THE LAST YEARS OF GUSTAV MAHLER
IN DECEMBER 1907 Mahler went to America for the first time. The hour of his departure was early, but hundreds of people were at the station to bid him farewell as he left Vienna. A strenuous time awaited him, but he felt release as he looked back over ten years' responsibility for the Vienna Opera. At the Metropolitan in New York he would not have to take on new tasks, let alone cope with new problems, but would only be employing resources already available there for the production of works that he knew well. While his concert activities in 1909-10, and again in 1910-11, represented a great responsibility and made great demands on his strength, they were limited in either case to half of the year.
In the last years of his life I saw him but rarely. Instead of the almost constant intercourse of the preceding six years, we had but little time together--a few weeks when he was in Vienna, between the winter's conducting in New York and summer work in Toblach; the days of the first performance, in Prague, of his Seventh Symphony, and of the Eighth in Munich; finally, a few hours in Paris--the last we were to have. Vivid in my mind are the sunny autumn days in Prague. The place recalled experiences of his young days as a young conductor at the Landestheater; the rehearsals and performance of the Seventh Symphony of course provided us with many occasions for lively discussion. He was satisfied with its instrumentation; we knew that every measure told. We made an expedition by car into the pleasant countryside; we talked together or in groups of friends and family; perfect harmony prevailed.
Then in the winter of 1909-10 Emil Gutmann, the concert manager, made arrangements for a performance of the Eighth Symphony which Mahler at first awaited with some apprehension. Gutmann, without consulting him, had advertised a performance of "The Symphony of the Thousand." Mahler described the affair as a "Barnum and Bailey Show" and foresaw all sorts of troubles and difficulties in the organization of its massive effects. At his wish I had chosen and rehearsed the soloists. When he got to Vienna, early in 1910, he sat in on a rehearsal that took place at my home. As we began, a fearful thunderstorm broke out and we had to keep interrupting our work. He patiently accepted this sabotage by the heavens. He murmured approval of the soloists, and I could see the effect on all concerned of this gentleness on the part of the man of wrath. Satisfied next with the choral work, he departed for Toblach, coming to Munich at the beginning of September.
Those were great days for us who shared in the rehearsals of the Eighth. The hand of the master controlled the vast array without apparent effort. All concerned, including the children, who adored him at once, were filled with a solemn elevation of mood. What a moment it was, when at the zenith of his career, and, little as we knew it, soon to be called from us by the hand of fate, he took his place amid the applause of the thousands filling the vast auditorium, in front of the one thousand performers--above all at the point where the Creator spiritus, whose fire inspired him, is called on and a thousand voices utter the cry expressing his whole life's longing--Accende lumen sensibus, infunde amorem cordibus! As the last note died away and a storm of applause surged toward him, Mahler stepped up to where, at the top of the platform, the chorus of children stood. He went along the line shaking their outstretched hands as they cheered him. This tribute of love from the young filled him with hope for the future of his work and gave him deep joy.
During rehearsals his friends had anxiously noted many signs of physical weakness. But at the performance he seemed at the height of his powers. The lift of his spirit gave his tired heart its old vigor. This was, however, the last time he conducted a composition of his own; he never heard his last two works.
When he first spoke to me of Das Lied von der Erde, he called it a "Symphony in Songs." It was planned to be his Ninth. Then he changed his mind. He thought of how, for Beethoven and for Bruckner, a ninth symphony had written finis; he hesitated to challenge fate. He gave me the manuscript to study; it was the first time that I learned to know a new work of his otherwise than through himself. When I brought it back, well-nigh incapable of uttering a word, he turned to the "Abschied," saying: "What do you think? Is it at all bearable? Will it drive people to make an end of themselves?" Then, indicating the rhythmic difficulties, he said jestingly: "Have you any notion how this should be conducted? I haven't!"
If my memory serves me, he never himself gave me the score of the Ninth, for which, being a symphony, the ominous number was unavoidable. I see from one of his letters that in the fall of 1909 he took it with him to New York "in almost illegible form," in the hope of producing a fair copy there. He must have taken it back to Vienna early in 1910, but I do not recall ever seeing it there; it was only after his death that it came into my hands. It may be that a superstitious shrinking from a Ninth prevented his talking to me about it. Yet in that clear and powerful mind I had never detected any trace of superstition. Nor can there have been anything of the sort here; he knew only too well what the Fates had in store.
Although I actually saw little of him in the last years of his life, I was compensated for this loss by the intensity of his communication by letter and the profundity of our conversations. As in nature, twilight dissolves in the glow of sunset, the gloom thrown on his spirit at the onset of his illness passed into the mild radiance of approaching departure, lending a new loveliness to the "dear Earth" whose chant he had composed, and seeming to cast a secret shimmer over his speech and writing. I shall never forget his expression as he told me that he had never found the world so beautiful as on a recent visit to the Bohemian countryside and as he spoke of the delicious fragrance rising from the soil. Deep emotional turmoil lay behind his talk. Touching on a wide range of intellectual topics, as in the Hamburg days, it reached out constantly to metaphysical issues, and with a higher and more ardent pressure than of old. His mood might have been likened to a sort of travel fever of the soul, interrupted now and then by passages of serene calm: we even talked of plans for the future. We spoke of a house and garden on the Hohe Warte or in Grinzing, and of a Kaffeehaus where we might meet of an afternoon. But such idyllic flights of fancy were likely to end in a gesture or glance of disbelief.
A singular grim incident, which happened, I believe, during his last summer, depressed him deeply. He told me that while working in his composition cottage at Toblach he was suddenly startled by an incomprehensible noise. Something "frightfully dark" burst through the window, and proved, when he rose in horror, to be an eagle that filled the small space with its hurtlings to and fro. The dread apparition was brief; the eagle stormed away as swiftly as it had come. Then when Mahler dropped, exhausted on the sofa, a crow flew out from under it. His musical haven had become a battlefield for one of the endless fights of "all against all." His story reflected the horror of this immediate demonstration of nature's awful cruelty, which had always lain at the root of the deep sorrow in his soul; the incident had brought it all to the surface again.
In the autumn of 1910 he returned to New York; in February 1911 came the news that he was gravely ill. When he went to Paris in April for a serum treatment I determined to go and see him there. There he lay, the tormented victim of an unpredictable disease that now affected his spirit as well as his body. His mood was bleak and aloof. When, in an effort to turn his mind to more cheerful subjects, I spoke of his work, his response was wholly pessimistic for the first time. I therefore avoided serious topics and simply tried to distract his mind by talk on other, unrelated subjects. I was not wholly unsuccessful; indeed, I recall that my report of some remarks on the subject of art, made by a well-known Philistine, produced a faint smile in which there was a tinge of the old sense of humor. Another incident gave a gleam of the same kind; he wanted to be shaved--a youthful French barber appeared who seemed to combine the whole elegance of his nation with that of his profession. While he plied his craft with exaggerated delicacy I caught something like a flicker of amusement in the sick man's eye. He may have recalled the fantastic barber of some fairy tale. When the young man had bowed himself out, Mahler looked after him, murmuring softly, but in a lively tone: "Farewell, beard-scraper!" In my efforts to distract him I often failed; his immobile face showed how far away he was. When I tried to describe the future house and garden about which we had often spoken in Vienna, he did not answer immediately and then gave me a sad reply: "That would be nice, but my only desire now is to be allowed enough digitalis to keep my heart going." Then, his mood would change; he listened with interest to everything I could tell him about Vienna and what was going on in the musical world there. While he often showed resentment, the old attachment broke through frequently; at bottom he enjoyed nothing so much as stories of that world he knew so well. I had to leave after a few days. We had no more talk. When I next saw him he was dying.
In May he was carried to Vienna. No bitterness born of the manifold disappointments of his time there could prevail against his desire to "come home" at the last. He found joy in the friendly greetings and signs of devotion that greeted him on all sides. On May 18, 1911, he died. Next evening as we laid the coffin in the cemetery at Grinzing, a storm broke and such torrents of rain fell that it was almost impossible to proceed. An immense crowd, dead silent, followed the hearse. At the moment when the coffin was lowered, the sun broke through the clouds.