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Herr Mahler’s bout with Professor Freud

Features - Classical Music

Herr Mahler’s bout with Professor Freud

by Hallam Fulcher on March 15, 2017 (March 15, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
An al fresco session between the composer and the psychoanalyst resulted in a two-word diagnosis

It was in 1910 that the famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler determined that his young wife, Alma Schindler Mahler, was having a torrid affair with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. The discovery followed on from the death of Mahler’s beloved four-year-old daughter, a diagnosis of heart disease and his quasi-forced resignation as director of the Vienna Court Opera. Believing himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Mahler sought the counsel of Professor Sigmund Freud.

The historic meeting took place far from Vienna at a famous restaurant, In the Gilded Turk, in the Dutch city of Leiden. Mahler had made the long train journey for the explicit purpose of undergoing psychoanalysis.

While exact details of the conversation between the composer and the psychoanalyst remain a mystery, it is known that the most pressing topic on Mahler’s mind at the time was his wife’s infidelity. And, of course, in order for the psychoanalysis to be performed, it would have been necessary for Mahler to speak of his known-to-be difficult childhood. Shaped by poverty, domestic violence and the deaths of seven of his 14 siblings, the young Mahler had witnessed his father beating his mother and was often forced to flee into the street to escape the same treatment himself. Mahler’s declining health, professional problems and the death of his child were also probable topics of conversation. 

Mahler’s desire throughout his life to probe the depths of his troubled past made him perhaps the first musical artist to have delved into the unconscious to self-analyse and self-observe his internal life and bring it forth as a source of inspiration. Strongly influenced by such findings, his music reverberates with themes of death and dread, longing and loss, fate and redemption. “My need to express myself musically – symphonically – begins at the point where the dark feelings hold sway, at the door which leads to the other world – the world in which things are no longer separated by time and space,” he once said. Indeed, Freud later said of Mahler that he had never before met someone who so quickly understood the concepts of psychoanalysis.

Unconventionally, the session took place al fresco. After four hours strolling through the streets of Leiden, the meeting between composer and psychoanalyst came to a close. Finally, Freud gave Mahler a simple piece of advice, “Relax, relax!” Mahler returned to Vienna by train the following day. By several accounts his relationship with his wife apparently improved, though sadly his increasing heart problems caused his death within the year. The widowed Alma remarried – to Walter Gropius – soon afterwards.