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The Mahler Family Letters

Edited, translated, and annotated by Stephen McClatchie

Published in hardback by OUP (New York, 2006)

ISBN 0-19-514065-6


This follows closely after the paperback (Faber and Faber, London, 2005) English edition of Gustav Mahler Letters to his Wife edited by Henry-Louis De La Grange and Günther Weiss (in collaboration with Knud Martner). This is a book of 500+ letters based on those in the Mahler-Rosé Collection in the Music Library of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. In addition to all of these letters it also includes a number of other family letters from a variety of sources. Every effort has been made to transcribe the letters from originals.

Since Mahler seldom dated his letters, this set Stephen McClatchie a considerable problem; dates of performances and events mentioned has helped, as well as type of notepaper and the chronological arrangement of their storage within the vaults of Bank of Montreal before their donation to the Music Library.

Intriguingly Dr McClatchie notes that he ‘has also read many hundreds of unpublished letters from Mahler in search of references connected to the family letters’. How many letters are there still to be published? If I include the other recent book there are well over 800 letters already in the public domain covering about thirty years of a creative and private life.

As Dr McClatchie writes in his Introduction: ‘Gustav Mahler’s letters to his family are almost entirely unknown, yet they form the largest and probably most important single source of information about all aspects of his life before the mid-1890s: his personality; his relationships with his family and several close friends; his first position in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg; and several of his earliest compositions. They also document significant later events such as his campaign to be named director of the Vienna Hofoper.’

Even at their most banal there is often a hint of Mahler’s struggles:

To (his sister) Justine from Budapest c late 1880s

Dear Justi,

Why don’t you write how you are?

For whom do you need the seats?

I chose them in the back rows, since they cost me 20 groschen less there.

I enclose an article that appeared in the Wiener Fremdenblatt yesterday.

Kindest regards, I will come over soon. Your Gustav

So saving every groschen was important to Gustav even as director of the Royal Hungarian Opera!

Every so often it is possible to read something more personal and revelatory:

To Justin from Maiernigg some time between 1903 and 1906 (on the eve of the darkest times in Mahler’s personal life). Like the other example above it is one of a few letters that cannot be dated with certainty.

Dearest Justi,

The news you gave me about all of you was very welcome. Your pouring rain must be very unpleasant – but my usual country rain isn’t pleasant either. And for somebody who relies on hiking all by himself to have to stay close to his room and entertain himself must almost be considered a catastrophe. But the main thing after all, is that one must come face to face with oneself, which humans often don’t experience in a lifetime. Every year a person should be retired to an Alpine pasture for 14 days (naturally with a dairymaid á la Elise), then he would surely give peace and receive peace (…)

We should not be surprised by these insights into Mahler’s remarkable personality and these letters are probably part of the evidence towards confirming the autobiographical nature of his compositions – not that there was any real doubt about this. They also embody an important commentary on the fin de siècle social and cultural changes which this remarkable artist experienced. For the ‘end of century’ changes for the twentieth century we have no such record, what could we publish: ‘The Selected Emails of Person X’ is the best we could possibly manage?

The book is divided into chapters from ‘The Early Years’ to ‘Vienna’ and each is given a concise chronology. There is a photo gallery to illustrate the main correspondents.

The last ‘letter’ in Stephen McClatchie’s tremendous labour of love is incredibly poignant. It was a postcard, this time from Alma to Justine, postmarked Neuilly 8th May 1911.

Pulse - 120

Temp - 37.3

Appearance - good

Appetite - good-?Satisfactory

Mood - better

Night - bad-fever

Sleep - no sleep

Medicine - no effect

Three days later Mahler left the clinic at Neuilly and departed for Vienna. On 18th May 1911 he died in the Loew Sanatorium.

Jim Pritchard

Stephen McClatchie’s tremendous labour of love ... incredibly poignant. ... see Full Review



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