Imagine sitting at the Vienna State Opera during a concert, sipping wine, trying out a cigar and eating a Schnitzel. That sounds quite nice, huh? If you close your eyes, you can almost hear people chit chatting around you, and even smell smoke and food around the theater. Now, imagine being the orchestra conductor trying to perform in such conditions. Would you enjoy the night? I don’t think so – and neither did Mr. Gustav Mahler.
A time of change
Vienna, capital of Austria, coffee and schnitzel, is also known as a European capital of music. For music developed in Vienna side by side to history, from the imperial attitude of Josef Haydn to the revolutionary tunes of Ludwig van Beethoven. Music accompanied the development of the Viennese society as a never-ending soundtrack, showing off feelings such as pride, anger, love and joyfulness. In its journey through history, Viennese music reached the end of the 19th century following the development of everything around it. Among the composers who marked such change, Gustav Mahler is definitely a name that can’t be forgotten.
Born in Bohemia in 1860, Gustav Mahler found his love for music aged 3 and enrolled at the music Conservatory in Vienna by the age of 14. Mahler’s childhood was marked by his abusive and controlling father, whose influence defined the work and relationships of the composer for the rest of his life. After working as conductor for smaller orchestras, Mahler became Kapellmeister (aka in charge of the music) for the Stadttheater in Leipzig. During his years in Germany, Mahler got to meet and work with extraordinary musicians. These experiences helped him develop not only as a conductor, but also as a composer. Known for his perfectionism as well as for his temper, Gustav Mahler’s name grew bigger and bigger. And as he became director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897, he knew exactly what he had to do.
The old way
While redesigning the way of making theater, Gustav Mahler became a bridge between historicism and modernism. Historicism was pretty much the magic word for anything related to Vienna in the second half of the 19th century. Most of the art expressions were in fact keen on recreating styles from the past, in a monumental, elegant, yet extremely serious way. Singers on stage, for instance, were expected to perform grand gestures, surrounded by overloaded sceneries and carrying elaborate costumes. The public, on the other hand, was more interested in the latest gossip than in the actual performance. That’s because a theater was a place where society could meet, show off and be seen at. A place where aristocracy, nobility and the emerging bourgeois sat together and confronted each other. At least, this was what a night at a theater in Vienna looked like before Gustav Mahler’s revolution.
Lights down, please!
As a conductor, Mahler had a clear expectation of what each instrument should sound like. As a result, he had no intention of listening to other ways of playing. The same thing applied for singers, who should not simply go on stage and strike a pose, but were expected to have decent acting skills as well. However, their best was not always enough, as the conductor would often lose his temper during rehearsal, and even harshly replaced performers at times. Distressed by his OCD and mood swings, Gustav Mahler aimed to meticulously control every single detail within the performance. In addition, he got rid of historical stage designs and even introduced a revolving stage in the Vienna Court Opera. Composition, design, architecture, stage lighting and performers should all be used to nurture harmony within the theater experience. Unable to find a director meeting his high standards though, he very often tirelessly worked as a conductor and stage director at the same time. Try and imagine this elegant gentleman running between the orchestra pit and the stage yelling at everyone. Sounds chaotic, right? Well, fear not. Gustav Mahler had everything under control.
The biggest revolution of Mahler’s theater though, involved the audience itself. In fact, for the first time in Viennese history, the Court Opera did not admit latecomers. In other words, even a noble title could not open the closed doors of the boxes! On top of that, smoking, eating and chatting was no longer allowed, as the audience was supposed to give the performance full attention, without being a distraction to the artists. Furthermore, the lights of the audience were shut down completely, in order to emphasize the importance of the performance.
A bridge between two worlds
Inspired by the Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk and the modern theater direction introduced by Max Reinhardt, Mahler managed to carry out a revolution. In fact, while reexamining the spatial relationship between performance and audience, he embraced the idea that theater can unify all works of art. Gustav Mahler remains today one of the greatest personalities of Viennese modernism, connecting the world of yesterday to the modern era. An era where old and new clash, slowly approaching the end of a century and welcoming a new beginning. And as stated above the entrance of the Secession pavilion, »Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit« – »To every age its art, to every art its freedom«.
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