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The Neurotic Genius – Inside Mahler’s Mind

February 16, 2016

The Neurotic Genius – Inside Mahler’s Mind

by Alicia Watson

“Neurotic” is the descriptor many use for Gustav Mahler. While “neurotic” has been clinically retired, it conjures obsessive tendencies with an inward focus. His story and the music itself provide a great deal of evidence to support this perception. “Why?” just begs to be answered.

See the Colorado Symphony perform Mahler Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” on February 19-20.

Mahler’s 2nd Symphony score reveals Mahler’s technical precision; harmonically, rhythmically, voicing, and instrumentation. He “owned” the orchestra, running it like Manning’s 2013 offense. The score is filled with German and Yiddish instructions  terms musicians with a rudimentary understanding of German struggle to define. Musicians who cherish Mahler usually have a master glossary circulating during rehearsal week. His scores include more instructions than music written by other masters, indicating a heightened need for control.

Playing Mahler from the orchestra is a surreal experience. The music requires total command of every aspect of your playing. The result? Most musicians feel neurotic playing Mahler. This is transference on a universal scale and feels like “channeling.” Gilbert Kaplan’s Adagietto article includes the importance of “mood” to Mahler in conducting his music, and quotes Mahler as urging New York musicians, “You must feel with me.” (Barham ed., 2005, p. 390). If every mood felt like, “Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld”, that would be fine, but Mahler often rips us (and himself) from reverie. The emotional tenor is accessible — minor keys in the brass signal doom, folk-song melodies in major keys broadcast optimism, and chant-like chorales a meditative turning-in. Where did this amazing, crazy-making music come from?

Consider the life of the man, Mahler. He was the eldest surviving son of a Jewish family, and the child, Gustav, lost nine of his 14 siblings to illness. He became a working musician holding public opera house conducting positions in an era of growing anti-Semitism. He describes himself as “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed,” (according to the questionable historian, Alma Mahler, 1975, p. 109). Psychologically, from an attachment perspective, these are devastating feelings. Secure attachment allows us to be more responsive and productive. One informed speculation is that Mahler was able to be a prolific composer and conductor because he found secure attachment with the music itself.

Contemporary newspaper accounts depict a tyrant on the podium, demanding perfection from the performers at all times. To practice empathy, consider how demanding of perfection you might be if the music were your only balm in an angry world? How sublime would you want it to sound? How spiritually uplifting? Especially if you were forced to suppress your religion or not work? He faced this choice- convert to Catholicism and work- or not. He chose the music and to assimilate for his public positions. In his private composing, he demands the orchestra come to him. We work to apply his terms with our yellowed glossary. He tells us to hold our bell high in the air, to stand, and when to glissando. We contort ourselves.

Control issues originate via trauma. Mahler’s early life, public marital distress, and professional criticism provided ample stress, and he was affected by it. Mahler developed a heart arrhythmia and walked in the same rhythm to counter it- behavior that might earn an obsessive compulsive diagnosis these days. Seeking help, he met Sigmund Freud in 1910 and underwent a 4-hour impromptu psychoanalysis. Mahler reported to his wife the treatment was helpful. Freud reported Mahler quickly understood his psychoanalytic theories, calling Mahler “a man of genius” and the prototypical therapist invoiced Mahler’s estate 300 crowns for the session after his death. (Lebrecht, 1987, p. 284).

As a working musician, I’ve heard the phrase, “You have to be at least 50 to play Mahler.” Mahler died at 50, so what does this mean? To appreciate the depth of emotion Mahler attempts to convey, a musician must have lived a little; celebrating the sublime when it’s available while knowing sadness and loss. Mahler’s music pleads for emotional intelligence throughout composition, performance, and reception. As Mahler was supposed to have urged the musicians, “You must feel with me,” please enjoy this performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony by your Colorado Symphony Orchestra — and this practice in empathy.


The author, Alicia Watson, is a licensed professional counselor and former professional French horn player. She is married to Bradley Watson, Violinist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and owns A Common Thread Counseling, LLC, working with couples in Lakewood.

*References include standard Mahler works by Kennedy (1991), Lebrecht (Mahler Remembered, 1987), Bauer-Lechner (1980), as well as works cited in the text. Robert Greenberg’s masterful seminar, “Mahler in Vienna” from Alicia’s San Francisco Conservatory days (1993) provided source material and increased understanding of Mahler and music in general. One new find to recommend is Gustav Mahler: A life in crisis, by Feder (2004) with much psychological and biographical insight, including an entire chapter devoted to the Freud 1910 meeting.