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Gustav Mahler’s Mental World

A Systematic Representation. Translated by Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch

Constantin Floros

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 All the symphonies, including the purely instrumental ones, can be traced back to programs that Mahler originally made public, but suppressed later on.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)

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VII “A Musical Physiognomy”: On Theodor W. Adorno’s Mahler Interpretation


Except for Richard Wagner, there is hardly another composer today who is as much spoken of, discussed and researched as Gustav Mahler. Among the chief factors of his unexampled renaissance since 1960 is, besides Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice, the treatise about Mahler published in 1960 by Theodor W. Adorno.1 Its impact on the educated world, on many musicologists and many composers was immense. No other book about Mahler was quoted and commented upon as often as this study. And it decisively formed the Mahler image of many composers of the avant-garde – among them Dieter Schnebel, Hans Werner Henze, Peter Ruzicka, Helmut Lachenmann and György Ligeti.2

The book is entitled simply Mahler, with the subtitle Eine musikalische Physiognomik. The term physiognomy, traceable already in antiquity in Aristotle, denotes the (pseudo-)art of deducing the psychological characteristics of a human being from the physiological exterior of his or her face. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the idea experienced a renaissance, for instance in the work of Ludwig Klages, and Adorno’s subtitle signifies initially the attempt to infer Mahler’s personality and character from his music and especially its musical gestures.3 Biographical aspects are left aside in this procedure. But the book is by no means limited to psychological considerations: it also incorporates and mutually relates historical, philosophic and sociological aspects, as well as matters of compositional technique. The powerful fascination it exerted, and still does, is due to its literary qualities, the plenitude of insights it...

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