The MGM logo: a hand-drawn cartoon of Mahler at the podium, glaring at the audience

Main heading: The Music of Gustav Mahler: A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Sources [rule] Paul Banks





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Natalie Bauer-Lechner studied at the Conservatoire from 1866 until 1872. Whether Natalie and Ellen attended as auditors or as extra string players is not clear.



Although de La Grange is of the opinion that Specht was not a particularly close friend, Mahler seems to have collaborated with him in the preparation of his 1905 monograph on the composer (RSpGM1), especially the biographical material (see HLGIV, 492; HLGIII, 20–21).



See PBGME, I, p. 120ff.



For Hruby, see FSABC, II, 176. The same story taken directly from Hruby, can be found in GAAB, IV/1, 451–2. The reference here to a 'symphonic movement' rather than to a complete symphony might be thought to have the ring of plausibility.



There are two other references to Mahler's overnight composition of works. Stefan (PSGM1, 14) mentions a prize-winning work that was composed 'literally overnight', but since he had access to Bauer-Lechner's manuscript of (see NBL, VII, NBLE, 19) the information probably derives from that source. The other concerns a Quartet movement (AMGM, 80; AMGME3, 63).



This passage quotes from an otherwise unpublished portion of Bauer-Lechner's collection of Mahleriana.


['Conservatoire'] Symphony ([1876–1878])
















Printed Editions






Mahler himself mentioned the existence of three early symphonies to Natalie Bauer-Lechner on 21 June 1896 (NBL2, 55; NBLE, 57–8 (revised here)):

Ein Klavierquintett und zwei Symphonien sowie ein Vorspiel zun den „Argonauten‟, das er früher gemacht, und eine preisgekrönte Violinsonate hat er nie ganz zu Papier gebracht. „Das war mir damals zu umständlich und mein Geist hatte sich noch zu wenig beruhigt und gesetzt. Ich schritt von Entwurf zu Entwurf und führte das meiste nur im Kopf aus; da wußte ich aber jede Note, daß ich es allezeit vorspielen konnte – bis ich es eines schönen Tages vergessen hatte.‟....

Drei Sätze existieren von einer A-moll Symphonie, die vierte war ganz fertig, doch eben nur in meinem Kopf, das heißt auf dem Klavier, an dem ich damals noch alles komponierte (was man nicht tun soll und ich späterhin auch nicht tat).

A piano quintet, two symphonies, a prelude to Die Argonauten, composed earlier, and a prize-winning violin sonata were never fully written out. 'In those days I couldn't be bothered with all that – my mind was too restless and unstable. I skipped from one draft to another, and finished most of them merely in my head. But I knew every note of them, and could play them whenever they were wanted – until, one day, I found I had forgotten them all.

'Three movements of an A minor symphony still exist; the fourth was finished, but only in my head, that is, on the piano. In those days, I still composed at the piano; one should not do this, and later I gave it up.'

Another, and presumably independent, associate of the composer, who knew that there had been more than one early Symphony was Alfredo Casella, who refers to four such compositions the scores of which Mahler destroyed: 'l'auteur a déchiré les partitions de quatre symphonies juvéniles' (ACGM, 239). It may have been one of these three (or four) works that was the centre of an incident at the Conservatoire that first brought the young composer to Bauer-Lechner's attention, although she does not mention that possibility (NBL2, 17; NBLE, 23 (revised here)):

Meiner erste Erinnerung an Gustav Mahler reicht in die Konservatoriumzeit zurück, da meine Schwester Ellen und ich nach früh absolviertem Geigenstudium als Hospitantinnen die Orchesterübungen unter Hellmesberger besucht.

Es war knapp vor dem Kompositions-Konkurse; eine Symphonie Mahlers sollte gespielt werden. Dazu hatte dieser, da er sich einen Kopisten hierfür nicht bezahlen konnte, Tage und Nächte hindurch das Stimmenmaterial für alle Instrumente herausgeschrieben, wobei es ihm geschah, daß sich da und dort ein Fehler einschlicht. Hellmesberger gereit darüber in den hellsten Zorn, schleuderte Mahler seine Partitur vor die Füße und rief mit seinem leeren Pathos: „Ihre Stimmen sind voll von Fehlern; glaube Sie, daß ich so etwas dirigieren werde?‟ Und da er nicht zu bewegen war, auch mit der nachher ausgebesserten Stimmen Mahlers Werk zu bringen, mußte dieser im letzten Augenblick eine „Klavier-Suite‟ komponieren, die, „weil sie eine flüchtigere und viel schwächere Arbeit war, prämiiert wurde, während meine guten Sachen vor den Herren Preisrichtern durchfielen‟, erzählte Mahler später davon.

My first recollection of Gustav Mahler dates back to his Conservatoire years, when my sister Ellen and I, having already graduated in violin¹ sat in on Hellmesberger's orchestral rehearsals as guests.

It was just before the composition contest; a symphony of Mahler's was to be played. Since he could not pay a copyist, he had worked day and night copying the parts for all the instruments and, here and there, some mistakes had crept in. Hellmesberger flew into a passion over this, flung down the score at Mahler's feet and shouted with unfounded vehemence: 'Your parts are full of mistakes; do you think that I'm going to conduct something like that?' And since he could not be persuaded to perform Mahler's work with the subsequently corrected parts, at the last moment [Mahler], had to compose instead a Piano Suite. As he explained later: 'Since it was a much weaker and more superficial work, it won a prize, while my good things were rejected by the worthy judges.

Part of Bauer-Lechner's reportage is that of an eye-witness, but the details of what happened after the abortive rehearsal must have been supplied by one or more other witnesses and/or Mahler, whose comments would have been made to her more than a decade later: the resulting narrative  is almost certainly inaccurate in at least one important detail: there is no documentation of a Piano Suite (or a movement therefrom) by Mahler winning a prize at the Conservatoire. Nevertheless, the story seems to have had some currency, and in 1907 the music critic and advocate of Mahler's music, Richard Specht (1870–1932), published another version (RSpGM2, 152–3):

Bei aller Abneigung gegen anekdotische Ausschmückung drängt es mich zur Wiedergabe einer überlieferten Geschichte aus jener Zeit des Musikstudiums... weil mir die Geschichte symptomatisch scheint für Mahlers ungeheure Spannkraft und Energie, für die unerhörte Art seiner Begabung und auch für den schon damals erwachten Neid, den Haß und das Widerstreben der engeren Kollegen, gegen die als unbequem und aufstörend empfundene Eigenart des jungen Kunstlers. Es handelte sich um eine vom Konservatorium ausgeschriebene Kompositionskonkurrenz, an der sich Mahler mit einer Symphonie beteiligte, weil er durch den zu erringenden Preis seinen Eltern den Beweis seiner berufenen Künstlerschaft geben wollte. Einen Tag vor Ablauf des Einreichungstermins wird die Symphonie vom Schulerorchester vor der Jury durchgespielt: ein heillos kakophonisches Chaos, eine unkenntliche Mißklangsorgie kommt zutage. Es stellt sich heraus, daß freundliche Mitschüler heimlich in Partitur und Stimmen beliebige entstellende Noten eingefügt hatten, um das Werk des Kollegen zu disqualifizieren. Mahler ist verzweifelt; unmöglich, bis zum nächsten Tag die Partitur wieder herzustellen und neue Stimmen kopieren zu lassen — man kann die Stimmung des um seinen Wunsch durch albernste Gehässigkeit betrogenen Jünglings begreifen. Aber diese Stimmung ist nicht von Dauer: er überlegt, daß bis zum Ablauf des Termins doch noch mehr als zwölf Stunden übrig sind, rafft sich zusammen und konzipiert aus schon gehegten Themen einen Streichquintettsatz — Freunde erzählen sogar von einem ganzen Quintett — , den er über Nacht niederschreibt. Und erringt damit den Preis.

In spite of an aversion to anecdotal embellishment, I feel compelled to recount a story from the period of [his] music studies ... because to me the narrative appears symptomatic of Mahler's tremendous vigour and energy, the unprecedented nature of his gift, and also of the hatred, and the resistance of intimate colleagues, towards what they perceived as the disagreeable and disturbing nature of the young artist. It concerns a composition competition announced by the Conservatoire in which Mahler participated with a symphony because he wished to give his parents evidence of his artistic calling. One day before the expiry of the period for submissions the symphony was played before the jury by the student orchestra: an unholy, cacophonous chaos, an unbelievable orgy of discords was revealed. It turned out that obliging fellow students had secretly introduced arbitrary, disfiguring notes into the score and the parts in order to disqualify their colleague's work. Mahler was in despair. It was impossible to correct the score and have the parts re-copied by the next day – one can imagine the mood of the youth cheated of his wish by such absurd malice. But this mood did not last long: he reflected that there still remained over twelve hours before the closing date for submissions, pulled himself together and drafted a movement for string quintet from pre-existing themes – friends even speak of a whole quintet – which he copied out overnight. And with it he won the prize.

Specht appears to be drawing on more than one source. The reference to Mahler's motivation in writing a work as ambitious as a Symphony is most likely to have come from Mahler himself,² but later on Specht alludes to friends' memories. On the other hand, the justification for the inclusion of such a tale of a type dislike by Mahler, as Specht admits later in the article – makes clear the anecdote's role in Specht's polemic: the behaviour of Mahler's fellow students anticipates the hostility he was to experience throughout his professional career and against which Specht is making a stand.

The two versions agree that the rehearsal took place at about the time of the annual composition competition at the Conservatoire, i.e. in late June or early July, but Bauer-Lechner specifically reports that what she attended was an orchestral rehearsal (Orchesterübung). These regular events, and the parallel series of chamber music rehearsals (Kammermusikübungen) appear to have had three pedagogic functions:³

  1. to give students an opportunity to play together and learn standard repertoire at first hand;

  2. to provide a performance platform for works by composition students;

  3. to provide composition students with an opportunity to gain experience as conductors

Unfortunately the practice of publishing lists of the works rehearsed in the annual report of the Conservatory (BCGdM) was discontinued after the academic year 1872/3, so the extent of which Mahler's music was heard is such events is unknown.

The two biographers offer radically different reasons for the collapse of the rehearsal, with Bauer-Lechner's attribution of scribal errors to haste on Mahler's part providing a pragmatic explanation; the fact that this might well have been the first occasion that Mahler had prepared orchestral material that needed to be viable for a sight-read run-through, suggests inexperience may also have played a part. Where they agree is in the overnight creation of a prize-winning work, and it is here that Specht's report – that Mahler adopted the pragmatic solution of composing (one might wonder whether it was more arranging) a replacement work for quintet based on existing material – has the merit of relative plausibility. The reference to a quintet (its designation as a string quintet may simply be the result of a faulty memory or mis-transcription) would seem to connect the events with the end of Mahler's first or third years of study at the Conservatoire.

A similar anecdote was published in 1901 (i.e. before the Bauer-Lechner and Specht narratives had appeared in print) by a musician with few if any links with Mahler, the Bruckner pupil, Carl Hruby (1869–1940) (CHAB, 13):

Mahler studierte bei Professor Krenn Compositionslehre und hatte zur Jahresprüfung einen Symphoniesatz vollendet. Da kam einen Tag (!) vor der Prüfung „hoherenorts‟ (von der Direction) die Weisung, man wünsche von den Schülern keine Orchestercompositionen, sondern Sonatensätze vorgelegt zu sehen. Mahler setzte sich hin und schreib über Nacht (!) einen Sonatensatz (Andante), der – nach Professor Krenns eigenem Ausspruch – „würdig war, den Namen des größten Meisters an der Spitze zu tragen!‟ Diese interessante Reminiscenz aus der Jugendzeit Mahler's wurde uns von Bruckner – als von Professor Krenn selbst  – wiederholt erzählt.

Mahler studied composition with Professor Krenn and completed a symphonic movement for the annual examination. Then, one day (!) before the examination there came from 'above' (the administration) the instruction that it was desired that sonata movements rather than orchestral compositions should be submitted by the students. Mahler sat down and overnight (!) wrote a sonata movement (Andante) which, according to Professor Krenn's own opinion 'was worthy to bear at its head the name of the greatest master'. This interesting reminiscence about Mahler's youth was repeatedly recounted to us – as having come from Professor Krenn himself – by Bruckner.

The structure of this narrative – which ultimately stems from Mahler's composition teacher, Franz Krenn – is very similar to the Bauer-Lechner and Specht versions: Mahler wishes to submit a symphonic composition for a Conservatoire examination/competition, is prevented from doing so, and overnight produces a replacement work that wins plaudits/a prize. Although the identity of the symphonic work(s) remains unclear (it/they might be related to either the 'Nordic' Symphony and/or the Symphony in A minor) these references do at least offer grounds for believing that already during his student years Mahler was grappling with one of the genres that he later made his own. Nevertheless, it appears to be very unlikely that any of these symphonies was completed: in July 1893 Mahler admitted to Bauer-Lechner that early in his career he rarely completed compositions (HLG1, 719–20):

It was not only because I was anxious to begin something new...but because, while still involved in the work, I had already outgrown it and was no longer content with it...but who could have known then that it wasn't [because of a] lack of creative urge, of strength or perseverance. 

See also: Violin Sonata (1876); Piano Suite (1876–8); Movement for String Quintet (1876–8); Sonata Movement (Andante) (1876–8); Scherzo for Piano Quintet (1878); Nordic Symphony (1879–?1882); Symphony in A minor (1880–); Quartet Movement (c.1879).

Select Bibliography

  NBL2, 17, 55; NBLE, 23, 57–8; RSpGM2, 152–3; CHAB, 13; HLG1, 717–8; HLG1a, 83–84
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