Mahler and Strauss, Strauss and Mahler: the twin peaks of late, post-Wagnerian musical romanticism. That, at least, is how many people would see (and hear) them, and with justification. Of all the leading composers who emerged in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, none holds the attention to this day as consistently as these two. You might encounter an occasional performance of a work by Zemlinsky or Pfitzner, say, or an early Schoenberg piece; but the great Mahler symphonies and song cycles continue to attract audiences worldwide, as do the tone poems of Strauss and such operatic masterpieces as Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Everyone knows the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth and the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, if only from their prominent use in the films Death in Venice and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In addition to producing powerful and durable compositions, Strauss and Mahler were also among the leading conductors of their time, on the concert platform and in the opera house. The men were close contemporaries and friends, each admired (and occasionally conducted) the work of the other, and both were passionate Wagnerians. Mahler, after a series of posts at opera houses in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, became Director of the Imperial Opera in Vienna, while Strauss worked in the opera theatres of Munich and Berlin and from 1919 in Mahler’s old house, by then the Vienna State Opera. Strauss grieved deeply when Mahler died.
Yet, as these two books abundantly reveal, the differences between the two were as great as the similarities. Mahler was born in 1860 to a Jewish family near the Moravian–Bohemian borderlands. His father supported the family as a successful distiller. Strauss, born in Munich four years later, grew up at the very heart of the German musical world: his father, Franz Strauss, the leading horn player in the Munich Court Opera, played in several premieres by Wagner (whom he came to dislike, both as a man and musician). On the podium, Mahler (who stood at 5 feet 3 inches, we are told), strove desperately for perfection, his dictatorial style, penetrating eyes and agonised movements becoming the stuff of legend. Strauss, well over six foot tall, would achieve superb results by apparently minimal means. Standing almost immobile while conducting, observed one critic, he would beat time with his right hand and use the left chiefly to turn the pages.
Mahler was a conductor who struggled to find time in the summer to compose. When he died in 1911, aged fifty, it was primarily as a great conductor that he was mourned, and it was a further half century before his compositions entered the mainstream repertoire. Strauss’s works were performed everywhere and he lived to a grand old age, completing his exquisite Four Last Songs in 1948, a year before his death. Where Mahler strove to encompass the entire human condition in his compositions, Strauss would typically portray individual character and personality.
There were contrasts, too, in their personal lives. Mahler, after several emotionally draining affairs, married a girl half his age, the beautiful, lubricious Alma Schindler, an entanglement that predictably brought him more than his fair share of angst. Strauss, on the other hand, seems to have made a more practical accommodation to the whims of his forthright, prickly Pauline, caricaturing her (one trusts affectionately) in his Domestic Symphony and the opera Intermezzo. Strauss was faced with one dilemma that could – literally – have killed Mahler: the onset of Nazism. But his uneasy cooperation with the Third Reich seems to have been the result not of a shared ideology – his own daughter-in-law was Jewish – but political naivety.
There is a marked difference equally between the two books under review. Fischer’s huge and somewhat sprawling biography, the first on this scale since that by Henry-Louis de La Grange, makes fresh use of a number of revealing sources, notably the letters, diaries and memoirs of some of the women closest to Mahler: the singer Anna von Mildenburg (with whom he had a serious affair), Alma (whom he married) and Natalie Bauer-Lechner (who clearly idolised him with a passion Mahler could never reciprocate). Like Mahler in his symphonies, Fischer is not afraid to range over vast, rolling landscapes, taking time off every now and then to examine in detail a major composition or to consider Mahler’s conducting style, his reading matter or the nature of his various ailments. Countless friends and contemporaries are drawn into the narrative, among them the near-mad Hugo Wolf and the eminently sane Strauss.
Holden’s volume is more tightly focused: a close-up study of Strauss the conductor. The main outlines of Strauss’s career are there in brief, from the tutelage of his father and, later, Bülow, to the years spent conducting in Meiningen, Weimar, Munich and the rest. But Holden is a professional musicologist (and a former assistant to John Pritchard), and his primary interest lies in Strauss’s interpretative skills. Here, he has an incalculable advantage over Mahler scholars. The only recordings that exist of Mahler’s music-making are a few piano rolls. Strauss, however, left many recordings of orchestral works and these, as well as performing scores containing Strauss’s own markings, provide Holden with invaluable data, enabling him, for example, to tell us the exact tempi Strauss adopted in his three recordings of his early tone poem Don Juan, or similarly precise information about the tempi adopted in recordings of symphonies by Beethoven and Mozart. Strauss, Holden tells us, was a major force in the revival of interest in the operas of Mozart, not only by the quality of the performances he conducted but also through their sheer number: between 1886 and 1914, Strauss conducted 234 performances of Mozart operas, compared to only ninety-six at Covent Garden during the same period. Holden has a predilection for facts and figures: close to half the book is taken up with appendices and back matter, including a 45-page list of all Strauss’s known performances as a tenured conductor, a structural synopsis of his performing version of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, a catalogue of all Strauss’s published recordings, and excerpts from a number of musical scores. To the general reader some of this may be of only peripheral interest, while Holden’s rather formal, deferential style leads him to label too many of his characters ‘distinguished’ or ‘renowned’ and to report too often what they ‘famously’ did, said or wrote. But what may be esoterica to some will be welcomed as a serious contribution to Strauss scholarship by many. And no one could fail to relish Strauss’s gentle ‘Ten commandments’ to young conductors (including the admonition – which perhaps Mahler should have read – that ‘you should not perspire while conducting: only the audience should get warm!’).
Reading these two books together reinforces many previous impressions. Yes, Mahler was emotionally the more agonised of the two in both his public and his personal life, while Strauss (a ‘knight of industry’, Mahler called him) was usually the better organised. But who can be sure what inner feelings Strauss may have been suppressing by that sergeant-major immobility on the podium, or what deeper anxieties he must surely have suffered during the Nazi years? As for the neurotic, ‘otherworldly’ Mahler, Fischer reports – and cites plenty of evidence – that he could ‘show great cunning in monetary manners’, a skill one might have thought to be a Strauss monopoly. And musically? Early in his career, Mahler set out to write opera, an ambition never alas fulfilled. And just imagine the monumental symphonies Strauss might have composed if only he had thought it worth his while!