from Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, by Alma Mahler, page 111. Chapter: Sorrow and Dread, 1907
In the summer of 1896 Brahms and Mahler were out for a walk near Ischl. They came to a bridge and stood silently gazing at the foaming mountain stream. A moment before they had been heatedly debating the future of music, and Brahms had had hard things to say of the younger generation of musicians. Now they stood fascinated by the sight of the water breaking in foam time after time over the stones. Mahler looked upstream and pointed to the endless procession of swirling eddies. ‘Which is the last?’ he asked with a smile.
Mahler in his own later years was a stand-by to all struggling musicians, particularly to Schoenberg, whom he did his best to protect from the brutality of the mob. Twice he took a prominent part in quelling disturbances at concerts.
The first time was when Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, was performed (on 15th February 1907). The audience were quietly and by tacit agreement taking it as a great joke, until one of the critics present committed the unpardonable blunder of shouting to the performers to ‘stop it.’ Whereupon a howling and yelling broke out such as I have never heard before or since. One man stood up in front and hissed Schoenberg every time he came apologetically forward to make his bow, wagging his Jewish head, so like Bruckner’s, from side to side in the embarrassed hope of enlisting some stray breath of sympathy or forgiveness. Mahler sprang to his feet and went up to this man. ‘I must have a good look at this fellow who’s hissing,’ he said sharply. The man raised his hand to strike Mahler. Moll, who was among the audience, saw this and in a second he forced his way through the crowd and collared the man. Moll’s superior strength sobered him and he was hustled out of the Bösendorfersaal with much difficulty. But at the door he plucked up his courage and shouted: ‘Needn’t get so excited – I hiss Mahler too!’ (Bruno Walter, in his reminiscences (London, 1947), relates this particular story to the premiere of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, first performed in Vienna in 1899.)
The second time was when Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony was performed in the Music Society’s hall. (On 8th February 1907. If Alma Mahler’s identification of the workds is correct, then the dates of the premieres mean that we must reverse the order in which Mahler’s protests took place). People began to push their chairs back noisily half-way through, and some went out in open protest. Mahler got up angrily and enforced silence. As soon as the performance was over, he stood at the front of the dress-circle and applauded until the last of the demonstrators had gone. We spent the rest of the evening discussing the Schoenberg question. ‘I don’t understand his music,’ he said, ‘but he’s young and perhaps he’s right. I am old and I dare say my ear is not sensitive enough.’
I was rung up that night by Guido Adler, professor of the history of music in the University of Vienna: ‘Gustav made a painful exhibition of himself today. May cost him his job. You ought to stop him. I went home and shed tears when I thought of the way music is going. Yes, I shed tears. . . .’ Poor music!
There was undoubtedly more behind the appeal Schoenberg’s music made to Mahler, or else he would not have shown up so prominently as his champion. He felt, even if he did not yet know, the secret of those tortuous paths which Schoenberg’s genius was – and is – the first to tread.