Vienna has many characteristics of an open air museum. Houses, offices and public buildings are built in an identical Baroque style. On street corners and in souvenir shops we are confronted with pictures of Mozart, or copies of his handwritten compositions. In front of the opera house, ticket sellers line up in 18th-century costumes with matching wigs. Apparently, tourists experience a classical concert as a nostalgic event.
A stroll through Belvederegarten, recalls the images of dancing couples moving gracefully to three-quarter beats by Johan Strauss, as television viewers have been shown on New Year’s Day since time immemorial.
The house where Mozart lived from 1784 – 1787 has been turned into a Mozart museum. We decide to visit it and soon regret this. In a room on the second floor we notice a random cot. ‘Mozart’s room might have looked like this,’ states one of the text signs on the wall. At the exit, images shown on a video screen alert us to the possibility of buying a DVD of die Zauberflöte. The shop sells Playmobil Mozart figures and chocolate Mozart kugeln filled with rum.
The Musikverein, the epicentre on 1 January, can be reached via Dumbastraße (Dumbasstreet, what’s in a name?). To the beat of an imaginary Radetzky march, I walk through it. In the pavement in front of the music temple, Hollywood stars are attached with the names of classical composers. My eye catches the stars of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Strauss Jr, Arnold Schoenberg, Johannes Brahms and Pierre Boulez.
The composer I appreciate most, Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), seems to be absent. In his symphonies and his songs, Mahler expresses every possible human mood. In the fourth movement of the third symphony, he limits himself to a handful of instruments and a soprano who quotes lines by Friedrich Nietsche in a chilling way: ‘O Mensch! Gib acht! Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?’ At the end of the second symphony, Mahler has two groups of wind players (who no longer fit on the stage because many extra instruments and a choir are already set up there) play from the aisles while a thundering organ tries to dominate the already overwhelming overall sound. Mahler wittily incorporates banal folk tunes into his work, then makes things churn ominously and finally concludes in a compelling and romantic way. The moving ‘Adagietto’ from the fifth symphony has often been used in dramatic films.
Doing some research, I discover that Mahler lived on the Rennweg not far from our hotel. However, I can’t find house number 5. ‘Pacassi’, which is housed here, is a large café and I walk down a side street. After a few metres in Auenbruggergasse, I discover a plaque with the words: ‘Gustav Mahler wohnte und komponierte in diesem Haus von 1898 bis 1909.’ (‘Gustav Mahler lived and composed in this house from 1898 till 1909’)
Mahler may have reached the top, but he was never really loved in the Austrian capital. The brilliant composer and demanding conductor was difficult to approach. He preferred to be applauded as a conductor of his own works in the rest of Europe rather than climb the baton for conservative Viennese season ticket holders. His tantrums were legendary; when orchestra members didn’t fulfill their requirements, he humiliated them in public. That Mahler was of Jewish descent did not help him in Vienna around 1900, not even after he converted to the Catholic faith in 1897.
Mahler’s marriage to the almost 20 years younger Alma wasn’t a happy one. Mahler forbade his wife, who was also a composer, to produce new work. During the holidays Gustav retired in a purpose-built composing cottage to write his symphonies. The neglected Alma started a love affair with architect Walter Gropius. After intercepting a love letter from his rival, Mahler ended up on Sigmund Freud’s couch. The pioneering psychoanalyst described exploring Mahler’s mind as ‘descending into a deep shaft of a mysterious building’.
The low point in Mahler’s conducting career was the banning of a performance of the opera Salomé by the Hofopera management in 1909. In their view the libretto of Richard Strauss’ opera was morally substandard and they regarded Salomé as ‘sexually pathological’.
Disappointed, Mahler left Vienna. He travelled to America where he triumphed at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic Society, among others. On 21 February 1911, Mahler conducted at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where he did not feel well. American doctors could not find a cause and he eventually travelled on board SS Amerika back to Vienna via Paris. With severe heart problems, Mahler ended up in the Löw sanatorium where he died on 18 May. During his funeral, it initially rained. When the sun broke through, a rainbow appeared over the modest Grinzing cemetery.
On the way from Rennweg to Grinzing in the north-eastern part of the city, our tram strands due to May 1 demonstrations. We have to cover part of the route on foot. By chance I stumble upon a Mahler star, hidden among swap bikes next to the Opera and discover even a Mahlerstrasse. The Austrian composer has not yet been completely forgotten.
Mahler’s final resting place, on which a simple stone is placed with his name, isn’t hard to find. Alma married Walter Gropius, divorced him again and remarried the poet Franz Werfel. She died in 1964 and was buried a stone’s throw from her first husband.