01. 12. 2014. 19:03

Mahler’s Hammer (short story)

That crack and the chaos in its wake last from 4.32 to 4.39 of the fourth movement. It couldn’t have been any longer there, in Klosterneuburg either. An impenetrable instant that is first sensed in the unconscious.

You are far ahead of what you are paddling in. There are far better books than the ones you read, far better pieces of music than the ones you listen to. You don’t even live once, as Karl Kraus used to say.

Vienna, May 13th, 1977, 10 a.m. Leonard Bernstein arrives at the Karpaten Patisserie where he is to meet Frau Adela Martinhof to hand her a parcel he brought all the way from New York. He is in a hurry; he has an appointment at 11 at the Philharmonic. Adela Martinhof is twenty minutes late, but Bernstein forgives her with a smile because she is young and beautiful. She reminds him a bit of Edith Mathis, the soprano of the Fourth Symphony with her “boyish voice”. Still smiling, he bows to Adela’s insistence to foot the bill. When they say good-bye, the young woman in her confusion calls Bernstein by his first name; he would recall the scene several times that day, wondering if it was indeed the effect of confusion.

And he would go on wondering about their encounter did he not need to work on a very tight schedule. Mahler’s symphonies, in Vienna of all places. No mean thing. And the whole series is to be filmed. They are working on the Sixth now. The one subtitled “Tragic” which many regard as Mahler’s supreme achievement. Enthralling tonalities. And the playfulness of it. Those cosmic images in the fourth movement: an encounter with the inhabitants of a distant galaxy. Then something is broken, ruptured, lost. Never to come to life again. The end a prolonged agony punctuated by desperate spasms. Those back-breaking sudden changes. After the harp’s glissandos come those fearfully dark tutti. Heart-throbs and panting. He has to persuade the musicians to abandon routine: everything hangs on that.

Five days later, on May 18th (Mahler died on this very day, sixty-six years earlier), at the Philharmonic’s side entrance overlooking the Danube, Leonard bumps into Adela quite by accident. They go for a cognac to the Kneipe Dietrich. He quickly learns that Adela had been a student at the music academy, played the cello but gave it up. Now she is a wife and mother of a young child. They talk about happiness. Bernstein is fifty-nine, nearly thirty years her senior. For this reason and for another, well-kept personal secret, he can’t help seeing a parallel between the couple Alma Schindler – Gustav Mahler, and Adela and himself. But he would only mention this ten years later to his close friend and confidant, his biographer-to-be, Peter Rosen.

In the evenings after the draining rehearsals he reads Berta Zuckerkandl’s memoirs about Mahler’s relationship with Alma Schindler. He finds everything in the book vicious and unlikely. The Alma he knew was completely different. In the early sixties he had met her several times in New York and she had charmed him: at eighty-five, her voice still rang with a girlish timbre. And there was a girlish, elfish mischievousness lurking in her smile. She spoke with subtle irony about everyone, including herself. When she informs Berta who is over for a visit, that “Anna, my Jewish daughter is arriving today as well”, the phrase rings not with the gross anti-semitic overtone Berta distinguishes, but with warmth and love. According to Berta, she had always despised Mahler. But Alma had told him something completely different: that Mahler had ennobled her, had made her a better person. Had made her more focused. Had made her feel the taste of life. Not of pleasantry but of existence without accessories. He had shown her life that answers the call of existence. Human life.

Dreadful thing, to be reading such memoirs. “A cloaca in every sense”, Berta writes of Alma. “The meanest person I have ever known”, opines Marietta Torberg, another woman. It is true that Alma wrote in her diary she was not interested in Mahler’s music. But this means that she was most interested in it, that’s why she was trying to strip it of the mannerisms, of the play-acting. “I didn’t marry him for his masculinity. I married him for what was in his eyes, in his head. He was somebody you could talk with, soar with.” Bruno Walter kept insisting on the incongruity of somebody as withdrawn of nature, as quiet-seeking as Mahler, marrying such a wanton society hostess. A trophy-grabbing, man-eating, loose woman. Kokoschka, Werfel, Gropius: the roll-call one can assemble from Alma’s diaries would outrun one printed page. Berg and Stravinsky? Highly likely. So what was she doing, footling by Mahler’s side?

Did she believe she could change him? Become his muse? Move inside his head unto eternity? Cure him of his illnesses? Persuade him that he must change his life? It is dreadful when somebody rises at seven sharp and at eight sharp is in his office. At a quarter to one he leaves the office and has the porter call home so that lunch can be served. By the time the housekeeper places the soup-tureen on the table he is standing in the doorway, goes for the ritual hand-wash, sits down to eat. Then he goes for a thirty-minute walk, and then back to his office. She finds such life unbearable. But it is precisely for this reason she can change it: because of the sheer impenetrability and flagrancy, of the way of rocking all boats, of her yes to Mahler.

Honeymoon in St. Petersburg. “Bliss follows bliss”, Mahler writes in his diary after their second love-making (the first was not successful). By the time they come home his younger sister has had their six-room apartment thoroughly refurbished. Still, everything is not fine. Or might Alma’s indiscretion be misleading, after all? Did she merely write such things as Mahler being impotent throughout, out of exasperation? That part about him being unable due to some childhood trauma. Or being incommoded by piles. She very probably wrote these in retrospect. Out of the pain of not having succeeded in changing Mahler’s life. Or of not having succeeded in changing herself in order to be able to change him. But when Mahler is composing the Sixth, their skies are still cloudless. Then bliss was following bliss. The blows only started coming four years later.

And yet, if everything is pure bliss, why is the Sixth tragic?

Let us give a hand to Leonard Bernstein at this point. Let us specify that the symphony is called Tragic, not Unhappy: it is not quite the same thing. One may be happy and be writing a symphony that is tragic. Happiness is a radiant clearing from where we can glimpse the tragic truths of existence. Why are they tragic? Because of suffering. What is suffering? A dialogue with the eternal. Bernstein, too, comes to realize all this, and more. If not earlier, then at the latest during that concert, on the podium of the Vienna Musikverein. He is so shaken he nearly collapses.

Or maybe he had come upon this earlier already. For a few days before the concert he pays a visit to Adela in her home, in Klosterneuburg. He spends a quarter of a day there. He is enraptured: Adela called him to say she would like him to visit her. And she told him she thought she was a bit in love with him. “A bit is not a word I like”, he answered. “I am only using it out of embarrassment”, came Adela’s reply. No wonder Bernstein is happy. He had not felt anything like this for years. More exactly, he feels a kinship between the two of them that opens unto hitherto unimaginable depths. Only at the end of the visit does it dawn on him that something went awry. He gets into the cab as if getting into a space capsule that is to propel him into space, into the nothingness without. He is riled at not having been able to get past the surface, into the depth he feels is connecting them. And vexed by not having risen to this afternoon. On top of it all, he didn’t even get the chance to give Adela a decent hug when he left, to hold her like a man, like brothers-in-arms do in films before going to war, so that the memory of the other’s body might lessen the fear in the trenches.

And then the next morning, as he is sitting in his hotel suite preparing for the afternoon rehearsal, everything is turned upside down. It is now as clear as day that the woman who had invited him over to her place had shown him everything, had spoken eloquently without words: had not only spoken but laid herself bare, there under the eyes of her parents, under the eyes of her husband’s parents, with her child astride her lap, she had shown herself to him. She had told the man for whom things sink in so late, without words, her story, where she comes from, where she was brought up, what happened to her, whoever had influenced her, what she had felt, what she had longed for, what she had thought, and she was unafraid and unabashed, not hiding in the least. She had told him the story of her life so clearly and simply as he, who takes pride in being able to express his feelings, desires, and thoughts, could never possibly manage. And he, Leonard, is profoundly shaken, unsettled, distraught and moved, moved to happiness and numbed, enthralled and changed, and not even if he enlisted all those words in his different languages could he pinpoint what he feels.

And then the day of the concert comes. And into the fifth minute of the fourth movement, precisely at 4.32 Bernstein intuits that something else had also happened inside that country house in Klosterneuburg. Adela’s parents, the visiting in-laws, the child in her lap, and the husband on a business errand in Munich, the presence of these six people and their looming, tacit surveillance had covered Adela with a metallic gray vault. And Adela, squeezed inside that carapace moulded on the six types of incoming energies as if under a mammoth cuirass, had broken. Leonard could feel time going crack, breaking up inside her. This is why she did not come to the opening. This is why she had written him in a note left at the porter’s desk that she was not in love with him. That crack and the chaos in its wake last from 4.32 to 4.39 of the fourth movement. It couldn’t have been any longer there, in Klosterneuburg either. An impenetrable instant that is first sensed in the unconscious.

It must have been for this reason he had been wondering all the way back to Hotel Schweizerhof in the taxi, that a mallet with a short shaft would not do for the task. Let the hammer in the fourth movement that produces the fabled “dull sound, with a non-metallic character”,  that “blows” like “the fall of an axe”, have a much longer handle and a considerably larger head than usual.

According to Jens Malte Fischer, one of Mahler’s biographers, the first version of the score included three hammer strikes. The premonition of three blows, as they would claim in retrospect. In 1904 his four-year-old daughter dies of diphtheria; that same year his incurable heart condition is diagnosed, forcing him to resign from the Hofoper in the midst of the season. He would eventually cut one and leave two – as Malte Fischer puts it, “the musician got the upper hand over the visionary”. After the second blow no coherent music follows, life does not return – only the agony remains. And the last blow in the final version lacks the hammer strike: it is a lightning tutti abbreviated to one clash.

In the film made by Unitel, directed by Humphrey Burton, we have a close-up of the instruments: the whirlpools the size of a fingernail of the viols’ nervation and the minute faces reflected in the trumpets seem to be the poetic forms incarnate of the creative forces slumbering in matter. The sweat-drops trickling down Bernstein’s face belong to these forms. And it is probably no accident that this face is now bearded. At that time within a few years he makes a film recording of all the Mahler symphonies but one, with the Vienna Philharmonic. And he moves to Europe, perhaps partly because of his private affairs at home.

Bernstein’s shakenness is part revolt. The glimpsing of what lies behind the orderliness of life. A bitter and hopeless yearning. The knowledge that “the one that hides itself” is revealed in the hidden. In the most absurd of possibilities. He asks the musicians to revolt. The fourth movement is not a sequence of recurring musical themes; there is no possibility of a second attempt, you have to go the whole hog at once. Let them smash in the glazing; experiment valiantly when they sound their own classical instruments, not only those bizarre noise-makers – cowbells, clap, mallet. Let them stop paddling, rise up to themselves. He has to persuade them: You must change your life. But how? By fingering the piston valves of their trombones, or holding their bows differently. By becoming the contemporaries of their own age. By inhabiting the spaces of poetry. It is not Karl Kraus who suits Mahler, but Heidegger, however scandalous this might sound to some. Bernstein’s collapse is the glimpsing of the fact that it is not death that sucks up our energies, but life without poetry. He makes an effort not to fall face down onto the score. A shattering closure, because what comes to an end is not what happened, but what might have happened. This is his farewell to Adela, his agony after the parting. For a few moments (seven seconds at least) nobody stirs. Then the clapping starts. Bernstein pulls himself together, but his awkwardness is acute, and it shows. He shakes hands with the concertmaster and hugs him. His sweaty face touches the man’s face. As if he didn’t know where he was. He shakes hands, waveringly, with the cellist, and kisses his hand. The cellist exchanges an embarrassed look with his colleague.

After all, it is thanks to Adela that the hammer gained such a spectacular role in the dramaturgy of Mahler’s Sixth. Ever since, orchestras have been trying hard to outdo each other in lengthening the handle. And the wooden box it strikes should be placed on an ever taller platform, should be mounted on a podium behind the orchestra so that it becomes completely visible. Perhaps the cowbells have also become eloquent since that Vienna concert. The cowbells whose ring Mahler could hear coming in through the open window of his Maiernigg cottage, and which he planted into his symphony in progress: from the present, into eternity. Answering thereby Alma’s question, what eternity was: this sound of cowbells. Their sound reminded Bernstein of the walk in the Klosterneuburg hills, treading on the soft grass by Adela’s side, talking about chance, the unforeseen, and about how to distinguish the rustle of the warm breeze from that of the cold one. And as a final conclusion he finds that there in the Klosterneuburg parlour, under the cross-fire of all those gazes when Adela rejected him, during those uncountable seven seconds when the movement of rejection was born inside her, neck and crop and every inch to the hilt, she has been his.


Postscript.  On his return from Europe Bernstein moves in with his old flame, Tom Cothran, but when his wife Felicia is diagnosed with lung cancer, he moves back with her and nurses her to the end, leaving off all his work. After his wife’s death he falls into a severe depression and cannot pull himself together for years to come.

Translated by: Erika Mihálycsa

Tags: Zsolt Láng