The Missing Gustav Mahler Picture
A story about intrigue, music, lineage, and tradition
As Leonard Bernstein closed his storied run at the helm of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, he chose Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony for his final performance. Bernstein had long championed Mahler’s music, bringing about a revival of interest in the United States. The Third is a difficult symphony, one that was chaotically inspired in part by Schopenhauer’s concept of the universe willing itself into being. Its first movement often lasts over 30 minutes, an extraordinarily long opening salvo.
The Third is notable for a lot of things. The use of trumpets to produce a heroic feel. The controversial incorporation of a marching band sound in certain parts. In the middle of the third movement, Mahler writes in a solo part for a posthorn–the instrument once used to announce the arrival of the mail–a flourish that was said to remind Mahler of his youth when the posthorn would sound and bring news of the outside world to his small Bohemian village.
In many interpretations of the Third, in accordance with Mahler’s instructions which are scribbled in the notes, the posthorn solo is performed away from the rest of the symphony, sometimes above in the rafters, like the distant call of the divine. Here’s one version of the solo:
The trick is a tribute that evokes nostalgia. Appropriately, when Alan Gilbert–a serious Leonard Bernstein devotee–took over the New York Philharmonic a few years ago, he chose Mahler’s Third as the first major performance of his tenure. Mahler links Gilbert to Bernstein, but since Mahler also helmed the New York Philharmonic just prior to his death in 1911, Mahler links a city to an entire century. (It also seems worthwhile to note that Mahler, while born Jewish, was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism to secure his post in Vienna, his last stop before New York.)
Today, the New York Times had a fascinating story about Arnold Schoenberg, the composer and painter, who had an interesting and difficult relationship with Gustav Mahler.
Twenty-five years ago, when the daughter of Arnold Schoenberg was working through his archive for a book project, she came across an empty picture frame. It was missing what the Schoenberg family calls one of the composer’s most precious possessions: a signed picture of Gustav Mahler with a musical quotation from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.
(Alas, I did not have any cool stories or insights about Mahler’s Second.)
The picture was reportedly found recently by Cliff Fraser, a Los Angeles man, who is trying to sell it back to the Schoenberg family for $350,000. How Mr. Fraser came into possession of the picture is being disputed as is whether or not he has the right to sell it at all. More important than the dispute itself, which would make for a great screenplay, is the history behind the heirloom, which was given by Mahler to Schoenberg over a century ago, but remains just as valuable today.
While the mystery is perplexing, it is also a reminder of one of the more remarkable relationships in music history: between the older master, Mahler, who pushed the concept of the 19th-century symphony to its limits, and the young modernist, Schoenberg, whose conception of harmony changed the sound of classical music.
For more, be sure to check out our Vox Tablet podcast with Alex Ross, who talks about Arnold Schoenberg in the context of his fantastic book, The Rest Is Noise.
Related: From Decadence to Minimalism [Tablet]
Clues to Whereabouts of Schoenberg’s Missing Mahler Picture [NYT]
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.