew that people would not forget he was a Jew. . . . Nor did he wish it forgotten. . . . He never denied his Jewish origin. Rather he emphasized it."
Mahler's symphonies, hardly performed during his life, became out of fashion for decades after his death in 1911 at the age of 50. The anti-Romantic mood changed after the Second World War. Leonard Bernstein has been credited with giving Mahler new life in the 1960s, making his music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. With all due credit to Bernstein's influence,  and it was sufficient and large, it might have also to do with the changing sentiments after the destructiveness resulting from a world caught up in the mania of war. 

After its end, the world was ready to hear Mahler.

Gustav Mahler [1860-1911]: Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper. As Mahler said: "The point is not to take the world's opinion as a guiding star but to go one's way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause."
Photo Credit: Moriz Nähr (1859–1945)

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