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Gustav Mahler

At the Movies

Benjamin Windelinckx
Reading time
9 min.

‘When Harry Potter mounts his broomstick, the liftoff takes its thrust from Mahler’s “Resurrection”’ (Normal Lebrecht). John Williams’ soundtrack for the first Harry Potter film is just one of many examples illustrating Mahler’s influence on modern film music. For although he was no longer around to witness the rise of sound film himself, his musical legacy lives on in cinema to this day.

‘Grandfather of film music’

As the main musical authority in Vienna, Gustav Mahler supported a range of emerging talents, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, the leading lights of the later Second Viennese School. Two other promising composers he took under his wing, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, were to become pioneers of film music. Mahler promoted them at the start of their careers and his own work would leave a lasting impression on them.

The wunderkind Erich Wolfgang Korngold soon became a real star in the European music world. His opera Die tote Stadt in particular hit the bull’s eye: the work remains a fixture in the repertoire to this day. Korngold’s success eventually led him to Hollywood, where he wrote soundtracks for more than twenty films. When World War II broke out, he moved to the United States permanently.

For his part, Max Steiner grew up in the theatre, as it were, and soon excelled at writing operettas. From the age of 15 (!), he was a full-time composer and conductor. At the Akademie für darstellende Kunst und Musik, he was a pupil of Robert Fuchs (who also taught Hugo Wolf and Alexander von Zemlinsky) and even had lessons with Mahler himself. In the run-up to the war, Steiner had to flee Europe and, like Korngold, he went to try his luck in the US, reportedly with only $30 in his pocket.

In Hollywood, Steiner and Korngold were part of the first generation of true film composers. Although each had his own style, the sounds of the late-Romantic Viennese world they grew up in still resonated in their compositions. They also applied some well-established principles of late-nineteenth-century German opera in their scores, such as Wagner’s leitmotif technique.

These two ‘fathers of film music’, formed by Mahler, in turn inspired subsequent generations of film composers, and Mahler’s own music also continued to inspire composers after his death. For instance, ‘Deborah’s Theme’, from the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America, is very similar to the ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5. Indeed, the composer of that soundtrack, Ennio Morricone, called Mahler ‘a great influence’. Mahler’s music has also left a deep impression on contemporary film composers. Hans Zimmer, for instance, has called Mahler ‘one of his gods’.

Symphonies and soundtracks

Mahler not only influenced future film composers, his own music can often be heard in films. From Woody Allen’s comedy-drama Husbands and Wives to an art thriller like Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible and Bradley Cooper’s recent hit Maestro, the list goes on.

The first and perhaps most striking example is The Birth of a Nation (1915), a problematical mythologization of the genesis of the US that celebrated and breathed new life into the Ku Klux Klan. That blockbuster was a milestone in film history both technically and visually. It was also the first film with a full-fledged score for orchestra. Compiled and composed by Joseph Carl Breil, the score of The Birth of a Nation consisted of original music, new arrangements of well-known melodies, and existing works by classical composers. Among other things, complete passages from Mahler’s symphonies thus found themselves in this early soundtrack – a painful film debut for a composer who came from a Jewish family.

It would be decades before Mahler’s music could be heard again in cinemas. But from 1960, when his symphonies benefited from a popularity boost on the occasion of his centenary, the composer was much loved by film-makers. During that revival, among others, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) was released, one of the most famous films in which Mahler’s symphonies serve as a soundtrack. It is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s famous novella of the same title, in which the elderly writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice to escape from an artistic impasse and where he falls in love with Tadzio, a Polish boy of 14. When cholera breaks out in the city, the writer cannot bring himself to leave Venice and the boy. He stays, against his better judgement, and so faces his own death.

The protagonist of Mann’s novella was already loosely based on Mahler – they share the same first name and physical appearance, for instance – but Visconti heightens the similarity further: in his adaptation, Gustav von Aschenbach is not a poet, but a composer. Moreover, Mahler’s music is heard prominently during the film. Among others, the fourth movement of the Third Symphony (‘O Mensch! Gib acht!’) serves as background music, and the ‘Adagietto’ from the Fifth returns several times in a slow, sombre performance conducted by Franco Mannino. The languorous, romantic flair of that piece and the elegiac nature of the performance set the tone for the whole film, in which Von Aschenbach’s obsession can only result in his death.

That Visconti directly associated this protagonist who holds ambiguous desires with Gustav Mahler caused quite a stir. Anna Mahler, the composer’s daughter, tried in vain to convince the Queen of England not to attend the first screening in London. The London premiere went ahead with a royal audience and the film became a success. For film lovers, the ‘Adagietto’ remains inextricably linked to Visconti’s film. It became a symbol of unfulfilled desire and Todessucht that is almost unrelated to the original context of his symphony.

Context is of course particularly manipulable in the film world: a director can take musical fragments from a larger work and give them a completely different meaning thanks to a clever montage. After all, in the hands of film-makers, music is a means to tell a story. When Mahler’s work plays a role in the story itself, it becomes all the more interesting. This is the case, for instance, in director Todd Field’s recent psychological drama Tár. The title character, Lydia Tár, is a world-renowned conductor at the height of her powers. She wants to complete her ‘Mahler cycle’ with his Fifth but gets caught up in a net of abuse of power and lies of her own making. The symphony is a constant throughout the film, as the object of a virulent power play in the higher echelons of classical music. Furthermore, it seems as if the funeral march of the opening movement is going to carry the star conductor’s career to the grave. Thus, the film shows that there are many ways to interpret Mahler’s work. His music has a transformative power that manifests itself with every interpretation: that of a conductor at a new performance and that of a director using it to underline a film scene. Traditions give way to new practices, symphonic movements turn into soundtracks, and along the way the music takes on entirely new meanings.

‘Cinema’ avant la lettre

Since his death, Mahler’s music has been used, contextualized and reinterpreted in all sorts of ways in films. But what did Mahler himself think of the cinema of his time? The pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière were his contemporaries; he could have witnessed the successes of Georges Méliès and even the first full-length feature films. Chances are, however, that all this passed Mahler by: during his lifetime, cinemas in Austria-Hungary showed little more than newsreels, and when he started work in New York in 1908, cinema in the US was still in its infancy, although the first glory days of Hollywood were just around the corner. Besides, it would take until 1927 before sound films became a reality and a success.

Mahler had a complex relationship with the visual arts of his time anyway: he was annoyed by the historicism of painters and architects and refused to set foot inside the renowned museums of the art cities he stayed in. On the other hand, Mahler attached great importance to the visual element of the opera performances he oversaw as director of the Staatsoper. In 1903 he engaged the Viennese artist Alfred Roller as scenographer. Together they pursued designs that emerged from the music out of an ‘inner necessity’; their approach had an impressive, cumulative effect on the audience. The performances with Roller as set designer were particularly ‘cinematic’ for their time, especially considering that Mahler demanded that the auditorium lights be completely extinguished during performances. In opera houses around the world, this was a point of contention at the time; in cinemas, it was the custom – simply out of necessity. As an opera director, did Mahler perhaps anticipate the sound film?

In his own music, at least, he seems to have done so, for instance by uniting ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in his symphonies: he made use of folk texts as well as refined poetry, wrote simple ‘Ländler’ (German folk dances) alongside thoroughly fugal passages. For Mahler, a symphony had to ‘capture the whole world’ and genre boundaries should not be an obstacle. In films, too, the division between popular and elitist art was later done away with: a popular singer can perform on screen with her band before the classical orchestra later underlines an intimate love scene in the soundtrack. Mahler’s evocative instrumentation is also cinematic. Cowbells in his Sixth Symphony evoke a mountain landscape while a mandolin in the ‘Nachtmusik’ of his Seventh seems to suggest a nocturnal love serenade, to name just two examples. In addition, Mahler’s compositional technique also at times bears some resemblance to later film techniques: Mahler sometimes places different genres, atmospheres and characters side by side in bold juxtapositions or as surprising interpolations, without any warning or ensuring a smooth transition. Consider the ‘Rondo-Burlesque’ of his Ninth Symphony. During that contrapuntal piece, a contrasting, almost chaotic passage pops up out of nowhere before immediately giving way to the preceding musical flow. It brings to mind the editing techniques of later cinema, where flashbacks and flashforwards are commonplace and contrasting scenes and shots follow each other with simple cuts.

Finally, Mahler’s symphonies – with their large numbers of performers and their overwhelming effect on listeners – were in a sense the precursors of later mass entertainment such as films. Mahler was not averse to some spectacle either; just think of the hammer blows he wrote in his Sixth Symphony. Musicologist Peter Franklin has even speculated that if Mahler had lived twenty or thirty years longer, he might have embraced film projections to enhance the effect of his symphonic work. We can only guess what such a performance would have looked like, but for now, we’ll keep in mind the image of that wizard on a broomstick when we listen to Mahler’s music. Who knows what cinematic experience we may then witness in such a completely darkened concert hall?

Translation: Patrick Lennon