Gustav Mahler’s Mental World

A Systematic Representation. Translated by Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch

by Constantin Floros (Author)
©2016 Monographs 263 Pages


With his extensive three-volume investigation, the author has newly drawn the image of Gustav Mahler for our time. Should Mahler’s symphonies really be categorized as «absolute music»? – Little-known manuscript sources contain significant hints to the contrary: programmatic titles and catchwords or phrases, mottos, literary allusions, associations, sighs, exclamations. Mahler fully understood his symphonies as «erlebte Musik», music of experience, as autobiography in notes, and as expressions of his «weltanschauung». All the symphonies, including the purely instrumental ones, can be traced back to programs that Mahler originally made public, but suppressed later on. A knowledge of the programmatic ideas provides access to a hitherto barely sensed interior metaphysical world that is of crucial importance for an adequate interpretation of the works. This first volume uncovers the complexity of relations between Mahler’s wide-ranging reading and education, his aesthetics and his symphonic creation.

About the German edition of this book:
«One of the most thoroughgoing and comprehensive investigations of Gustav Mahler’s work and world to date.»
(Norddeutscher Rundfunk)

«The way in which Mahler’s literary background, his education, and his aesthetic and philosophical maxims are presented here indeed opens up a new approach.»
(Die Musikforschung)

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Preliminary: The Exploration of Mahler’s Mental World as Precondition for the Exegesis of his Music
  • I Problems and Positions
  • False Doctrine: The View of Mahler’s Symphonies as Absolute Music
  • The Dichotomy of the Symphonic Oeuvre and the Withdrawal of the Programs
  • Mahler’s Statements about Program Music up to the Munich Declaration
  • “Pereat every Program”: the Munich Declaration of 1900 as Turning-Point
  • Statements Made after the “Turning-Point”
  • Interpretation
  • The Doctrine Refuted: Mahler’s Symphonic Poems – Reliability of the Programs – Mahler’s Symphonies as Esoteric Program Music
  • Why Mahler seemingly distanced himself from Program Music around 1900
  • On the Confusion about the Term “Program Music”
  • II Education
  • The Poet-Composer
  • Reading Passion
  • Literary Horizon
  • Classical Authors
  • Shakespeare
  • Relation to Goethe
  • Goethe Quotations
  • On Mahler’s Interpretation of the Chorus mysticus
  • Schiller
  • Jean Paul
  • E. T. A. Hoffmann
  • Eichendorff
  • Hölderlin
  • Wagner’s Writings
  • Dostoevsky
  • Tolstoy
  • Ibsen
  • Nietzsche
  • Siegfried Lipiner: Friend and Mentor
  • Lipiner’s Development
  • Topics in Lipiner’s Poetry
  • Excursus on Lipiner’s Christus Tetralogy and Weingartner’s Mystery Die Erlösung
  • Mahler’s Relations with Lipiner
  • III Weltanschauung
  • Theories of the Jewish Element in Mahler’s Music
  • The Jewish Trauma and the Ahasverus Complex
  • The “Judeo-Christian”
  • Basic Religious-Philosophical Questions – Turn toward Metaphysics
  • Epistemological Persuasions: Critique of Materialism; the Discussion about the Concepts of “Energy” and “Matter”; Fr. A. Lange’s Conception; Mahler’s Commitment to Irrationalism
  • Belief in the Doctrine of Predestination. Art as Anticipation of Fate
  • Belief in Reincarnation: Relations to Goethe’s Theory of Entelechy, to Fechner’s Teachings “about Life after Death” and “the Things of the Afterlife” and to the Pauline Doctrine of the Resurrection
  • Mahler and the Cabbalist Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls
  • The Doctrine of Palingenesis in Schönberg’s Jacobsleiter
  • Monotheism or Pantheism? Mahler’s “World Spirit” and Schleiermacher’s Philosophy of Religion
  • Christian Dogma and Doctrine
  • The Concepts of “Eternal Love” and “Bliss” or Salvation
  • Amor, Caritas and Eros, Mercy and Gratia – the Original Conception of the Fourth and the Fifth Symphony
  • IV Aesthetics
  • 1. Preliminaries
  • 2. Art and Life: Music as Autobiography
  • The Statements
  • Mahler’s Self-Image as Tone Poet
  • Experience as Condition of Creation – the Truth Claim of Art
  • The Symphonies Autobiographical in Character
  • 3. Art and Nature: Music as Sound of Nature
  • The Statements
  • On the Aesthetics of Imitation
  • Mahler and the Positions of Hanslick and Liszt
  • The Idea of the Music of Nature in E. T. A. Hoffmann and Eichendorff
  • The Idea of the Music of Nature in Mahler’s Works
  • 4. Art and World: Music as Metaphysics
  • The Statements
  • On Schopenhauer’s and Wagner’s Philosophy of Music and Theory of Dreams
  • Mahler’s Reinterpretation of the Schopenhauer-Wagnerian Philosophy of Music: the Metaphysical-Religious Mission of Music
  • Music and Religion as Conceived by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Mahler
  • Excursus on the Proposition “The Kingdom of Music Is not of This World”
  • Universality of Symphonic Music and Musica Mundana
  • V Symphony and Weltanschauung
  • Mahler’s Theory about the Relation between Weltanschauung and Symphonic Music
  • The Visionary World of Mahler’s Symphonies
  • Demonism and Naiveté: Rubinstein’s Demon and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
  • Why Mahler Wrote no Operas
  • On Some Operatic Plans of Mahler’s
  • Mahler’s “Metaphysical Music” in the Mirror of His Time
  • VI Stage Productions “In The Spirit of Music”
  • Mahler and Musical Theater
  • Mahler as Visionary of the Operatic Stage
  • VII “A Musical Physiognomy”: On Theodor W. Adorno’s Mahler Interpretation
  • Carl Dahlhaus and Mahler’s Programs
  • Appendix: Two Poems from Lipiner’s Buch der Freude (Re Mahler’s Third Symphony)
  • Music Facsimiles
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • 1. Literary and Philosophical Texts
  • 2. Literary and Philosophical Criticism
  • 3. Texts and Writings on Art Theory, Music Aesthetics and Criticism
  • 4. Documents and Criticism of Gustav Mahler
  • Index of Persons

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The present volume is part of a comprehensive study of Gustav Mahler and the symphonic composition of the 19th century, designed as a “trilogy” and consisting of the following volumes:

I The Mental World of Gustav Mahler: A Systematic Representation

II Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century

III Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies

The starting-point of the first volume is the realization that that no well-grounded exegesis of Mahler’s music is possible without a systematic exploration of his many-facetted spiritual-intellectual world. The second volume deals with the foundations – aesthetics and compositional theory, genres and semantics – of the symphonic music of the 19th century from Beethoven to Mahler. The third volume is devoted specifically to Mahler’s symphonies, which are exhaustively analyzed in their relations to the literary models on which they are based as well as to the tone poems of Richard Strauss.

Each volume is thematically independent and self-contained.

The symphonic music of the 19th century is a research area I have occupied myself with time and again ever since my student years (1951–1955). Since the winter semester of 1962/63, I have given lecture courses and seminars about it at Hamburg University. I first presented the thesis that all of Mahler’s symphonies, including the purely instrumental ones, are based on literary and philosophical programs in a Mahler course in the winter of 1965.

My cordial thanks for the transmission of microfilms and other materials go to the International Mahler Society, the Austrian National Library, the Municipal Library of Vienna, the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music, the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Stanford University Memorial Library of Music in Stanford, California, and Mr. Peter Riethus of Vienna.

The present volume is the tenth of my books that my dear friend, Professor emeritus Dr. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch of Indiana University has ← 11 | 12 → translated. I am delighted by this “jubilee” and thank him most warmly for the many years of collaboration, his subtle translations and his manifold fruitful suggestions. My thanks also go to Frau Isolde Fedderies, M.A., for the labor of copy-editing and for various linguistic suggestions.

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Preliminary: The Exploration of Mahler’s Mental World as Precondition for the Exegesis of his Music

“It has of late been repeatedly remarked that nothing is to be made of the technical analysis of a musical piece, that at the end of it one knows no more of the real inner being of the work of art than at the beginning.”

Once we have gotten this far, once we have realized experientially by what artful devices a certain spiritual expression can be achieved, we will have taken an important step forward; to the technical analysis, the other side, that of the spiritual significance, will be added, it will be possible to say that in using a preferred construction the tone poet has expressed such and such a spirit, the preponderance of a certain element points toward such and such a character, etc.; we are enabled to grasp the quality of the work of art in purely rational terms, as yet without any contribution of the feeling and the immediate aesthetic pleasure, and in this way a far more objective, generally valid basis will have been attained.” Franz Brendel (1860)1

Ever since 1900, or at least since his death in 1911, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler have been and are regarded as absolute music. But this view, which ranks as an official doctrine in Mahler criticism, is a mere legend, to whose genesis Mahler himself contributed decisively. The truth of the matter is that all of Mahler’s symphonies, even the purely instrumental ones, are based on literary and philosophical programs that Mahler concealed or kept silent about.

The doctrine that Mahler’s entire symphonic oeuvre was to be taken as Musik an sich has until now barricaded criticism’s path toward a true interpretation of his work. A legend, the product of a mystification, resulted in preventing Mahler’s symphonies from ever being studied systematically in terms of program music. Nor has Mahler scholarship concerned itself with the literary, religious and philosophic presuppositions of his symphonic ← 15 | 16 → oeuvre. Mahler’s spiritual-intellectual world has until now been a book with seven seals.

Yet Mahler was convinced that he was “capable of reproducing his entire weltanschauung, his philosophic conception of life, as fully in musical tones as he could any feeling, a process of nature or a landscape.”2 That he was very serious about this becomes evident once one has gained a first insight into the ideological presuppositions of Mahler’s creative work. Mahler not only believed that he could give “complete expression” to “his entire weltanschauung” symphonically, but he actually “transposed” it to music by resorting to certain specific programs.

Art, religious belief and philosophic weltanschauung are as intimately connected in Mahler as in virtually no other composer of the 19th century. Together they constitute a multifarious spiritual world, whose exploration is a condition sine qua non for a proper exegesis of the works. To rightly understand Mahler’s symphonies, one has to know his intentions.3 An approach exclusively in terms of an aesthetics of form here leads in the wrong direction. Naively to share Bruno Walter’s belief that a detailed formal analysis and a subtle stylistic critique should suffice for Mahler interpretation is to travel down a blind alley. Even the “material form categories” – break-through, suspension, fulfillment and collapse – with which Theodor W. Adorno tries to adequately account for this unique symphonic manner do not suffice.4

Formal and stylistic analysis can be only preliminary steps toward a more comprehensive exegesis in Mahler. Mahler himself disapproved of nothing more resolutely than “technical analyses.” Of Ernst Otto Nodnagel’s analysis of the Third Symphony he remarked on February 2, 1904, in a letter to his wife (AME 301): “The unavoidable Nodnagel has written a ghastly analysis and gushes like a bobbysoxer.” Alma Mahler commented as follows: “Mahler hated analyses, though he generally esteemed Nodnagel, one of his oldest adherents, very much.” A letter of Mahler’s, dated ← 16 | 17 → May 15, 1904, to an unknown addressee (possible Nodnagel) who had offered to compose a “musico-technical” analysis for the premiere of the First Symphony on June 3, 1894, in Weimar is also very instructive. Mahler declined the offer, explaining: “It corresponds very little to my intentions to confuse a concert audience with musico-technical observations – for that is inevitably the effect, in my opinion, of putting a “program book” in their hands and thereby forcing them to look instead of to listen!” (GMB 146)

In the present study, Mahler’s mental world will for the first time be constructed on the basis of the sources: letters, oral statements, reports, memoirs and musical works. The expression intellectual (or spiritual) world signifies the totality of the relations existing between Mahler’s literary knowledge, religious and philosophic weltanschauung, aesthetics and symphonic conception. Whoever takes exception to this term, or regards it as dated, should consider that it is a coinage from Mahler’s own time.5 It seems to denominate precisely what is to be delineated here.

I may be permitted to add that my Mahler trilogy has effected a decisive turn in Mahler criticism. Today, nearly fourty years after the appearance of the first two volumes (I and II), no one can any longer maintain that Mahler’s works belong to the genre of the ominous “absolute music.” The rather weak arguments of K. H. Füssl mounted in 1987 against my book were reduced ad absurdum by Georg Knepler.6 Prominent conductors like Kurt Masur, who in the ‘eighties repeatedly invited me to present lectures at the Gewandhaus, regarded my Mahler trilogy as the most productive work ever written about Mahler, and Giuseppe Sinopoli, whom I had the pleasure and good fortune of repeatedly meeting in Dresden and Bayreuth, confided to me that his Mahler scores were studded with annotations from my books.

1 Franz Brendel, “Vorstudien zur Ästhetik der Tonkunst,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 53 (1860): 105–108.

2 Richard Specht, Gustav Mahler (Berlin and Leipzig, 1913) 171 f. – For details, see ch. V, below.

3 Mahler himself used the term “intentions” repeatedly in his letters (GMB 146, 179).

4 See Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the Nineteenth Century, tr. Neil K. Moran (New York, 2014; orig. German ed. Wiesbaden, 1977), ch. XI:2.

5 Wilhelm Dilthey, Die geistige Welt. Einleitung in die Philosophie des Lebens. Gesammelte Schriften, vols. 5 and 6 (Leipzig and Berlin, 1924). Cf. my book Hunanity, Love and Music tr. Ernest. Bernhardt-Kabisch, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main/New York 2012.

6 K. H. Füssl, “Das Mahler-Bild von Constantin Floros,” Nachrichten zur Mahler-Forschung, No. 17 (Vienna, 1987). Georg Knepler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Annäherungen (Berlin, 1991) 410 f.

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I Problems and Positions

“One must know the goal before knowing the path to it.”

Jean Paul, Levana, erstes Bändchen, § 211

“Starting with Beethoven, there is no modern music that does not have an inner program.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (November)
Hidden Program Music Musical Semantics Education of Mahler Mahler’s Weltanschauung Music as Autobiography Music asd Metaphysics
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 263 pp., 4 ill., 9 examples of notes

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Hamburg. He has published several volumes about Gustav Mahler. In recognition of his many years of researching, the International Mahler Society awarded him the Mahler Medal in gold in March of 2010. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington (IND). He has translated several books by Constantin Floros.


Title: Gustav Mahler’s Mental World