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Mahler and nature

Mien Bogaert
Reading time
4 min.

While Mozart was the composer who sang of love like no other, Gustav Mahler, according to conductor Josef Stránský, considered himself as a "Sänger der Natur": someone who had spent his whole life singing about nature. Indeed, Mahler's works reveal his intense love of nature, both in a concrete and abstract sense.

Mahler had an extremely busy schedule, first as Kapellmeister and then as a conductor and opera director. He did not have much time to compose. From 1893, when he wrote his Second Symphony, he decided to compose only during the summer months, which he invariably spent in nature. During long walks through the mountains, Mahler jotted down his musical ideas in small sketchbooks. Back home, he would work on these notes and make a first draft, from which the short score was born. This process was very intensive, especially as the composer preferred to cut himself off from the outside world so as not to be disturbed. Things were different when it came to writing the complete score: the orchestration. This was a craft job that Mahler was still able to carry out between holidays.

Three composition houses

The musicologist Jens Malte Fischer once wrote: “the ideal natural landscape for Mahler looked like this: mountains for walking, lakes for swimming and a cabin for composing". It was in the Austrian town of Steinbach am Attersee that Mahler had his first composition cottage built for the summer of 1894. "Four walls with a roof," is how the conductor Bruno Walter described the extremely modest building, "furnished only with a piano, a table, a chair and a bench". After long walks, Mahler gathered his musical harvest there, "like hay in a barn". The summer of 1896 was the last that Mahler spent at the Attersee: a new landlord took over the neighbouring inn and made excessive demands.

Have a look inside Mahler’s first composition house

From 1900 onwards, Mahler spent his holidays in the Austrian hamlet of Maiernigg am Wörthersee, at the foot of the Alps. He also had a composition house built there. According to Alma Mahler, the chalet even housed a grand piano, as well as books by Goethe and Kant, and scores by Bach. "This time, it is also the forest, with all its wonders and horrors, that surrounds me and blends into my world of sounds", Mahler wrote to a friend, "I realise more and more that one does not compose, but that one is composed".

Mahler’s "Komponierhäuschen" at Maiernigg

When his eldest daughter died of scarlet fever in the summer of 1907, Mahler fled Maiernigg. Together with his wife and youngest daughter, he settled in Toblach, Italy, on the edge of the Dolomites. There, a year later, he had a carpenter build his third and last composer's house. It was the smallest cottage he had moved into until then, and it was built entirely of wood. At the end of his life, Mahler looked back on his composition houses with mixed feelings: "although I spent the most beautiful hours of my life there, my health probably suffered. A man needs sun and warmth".

The composer's house in Toblach
A changing understanding of nature

Mahler's vision of nature evolved considerably over time. In his early works, such as the song Ging heut' morgen übers Feld, he paints an idyllic picture of nature: a walker talks to the birds and flowers, which fills him with intense happiness. Here, nature is a mirror of the soul in the Romantic tradition of Franz Schubert, and not yet an independent being. The first movement of the First Symphony is another example of this, in which Mahler masterfully depicts the awakening of nature. A primal sound played for a long time by the strings forms the fertile soil from which life slowly grows. The seeds sprout, the cuckoo calls and the birds begin to sing. The horns shake off sleep, the air begins to tremble, and the movement ends in apotheosis, with the orchestra bursting into spring.

Yet Mahler was struck by fate many times in his life: his brother died prematurely and his parents died before he was 30. His vision of nature changed fundamentally when he came into contact with Darwinian-materialist naturalism and under the influence of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud: it was not long before it lost much of its splendour in the eyes of the composer. In contrast to Beethoven's Pastoral, Mahler was disenchanted with his Symphony No. 6, "Tragic". In it, Mahler depicts an inhuman, cruel and God-forsaken world.

In later works like Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler finally came to terms with human destiny, seeing the individual as part of a larger order, an all-encompassing natural coherence. The world he had hitherto seen as dominated by original violence, in which death was a meaningless epiphenomenon, gave way to another vision: the composer now saw in this annihilation the possibility of a return to eternity and reintegration into the Whole: the suppression of the individual makes it possible to reintegrate the Whole. This late pantheistic impulse was partly influenced by the writings of Goethe, not only his literary works, but also his writings as a thinker and philosopher and his works on the natural sciences.

Infinite mystery

"People still think that Nature stands only on the surface," Mahler once exclaimed, "but those who, in front of Nature, are not impressed by its infinite mystery, by its divinity that we can only sense, but not understand or penetrate, they cannot approach it! A trace of this infinity, which is in nature, must be found in every work of art, like a reflection".

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