Mahler in LA

Mahler in LA


Gustav Mahler, at center, influenced LA more than most people know; his friends and devotees with connections to LA included (clockwise from top left) his wife Alma; and composers/conductors Otto Klemperer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Arnold Schoenberg and Bruno Walter.

More than midway through The Mahler Project, not much has been talked yet about Mahler in Los Angeles.

Mahler in Los Angeles? He never set foot on the West Coast, much as he would have liked to. As conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Mahler invented orchestral touring and visited 12 cities in the Northeastern U.S. in 1909-10. Had he lived longer, he might have made it out West and maybe to Los Angeles.

Thirty years later, many of his closest associates did. His widow Alma, forced to flee the Nazi occupation of first Vienna, then of Paris, took up residence on the Pacific, as far as she could get from the European horrors. Mahler's daughter, Anna, joined her for a while, then moved east to New York, before settling in West LA for the rest of her life. I visited her there in 1988, bringing a first copy of my book, Mahler Remembered.

Mahler's two closest conducting disciples, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, became Angelenos. Klemperer was music director of the Philharmonic in 1936-7, an unhappy period beset by exile woes and mental illness. Walter settled here in the 1940s and made a venerable late recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, essentially a label pick-up band of studio musicians, many of whom were fellow-European exiles.

Hollywood's two leading composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, were Mahler disciples. Korngold had received his first commission from the great man when he was 10 years old, and many of the effects he used in 1930s swashbucklers were taken from the Mahlerian symphonic lexicon.

Arnold Schoenberg, the radical atonalist whom Mahler saved from destitution, wound up playing tennis with George Gershwin and Charlie Chaplin on a court overlooking the Pacific. Thomas Mann, who revered Mahler and imprinted his features on the anti-hero of Death in Venice, adopted Schoenberg's composing method as the plot-line in his epic novel, Doctor Faustus.

Mahler's name was on many lips as these luminaries partied in their homes or in Salka Viertel's salon, where the movie elite mingled with the cultural lions. Los Angeles, in the 1940s, was a haven for Mahler's inner circle. Now the city and its young music director are opening a new era in his music - a body of work that redefined the very meaning of music.

Editor's note: Norman Lebrecht, Mahler scholar and recently the author of Why Mahler: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World, was kind enough to contribute this post to The Mahler Project Blog. You can read his own blog, Slipped Disc, for more thoughts on Mahler and other subjects. We'd like to thank him repeatedly and vigorously for taking the time to contribute.