“It’s most extraordinary that Mahler – with his fine sense of rhythm – cannot walk two successive steps at the same pace. Instead, he changes his speed so often that it is utterly impossible for anyone to keep in step with him. Rowing in a boat is even worse, for he makes wildly irregular strokes – now in quick succession, now quite slowly. What’s more, he becomes quite furious if his rowing companion – who is always to blame for everything – bumps oars with him.”—Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a close friend and recorder of Gustav Mahler’s life from her first meeting during his days at the Vienna Conservatory through his marriage.
In the Spring of 2020, there was to be the great Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. https://youtu.be/6T90I0ynen0 I had cleared my dense teaching schedule for the month, and was fully prepared not to miss this great opportunity to travel there to drink in the many performances, exhibits and talks as Mahlerians from all over the world were gathering for a slate of concerts covering his entire oeuvre. Though I was too late (and too poor!) to ever be able to obtain tickets to the concerts, I was hoping to at least get some of the sense of what it was to celebrate the Man with others similarly disturbed by his mad, absolutist existential intensity, others inhabitants of his sublimely cosmic liberating hell of truth.
COVID cancelled all that.
However, in support of that, and seeing the surging tsunami of humanity connecting to the gospel of this fantastically tortured priest, the New York Philharmonic — working with Google — had pre-prepared an exhibit of the places Mahler visited during his years in New York City (during the years 1908-11). It is a picture collection and recollection-rich deep-dive into his days in New York, after he had been freed from the conflicts of his position in Vienna.
Thanks so much to this online voyage, I remember spending one night last Spring during the depths of lockdown in near chills, unable to be released, imbibing passionately the scrupulously documented paths he took through a city I have also inhabited and worked in.
Thanks to this fantastic presentation, I have vowed one day to encounter firsthand the places he experienced during his short years in NYC, to experience every street and vantage point he may have tasted, just as I did when I travelled in a mad last-minute decision from the Black Forest of Germany to Vienna by a hitchhiking arrangement in 1989 to at least touch the surface of the city that enticed, enlightened, embraced, enlarged, ennobled, enclosed, enraged, and finally entombed him. There was no Internet then, in 1989: Google was a dream in an Isaac Asimov novel. After travel cramped in a VW van with some Austrian student whose offer I had torn off an A4 poster in some coffee shop in Freiburg, and with zero knowledge of the city (no AirBnB!), I landed there with no basis other than to merely gawk outside the Vienna State Opera (from every single angle: “Was THAT the window he looked through?”, “Was this the doorway he might have frequented?”), touch the stones at the foundation of the building he inhabited from 1898-1909, and gaze on every old-looking coffee shop entrance in the vicinity of the Opera with a glazed wonder. I had no money to even enter to enjoy a cup of coffee in the places near the Opera. The only consolation, the only healing balm in this city of coffee was to grunge out a few Deutsche Marks for a watery coffee in the cafe in the nearest subway stop nearest the Opera. Sitting there, drinking this non-coffee experience, I closed my eyes and conjured up an imagined nearness to his movement and activity. That was it.
During that visit, for reasons I cannot possibly remember, one day I gained admittance to the Vienna State Archives and presented myself (torn sweaty sweater and all) as some sort of Mahler scholar, such that they brought out for my inspection a small wooden, sweat-soiled box containing an orderly filing of the original glass negatives from the famed Moritz Nähr’s timeless shots of Mahler in the foyer of the Opera House in 1907. These shots have graced a million albums covers, posters, articles, essays, and books. Today, looking back, it is as easy for me to understand string theory as it is to grasp how the freak these trained archivists laid out on the long wooden inspection table for some nervous, haunted hitchhiker American with bad German-skills the timeless source-material for the most-viewed images ever taken directly from Mahler’s period of peak influence and glory!
But it wasn’t the images themselves that startled the soul. I had seen these images in books and on record covers. His face was already perpetually burned into my soul from a many-varied experience holding album covers I’d viewed with no turntable ever to play them on. No — it wasn’t the hagiographic image-formation of these photographic relics that moved me, so much as, holding these hundred year-old original one-of-a-kind fragile glass negatives in my hands — and with no gloves! — more than the images themselves, my heart pounded with fantastic unbridledness as I repeated over and over and over and over again: “This! This object that I hold — it absorbed the image from him, directly, from a distance no more than two meters! This thing was in the same room with him. This object vectors with his very, living presence!” It was almost like some palpable confirmation, to my eyes, what my ears had been so aroused to believe was possible about the touching of the cosmic/infinite and the human/historical. There was a visceral trembling. My scientific upbringing gave faith to believe that the micro-faintest traces of his exhaled DNA could still be traceable here, captured by the rude physicality of this pre-modern glass surface. I was profoundly moved by that possibility. I even vaguely remembering a furtive sniffing of the edge of the glass-negative. Tears welled up inside, and brimmed the corners of my eyes, as I sat there holding up for nothing these fragile glass-negatives, fully drinking in the presence of Mahler’s being having been pressed so directly even unto his own CO2 onto this very same glass that stood between my trembling fingertips. It felt like, for my own intellectual and spiritual perversion, what Michelangelo was expression with his expression of the languorous Adam reaching out across the abyss to nearly-touch the finger of his god.
Now, when I see devout Greeks kissing glass-enclosed icons in the churches, and a sardonic anti-religious critique wells up inside, I do back down. Last Summer, while on sabbatical on the Greek island of Evia, I stopped in to a village church during the Sunday services. Something needed a direct touch with the indeftatigable sartorial soul which shaped — which shapes, against all suffering! — their indomitable soul. As believers brought their children in and, marching straight to the essential icons of saints and gods, they literally lifted their children off the floor to kiss the glass-surfaced icons — this, in the midst of a world- wide pandemic! — some part of me automatically recoiled and silently derided the slavishness, in an atmosphere of global, yet silent transmissality. So many others gathered there had already freshly kissed that the surface of that beautifully rendered icon just in the period I sat there — what is the false-faith in outward things which would lead good people to such actions, throwing out logic for pictured images? What causes the leap over reason and common-sense sobriety for this? And yet… Yet, there, after a moment or two, I couldn’t help but notice a turning of the corners of my lips. Kissing a picture?
And yet, “I’ve been there, folks. Go for it.” I would have French-kissed those fragile ancient glass negatives of Mahler, had someone immediately sprayed them with Ebola mist. Sorry to say, that was the mind then. It’s not wholly reformed since.
When this whole pandemic situation passes, you can be absolutely sure that I will use this link as a guideline for a walking tour of Mahler’s New York.
Walking, as I will attempt, like Mahler.
Thanks to #MahlerFoundation