Philipp von Steinaecker conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (detail) View full image

Beauty at the edge of the abyss

As Philipp von Steinaecker prepares to conduct three performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Mahler Academy Orchestra as the culmination of his extensive research into Mahler’s original instruments and intentions, he explains the meaning and importance of the project


It was only ever a matter of time before I started to dream of performing a Mahler symphony with the instruments of the time, to find out what his Vienna Philharmonic of 1905 sounded like. We are very lucky, because when Mahler was director of the Vienna Opera, he bought brand new wind, brass and percussion instruments for the Vienna Philharmonic, the opera orchestra – not just a few, but all of them. Remarkably, the letter exchange that accompanied these acquisitions survives, so we know exactly what he thought an orchestra of his time should use.

We started finding these on eBay and its Austrian version, Willhaben; in the attics of churches and military bands; in museums and private collections. Some people had instruments that had been passed down to them by great-grandfathers who had been in the Vienna Philharmonic. These instruments often look like those we have today, but they are different. For example, the cylinders of wind instruments are usually narrower and the material thinner than in modern instruments, and they have fewer keys. These change the sound dramatically.


‘He wanted the flute to play as low as possible and the bassoon to shriek in its highest register’


In his writings Mahler explains that he looked for the extremes of instruments, for their limits. He wanted the flute to play as low as possible and the bassoon to shriek in its highest register. The original musicians struggled with his parts but that’s what he wanted. Of course, the musicians didn’t enjoy that, because they felt embarrassed on stage, so they would go to instrument makers and say, ‘Can you make me a new key so I can play this more easily?’ A hundred years later, nobody really struggles technically with this music any more. With modern instruments it’s all too comfortable. Beauty happens at the edge of the abyss, though, and if you have never fallen, you have never been there. We are planning to fall and to see where the last step is.


Screenshot-2022-08-31-at-12.36.03.png#asset:13054:embeddedImageMahler's manuscript for the first movement of his Ninth Symphony


There is an argument that Mahler bought the most modern instruments he could find and would have loved today’s instruments because they’re even more perfect and in tune. However, we don’t know that and we never will. What is certain is that Mahler would have written different music for them.

We use modern stringed instruments, because by that time violins were set up in a similar way to today in terms of the angles of the neck and the soundpost position, which had been different in the Baroque era. We are using gut strings as they did, and the string players are excited about this, but they’re starting to worry that using gut E strings is risky, but that’s the point. Mahler’s orchestra used modern bows, but they didn’t have shoulder rests, so they had to hold the violin more with the left hand, which prevented them from vibrating constantly, as modern string players do.


‘If we let them, the instruments teach us something about the sound’


If we let them, the instruments teach us something about the sound. The danger is that we instinctively look for today’s sound in the old instruments. We must respect them and see what happens, rather than forcing them. The idea is to get as close as possible to what they might have sounded like originally – not to say, ‘We’re the only ones who are right,’ but to find out how it was different, to be inspired and take elements to our modern performances.

Mahler’s musicians were also those of Brahms. His concertmaster, Arnold Rosé, had premiered Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, as well as works by Schoenberg, Webern and Richard Strauss. Music was making huge strides stylistically, but they played this new music the same way they played Romantic music, so our departure point needs to be how people played Brahms in Vienna in 1900. Once we have internalised that, the myriad things that Mahler wrote in his score make different sense – they apply to the musicians who play like that, not to modern musicians.

Musicians at the time played with some vibrato, but not much, and especially not continuous vibrato. They used portamento all the time, audibly sliding up and down and creating a sort of left-hand legato. Rosé was an exponent the so-called German string school led by Joseph Joachim, who was Brahms’s closest friend and collaborator. That school was swallowed up by the Franco-Belgian school in the 1920s, also because of the sensational success of Fritz Kreisler and his vibrato-driven sound. To the older players this sound was ridiculously inappropriate, but to the younger ones it seemed sensual and lovely, and they wanted to play like that. Famous violin teachers tried to stem the tide, but they had no chance and a whole way of music making sank into oblivion. Part of our mission is to restore this way of playing and to be able to use some of its elements to widen our expressive palette.


‘Musicians would get faster or slow down and music would rarely stay in one tempo’


There are huge questions about tempo flexibility. Musicians then would get faster or slow down and music would rarely stay in one tempo. There was also a different approach to interpreting rhythms. Notation was an approximation that depended on the mood or the character of the passage. I always use the analogy that we know how Paul McCartney sings Yesterday but if you sing it as it is notated in sheet music, it sounds ridiculously square. The same was true for most rhythms at that time, so we have to work out how they would have altered it.

Today, we often think of ensemble vertically – all the short notes should perfectly line up. It wasn’t like that then – there was more freedom to each line. There was an individual emotionality in the playing that was nevertheless unified – the unity didn’t come at the cost of expressivity. It didn’t matter if everything didn’t line up all the time, because each line had its own meaning and logic, and the music could be a conversation between complex emotions.


‘The truth is that we will never know how Mahler heard his music. Apart from everything else, we are very different people’


The truth is that we will never know how Mahler heard his music. Apart from everything else, we are very different people. There are more women than men in our orchestra – at that time the Vienna Philharmonic was made up of men. They all wore suits and ties and had long beards and big bellies. They came to rehearsals by tram. They had a completely different education and different political opinions. They didn’t know any modern art because it hadn’t happened yet. We can never bridge that divide. What we can do is identify the differences and try to incorporate them.


‘The goal of an endeavour like this is to create a wonderful performance, with the musicians risking everything. In the moment, our response is emotional – not philological’


There is a danger that when we think about music in this way, we become self-righteous. In the end, we must perform the music. We want to recreate something, but it must have a heart and sound natural. We must be aware that there is no way it can be exactly what it was, but we must still try to get closer and closer. Ultimately, we have to let go. The goal of an endeavour like this is to create a wonderful performance, with the musicians risking everything. In the moment, our response is emotional – not philological. With all the research behind it and all the risk, it feels like discovering a new continent. This gives it an extra element of emotion that you can’t always find when people are repeating something the way they already know it. The sense of rediscovery feeds into the spirit of the performance.

The idea was to put together an orchestra that would be made up not of early music specialists discovering Mahler, but modern musicians who love his music deeply and are curious to find out what it sounded like originally. I wanted players from locations connected to Mahler: Vienna, of course, but also Prague, Leipzig, Kassel, Budapest, Hamburg and Ljubljana, where he held positions, and Amsterdam, where he had a close relationship with the orchestra. But there are also players from other great European ensembles and from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Almost everyone said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this.’ That’s because when you play Mahler, the music is so beautiful and perfect, but you come across moments when you think, ‘He’s such a good composer, but the balance is tricky here. Might that have been different with the instruments he knew?’ You’ve been playing for 45 minutes, vibrating away, and suddenly he writes, ‘vibrate’, so you wonder, what did he have in mind? It was wonderful that so many people were on board.


‘It’s important to involve the next generation and pass it on immediately so that it lasts. It’s not something you do one summer and then forget’


We found a new yet natural partner in the Mahler Academy in Bolzano, where I am Artistic Curator. With this kind of research, it’s important to involve the next generation and pass it on immediately so that it lasts. It’s not something you do one summer and then forget. It’s also important for young people to understand that even if they’re in an orchestra and the conductor tells them to do something, they can question everything. As a musician you should be curious and want to get closer to the truth. We ended up having a multigenerational pan-European orchestra, right in the heart of Europe.


Mahler in ToblachMahler in Toblach


Mahler came to Toblach for the last three summers of his life, composing Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony and his unfinished Tenth. It’s a symbolic place for this symbolic project. The First World War broke out a few years after Mahler worked there and there were terrible fights in the mountains surrounding the village. Europe came crashing down and we’re still grappling with the mistakes that were made then. We can learn by looking back to see what went wrong and how anti-semitism and nationalism were the main factors in European politics. In the same way, we look back to the music to see what it was like and how it was meant. By looking into the past we learn for the future.

Toblach is a long broad valley and if you go higher, you see the dramatic Dolomite peaks. From his hut Mahler had a far-reaching view over the entire valley and village. As you look down the valley, the forest becomes ever more blue in the distance. There’s a wonderful line in the in Das Lied von der Erde, which he added to the Chinese poetry: ‘Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue.’ It’s untranslatable because Mahler makes a verb out of ‘blue’, but that’s the word that comes to mind when I look down the valley from his composing hut. He was clearly influenced by what he saw when he looked out of the window.


The blue valley of ToblachThe blue valley of Toblach that inspired the words of Das Lied von der Erde


The three symphonies that he wrote there are masterworks. I love them for their complexity and biographical depth, the pain and struggle, the sheer beauty and love of nature. All of that exists in Toblach. I feel Mahler’s music everywhere there. I know I’m only imagining it, but many people feel the same. There’s a purity about the place and its nature. You can recognise that purity in his music, also. It’s the ideal place to do this project.

In recent years I’ve conducted Mahler’s first four symphonies, trying to go deeply into the philosophical meaning. He writes to his friends and lovers about what he means in these works. Sometimes he contradicts himself, but you get a sense of what he’s trying to do. I am struck by how rigorously philosophical his thinking is and how he wants to translate that into music. As an orchestral musician I always thought his symphonies were about his personal struggles, but I have come to realise that they are more than that. They are about the struggle of mankind and a search for answers to the big questions.


‘He has seen tragedy, and the love of God is still something he hopes for, but there are many question marks. His belief is not as pure or is as untroubled as it was before’


With the Ninth Symphony there’s much less evidence of what Mahler wanted. He didn’t write as much about it, but he does include quotes from his earlier pieces, which offer clues. You realise that he’s still grappling with the same questions, but now he has lived and his biography has caught up with him. He has seen tragedy, and the love of God is still something he hopes for, but there are many question marks. His belief is not as pure or is as untroubled as it was before.

This is a man who is struggling with life, having a huge midlife crisis. His daughter has just died, his relationship with Alma is a shambles and he is having a massive career problem with the Vienna Opera. The symphony is about remembering an idealised past while living in a reality that is hard to bear. He’s fighting to reconcile the two but failing again and again. Usually Mahler finds a way out, a positive answer, but in the Ninth, it’s harder than ever. In Das Lied von der Erde he had thought about death and came to the conclusion that even if you die, you remain part of nature – when Spring blossoms you are somehow there. The Ninth is more about the people who are left behind. How do you deal with the loss of youth, the loss of love, the loss of a child? How do you go on living? What does it mean constantly to feel this lure of the past when you can’t go back?


‘The music constantly oscillates between minor and major, but he finally settles on a quiet and fragile major’


The last movement begins with a hymn to God, like the Third Symphony, but here he interrupts the chorale after only four bars: nothing is sure anymore, not even religion. How can you believe in a god who allows horrible things to happen to you? This is the central drive of the movement but then, on the famously slow last page of the movement, he finds a wonderful turnaround. He quotes the moment in the Kindertotenlieder where the text says, ‘They only went ahead of us, and it’s a beautiful day up there.’ It’s enigmatic, but you get the sense of a parent trying to find solace in that thought, and the hope that one day they might be reunited. There is hope and there is path back to God. The music constantly oscillates between minor and major, but he finally settles on a quiet and fragile major. It happens in the last second of the piece, in complete stillness. Maybe he can let the memory go and overcome the trauma, although it’s still not certain. It’s the most fragile triumph.

We know that the summer before he was reading about Chinese history and Buddhism, which is interesting. The turnaround in the Ninth Symphony happens at the very end, the moment that the music gives up and the grand choral disintegrates. It’s as if it’s saying that when you stop searching and wanting, you find Nirvana – or God. That’s a Buddhist message, which he seems to apply to his own struggle.

The piece has always been interpreted as a symphony of dying. Mengelberg thought Mahler was describing his own death, but when he wrote it, Mahler was 48 and healthy. He was depressed, but he wasn’t thinking of his own imminent death. By the time of the premiere, he had just died, so people couldn’t help but see that in the piece. However, I believe it’s something completely different. He is taking you by the hand, saying, ‘Look, this is my struggle. This is the way out I found – for today, at least.’ There’s so much hope in that, so much humanity and generosity. In those moments, I feel so close to the man and to the music. These pieces are a gift to humanity.


Philipp von Steinaecker conducts the Mahler Academy Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony:

Cultural Center Gustav Mahler, Toblach Dobbiaco, 8 September

Bolzano Festival Bozen, 9 September

Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, 10 September


Watch a video about the project