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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Who was Mahler?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 26, 2001

THIS must be the year of Mahler. Three months ago, Hollywood brought forth Bride of the Wind, a biopic of the great composer's marriage to the inconstant Alma. Stonily scripted along feminist lines, the movie was trashed by upmarket US critics and may never be released abroad.

The biopic is an unhealthy genre that pays homage to genius by invading its bedrooms. It is also oddly old-fashioned in its homely assumption that all creativity is rooted in romance or sex. Mahler's private life was last filleted on film by Ken Russell in 1974. A novel about Alma, The Artist's Wife by Max Phillips, has just been published in New York. Mahler, the most meaningful composer of modern times, cannot escape fictive speculation.

But the latest Mahler drama, opening in the West End next week, manages to transcend celebrity exploitation. Mahler's Conversion by Ronald Harwood examines the composer's dilemma as he changes religion in order to secure the job of his dreams - director of the Court Opera in Vienna. This is new ground, not just for popular theatre but for Mahler scholarship. Mahler's biographers have tended to gloss over the episode.

Those of Christian origin regard his conversion to Roman Catholicism as a perfunctory necessity, little more than an inter-faith upgrade. Jewish Mahlerians treat it as an embarrassing act of expedience. Zionists recoil from it with horror. Mahler, the most important composer of Jewish origin, does not have so much as a cul-de-sac named after him in Israel.

For Harwood, the conversion conundrum is the very essence of Mahler. Many of us, the playwright suggests, face tough choices when chasing a cherished goal. Where do we draw the line? How much are we prepared to give up?

"It's about being true to yourself," says Harwood. "Mahler took a cynical decision. He could have been a great world figure without that, but he was driven by ambition."

For Antony Sher, the actor, painter and writer who is playing the part of Mahler, the dilemma goes still deeper. "What makes it a great play is that Ronnie uses the Mahler incident to discuss questions of identity - how far you go to bury who you really are," he says.

Facts first. In 1896, Mahler, aged 36, heard he was in the running for the best opera job in the world. Miserable in Hamburg, where he worked for a grasping impresario, he yearned to seize Vienna by the scruff and achieve the Wagnerian dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk, an opera production that combined the best of all arts. The job was his, provided he adopted the state religion of the Habsburg Court.

On February 23, 1897, he underwent baptism at St Michael's Church, Hamburg. Twelve weeks later, he conducted Lohengrin in Vienna. Over the next decade, he transformed opera from static vocalisation to a richly characterised, gripping drama, professionally directed, integrally designed and underpinned by musical fidelity. Mahler, in Vienna, invented the modern opera house.

He remained, however, troubled by the concession he had made to get the job. "I have changed my shirt," he told a passing acquaintance on leaving the baptismal church. Later, though, he admitted: "It cost me a great deal."

Although he had ceased to be a practising Jew after leaving home at 15, he had broken an ancestral taboo. The breach may have returned to haunt him when, in 1907, he lost his job, his health, his child and his domestic happiness. Four years later, at 50, he was dead.

"He felt at first that he was not losing anything by conversion," says Harwood, "but then the guilt started. And when his life and marriage fell to pieces, there was the sense of being punished."

Harwood, whose last play, Taking Sides, exposed the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to an ethical inquisition for having stayed on and played in Hilter's Germany, subjects Mahler to a session of guilt analysis at the hands of Sigmund Freud.

The two spent four hours on August 26, 1910, walking beside a Dutch canal and discussing Mahler's difficulties with his young wife Alma, who had taken a lover. Mahler came away feeling the relationship had been saved. Details of their conversation are sketchy. Harwood speculates that Mahler was troubled less by childhood memories and sexual traumas than by a delayed crisis of identity that Freud, his fellow Jew, could treat with tribal understanding.

This, for Sher, is where it becomes personal. "That's why I identify so strongly with Ronnie's Mahler," he declares. "When I arrived in this country from South Africa, I proceeded to bury three of the most vital aspects of my identity. One that I am white South African, two that I am gay, three that I am Jewish. Each was put in a closet for years so that I could become a leading actor on the English stage. And then, like Mahler, I realised that you simply cannot deny who you are. You pay for it. Every night, we come to that baptism scene, I feel that chill of identification. The water feels like acid on my skin, it's a dangerous thing."

Sher, who is Harwood's cousin, admits to being tone deaf but managed to procure expert musical training. At the 50th birthday of former Culture Secretary Chris Smith, he met the conductor Simon Rattle and invited him to lunch with his director and companion, Greg Doran.

"Simon gave us a terrific masterclass in Mahler," says Sher. "He talked about the emotional rawness in the music, side by side with its meticulous structure. I thought: that ties in perfectly with the character that Ronnie has written." Rattle agreed to teach Sher to conduct a few bars of Lohengrin. "We videoed him doing it several times to a tape, then I tried. Simon said, 'They seem to play as well for you as they did for me.' "

During a pre-run at Guildford and rehearsals at the Aldwych, the play underwent multiple mutations. Audiences, horror-struck by the atrocities in America, sat gripped by Mahler's identity crisis as if it were their own. Who are we now, and to whom do we owe loyalty? To family? Faith? Locality? Nation? Sher talks of the plot as a Faustian pact. Harwood sees it more as an exploration of how far we can go without losing our roots and paying a mortal price. "I cannot imagine," he says, "that Mahler did not feel that he was being punished by God for his act of betrayal."

Harsh as this sounds, Harwood is filled with sympathy for an artist exposed to temptation. "I don't think Mahler had any alternative," says Harwood. "The only other option would have been to say no to ambition. There may be people who do that, but we never hear of them again."

  • 'Mahler's Conversion' opens next Tuesday at the Aldwych Theatre, WC2 (020 7379 3367).

    18 April 2001: Cyberspace spawns a Mahler legend [Norman Lebrecht on music and the internet]
    10 September 1999: Courageous evening of old-fashioned laughs [recent review of Ronald Harwood]
    19 September 1998: Mahler: an Englishman at heart? [Norman Lebrecht on Mahler]
    28 March 1998: Mahler's seething rites of passage [review of Mahler's Totenfeier]
    21 March 1998: It's a new Mahler record! [Norman Lebrecht on Mahler]
    7 March 1998: Lover of genius [article on Alma Mahler]
    20 September 1997: What to make of Mahler [contrasting accounts of the composer's conduct]
    17 May 1997: Mahler Goes Home [Norman Lebrecht on Mahler]

    Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




  • (c) La Scena Musicale 1999