July 7


Of all my musical heroes, and singing Happy Birthday to him in his favourite key of D major, Gustav Mahler in particular demands a place in this collection.

"If you think you are boring your audience, go slower, not faster." 

Words of wisdom from the Maestro who, according to one biography I have read, was born not at Iglau but at Kalischt, a fact which I could easily confirm or disprove in an instant of web-searching, but which really only interests me because his Bohemian Kalischt is vaguely similar enough to claim, at a stretch, coincidence with the Polish Kalisz from which my own grandparents came; the town of Praszka being located in that province, and Praszka itself completing the coincidence because, in Slovak, Prague is Pražská, only a minor spelling variation on my name, and actually the same word, both meaning village.

"I am homeless," Mahler once remarked, as though he had been reading that last paragraph, "as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." He could have made that fivefold (pentateuchal?) by adding: as an artist amongst ordinary men and women; and sixfold, as a genius among artists.

Two wonderful anecdotes.

Charpentier came to the rehearsal for the premiere of his "Louise". He hated the sets, the costumes and Mahler's conducting. So Mahler cancelled the première, redesigned everything, and had Charpentier teach him note by note how he wanted the score performed.

Strauss had his "Salome" turned down for reasons of salaciousness. Mahler had advised him not to write it, and didn't like it when he saw the score. But he hated censorship even more and fought to have his rival's piece performed, arguing that "in matters of art only the form and never the content is relevant, or should be relevant, from a serious point of view…"

He called his works "assaults upon Heaven". I have this whimsical notion of a sophisticated and cultured God, secure enough to open up the windows of the Heavenly Palace, utterly unthreatened, in order to listen better to the finest music he himself had ever inspired.

But that also poses an ironic question: which piece would God like best - remember, this was Christian Vienna, so this is definitely God, not YHVH? Probably it will be the Eighth Symphony, because that has the oratorio "Veni, creator spiritus", and God is bound to prefer religious pieces, especially ones that mention him by name, even if they are written by a Jew who had only converted to Christianity because the job required it. 

I hope it's the Second Symphony, not simply because it's my favourite, but because Mahler subtitled it "Resurrection", and he didn't mean Jesus, first or second time, he meant something far more individually human, something capable in each of us. 

And what if it were the Second? What would it have been like, that day when Mahler arrived in person at the gates of Heaven, May 18th it was, in 1911, a lapsed Jew who had converted for expediency to a Catholicism in which he did not believe, an atheist with tendencies towards pantheism? Did God let him in (with additional trumpets high up in the gallery), or turn him away to eternal homelessness through the back-stage door? Or perhaps, and the evidence of his immortality back here on Earth seems to endorse this view, perhaps he was granted the privilege of a resurrection of his own, first by God, and then, after half a century of being totally ignored, by the critics and conductors too.

Autograph m/s of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”), dedicated to Guido Adler, black ink on 18-stave paper, including notes, corrections, performance instructions (“etwas fliessender - aber nicht eilen - a little more fluid - but do not hurry”). Given to Adler as a birthday present in Vienna, November 1st 1905, sold at Sotheby’s on 21st May 2004 (Lot No 107) for £420,000 by a Mr Tom Adler, presumably mishpucha (family) who needed the cash (the grandson, if I’m not mistaken).

The second instruction is my favourite: “Nicht schleppen!” "Do not drag" is the literal translation, but this is surely Yiddish, not German. "Don't schlep!"

Amber pages

C Днём Рождения - Sz dnum rozhdeniya - which is Happy Birthday, in Russian, to another homelessly Jewish atheist and genius, Marc Chagall, painter of fiddlers on rooves, or roofs, if you insist, today in 1887.

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