Composers on Vacation: Gustav Mahler at Steinbach

Gustav Mahler's composer's lodge in Steinbach/Attersee(Photo: Furukama)
Gustav Mahler's composer's lodge in Steinbach/Attersee(Photo: Furukama)

The great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler wrote substantial portions of some of his longest works while “on vacation.”

Actually, it should be called working holidays, since this very cosmopolitan man could  spend large portions of time composing only when he wasn’t working at his regular jobs as music director of major opera companies (director of Hamburg Opera 1891-97, director of Vienna Opera 1897-1907, and a year at N.Y. Opera in 1908).

Mahler didn’t travel as far as Dvorak or Tchaikovsky to get some productive musical inspirations, but he did go from Hamburg, Germany to Steinbach am Attersee in Upper Austria for very productive periods of composition (between 1893-96).

When he was free of the responsibilities of running the Hamburg Opera during the summer months, Mahler was inspired to free his musical vision to produce some of the greatest late-romantic symphonies. He revised his First Symphony (originally titled “The Titan”), wrote his 2nd, the grand “Resurrection Symphony,” and sketched out the entire 3rd Symphony (the longest in the standard repertory) while at Steinbach.

Mahler spent his days composing in a small cabin with a great view of nature all around him.  Steinbach am Attersee is a small town (pop. under 1,000 today) on the eastern edge of Lake Atter in a picturesque area of Upper Austria that borders Germany.

In this humble abode, he wrote some of the most complex large-scale symphonic pieces; Mahler has been called the last of the great symphonists of the German Romantic tradition.

Like Beethoven, whose long walks in the countryside outside of Vienna inspired him to write some of his most beautiful works, Mahler’s time away from the city seemed to free his creativity as well.

Mahler’s Search For Serenity

A highly intelligent and complex man, urbane and cosmopolitan, Mahler also longed for spiritual solace and tranquility. These contrasting elements are a distinctive feature of much of his music.

Disillusionment with the world and existential anxiety are juxtaposed with music of transcendent beauty and solace; the vulgar and the sublime are constantly rubbing shoulders. This makes for the continuing fascination of Mahler and his music for listeners today.

The Resurrection Symphony

The struggle to overcome cynicism and despair and find hope is expressed in the “Resurrection Symphony” in terms of Christian imagery (even though Mahler was Jewish by birth).

But in the 3rd Symphony, salvation seems to be a path that leads through the world of nature to the divine, whose highest manifestation is love itself.  Even though there are still Christian references in the vocal parts, the overall feeling in this symphony is different.

Writing this work in a beautiful natural setting where he could forget (at least temporarily) the back-biting and politics of his professional life, Mahler originally gave titles to each of the 3rd Symphony’s six movements that indicate the path for us:

  1. “Pan awakes, Summer Marches In”
  2. “What the Flowers on the Meadow Tell Me”
  3. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”
  4. “What Man Tells Me”
  5. “What the Angels Tell Me”
  6. “What Love Tells Me.”

Getting away from the busy-ness and the business of life had a very positive effect on his creativity. And even though it may not have been the panacea for all his concerns (there’s still plenty of conflicting feelings in those works), changing one’s locale can bring fresh insights into the nature of those concerns and bring new perspectives on issues great and small.