By Nancy Berman
When, at the age of 50, Gustav Mahler found himself unable to make love to his beautiful, intelligent, talented, much younger wife, Alma, he sought the advice of Sigmund Freud. As David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, aptly demonstrates, Freud was the go-to man for those suffering from any kind of psychosexual disorder.
Mahler hesitated to keep the appointment, however, cancelling and rescheduling no fewer than three times (a folie du doute, according to Freud). Today we are left with the intriguing image of Mahler and Freud, two of the earliest cartographers of the modern condition, strolling for a few hours through the streets of Leiden, Holland, discussing Mahler’s personal history, the roots of his “disorder,” and psychoanalysis in general.
A father substitute for wife Alma
Oh to have been a fly on the wall. What little we know comes from a couple of letters and Alma’s memoirs. Apparently, Mahler thought Alma wasn’t attracted to him because of his age. Freud reassured him that she was attracted to him precisely because he was older. Alma agreed she had found a father substitute in Mahler. Regardless, at the time of the Freud-Mahler encounter, she was involved in a torrid affair with the architect Walter Gropius, whom she would marry after Mahler’s death nine months later.
We also know that Freud thought that Mahler subconsciously wanted Alma to be more like his own mother: weary and worn out by life. Again Alma agreed. Mahler once told her he wished her face was more “stricken,” and another time he said it was a pity there had been so little sadness in her life, to which Alma’s mother had replied, “Don’t worry — that will come.”
Musically, most interesting is the story Mahler told Freud about one of the many times he saw his father beating his mother. The young Gustav, distraught, ran into the street, where a hurdy-gurdy player churned out a popular tune. And there lies the key to Mahler’s music: the coming together of tragedy and the mundane, trauma and the pedestrian.
A revolutionary style
What Mahler believed to be a compositional fault — that commonplace melodies intrude in the passages inspired by the most profound emotions — was actually the most revolutionary aspect of his style, foreshadowing that peculiarly 20th-century sense of alienation, the postmodern disconnect between the enormity of human suffering and the banality of everyday life.
We imagine the soundtrack of Mahler’s young life — military marches from the nearby barracks, klezmer music from his Jewish upbringing — playing along to regular images of death and brutality (he lost six siblings in childhood). But even Freud would be unable to say whether this can fully explain the irony of the second movement of the first symphony — the minor key Frère Jacques funeral march punctuated by dancehall and klezmer parodies — the pathos of the ape drinking wine on a grave in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“Dark is life, dark is death!”) or any number of his haunted, even morbid, scherzi.
In A Dangerous Method, the female protagonist, Sabina Spielrein, explains to Jung that out of opposing forces emerges something new. She is referring to Richard Wagner, particularly to the plot of the Ring Cycle, but could just as well have been explaining Mahler’s musical style, where the tensions of human existence, the daily juxtaposition of the sublime and the transitory, the profound and the commonplace, create a new language, both intensely personal, and transcendentally universal.
Nancy Berman holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from McGill University. She is the Coordinator of the Music Program at Marianopolis College in Montreal, where she also teaches Music Literature.