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New questions about Gustav Mahler

For many years, scholarship on composer Gustav Mahler’s life and work has relied heavily on Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s diary. However, a recently discovered letter, introduced, translated, and annotated by Morten Solvik and Stephen E. Hefling, and published for the first time in the journal The Musical Quarterly, sheds new light on the private life of the great composer. New revelations about various relationships, including Bauer-Lechner’s romantic involvement with the composer, sketch out his personal character and provide a more nuanced portrait. We spoke with Morten Solvik and Stephen E. Hefling about the impact on Mahler scholarship.

Gustav Mahler, photo of the etching by Emil Orlik (1903), in the Groves Dictionary and New Outlook (1907). Collections Walter Anton. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gustav Mahler, photo of the etching by Emil Orlik (1903), in the Groves Dictionary and New Outlook (1907). Collections Walter Anton. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

How will the publication of this letter affect the current body of Mahler scholarship?

Natalie Bauer-Lechner is the primary witness to roughly 10 years of Gustav Mahler’s life; biographers and historians have continually relied on her accounts to shed light on Mahler’s works and thoughts, especially during the 1890s. In this letter, three main topics are discussed in ways never before documented in Mahler studies: (1) Mahler’s various romantic involvements before his marriage to Alma Schindler in 1902; (2) the role of Justine Mahler, the composer’s sister, in his personal interactions with these women; and (3) Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s two brief periods of sexual relations with Mahler, at the beginning and at the end of her 12-year relationship.

The implications go beyond the merely biographical, as it reveals the author in a liaison – long-suspected by some scholars – with the object of her recollections. How, then, do we evaluate her writings? How trustworthy is the information they claim to provide? Since Bauer-Lechner has heretofore been considered absolutely reliable, the ramifications of a revision of this stance could have far-reaching consequences.

How was this letter discovered, and what kept it from being published for so long?

The letter had been in private hands until it appeared in the shop of a Viennese rare books dealer and was sold to the Music Collection of the Austrian National Library in the fall of 2012. The authors first became aware of the document in the spring of 2012 when it became known that the owner had attempted (unsuccessfully) to sell the letter through the Dorotheum Auction House in Vienna in May 2011. How the letter ended up in this person’s possession has not (yet) been determined. Its authenticity is firmly established.

Does the publication of this letter vindicate, or just as equally cast into doubt, any previously published writing on Mahler?

This depends on one’s perspective. Some will conclude that Bauer-Lechner’s romantic interludes with the composer precluded any objectivity in her recollections of him and that her accounts must therefore be called into question. Others will point out that Bauer-Lechner’s diaries include much factual information corroborated by many other sources and that there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of her “Mahleriana” as a whole; indeed, her degree of objectivity is all the more remarkable given her emotional involvement. For discretion’s sake she declined to reveal the extent of her intimacy with Mahler in the pages of her diary that she intended to publish. But that Bauer-Lechner manipulated or fabricated information seems a contrived conclusion; that she was unable to avoid a certain partiality or missed certain details should hardly strike us as surprising.

Does the letter pose any new questions for future Mahler scholars?

The most imposing and immediate challenge that emerges from this letter is the need to collate all extant materials that Natalie Bauer-Lechner produced in her lifetime in connection with Gustav Mahler. The present authors are in the midst of precisely this project in an attempt to present the most complete account possible. This will facilitate a better informed evaluation of the value of her narrative, the extent of its objectivity, its shortcomings, and no doubt more information regarding Mahler. In particular, the content of the letter clearly indicates the need to reevaluate Alma Mahler’s claim that at the time of their marriage, Mahler “was extremely puritanical” and “had lived the life of an ascetic.”

Morten Solvik and Stephen E. Hefling are the authors of “Natalie Bauer-Lechner on Mahler and Women: A Newly Discovered Document” in The Musical Quarterly. Morten Solvik is the Center Director of the International Education of Students (IES) Abroad Vienna where he also teaches music history. Stephen E. Hefling is a Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University.

The Musical Quarterly, founded in 1915 by Oscar Sonneck, has long been cited as the premier scholarly musical journal in the United States. Over the years it has published the writings of many important composers and musicologists, including Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, Marc Blitzstein, Henry Cowell, and Camille Saint-Saens. The journal focuses on the merging areas in scholarship where much of the challenging new work in the study of music is being produced.

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One Response to “New questions about Gustav Mahler”
  1. Jim McMillan says:

    I’m unclear on the impact of Bauer-Lechner’s newly uncovered letter about Gustav Mahler.

    But one thing is clear: Anything that adds more understanding about the conniving bitch that was Alma Mahler is #1 in my book.

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