Mahler Directs the Vienna Court Opera Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gustav Mahler established a concept of operatic performance with the Vienna Court Opera that has been widely described as the outstanding musical achievement of the era and was, in the eyes of many, the last artistic gasp of a great but crumbling empire.

Summary of Event

As the seat of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna had long been a center of musical influence by the beginning of the twentieth century, and nothing held the attention of the Viennese, and the broader musical community in general, more securely than the opera. Performances were built around familiar stars, and the easygoing attitude for which the Viennese were famous carried over to the operatic stage in the form of pleasant exhibitions of vocal skill. Gustav Mahler first appeared at the opera in Vienna as assistant conductor for a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin (1848, pr. 1850) Lohengrin (Wagner) on May 11, 1897; his extraordinary musical success with that and subsequent performances led to his appointment as director on October 8, 1897. He brought to the royal opera a new concept that each work should be viewed as a complete entity in itself, one in which all operatic elements—orchestra, singers, staging, and scenery—were to be focused on achieving a unified whole. His approach was marked by rigorous standards of technical execution. No detail was too small to receive his careful attention. For example, in the “Norns” scene from a production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung Götterdämmerung (Wagner) (1874, pr. 1876; the twilight of the gods), the players were required to pay out rope for an extended period, but with no actual rope present; Mahler insisted that the performers practice for hours with an actual rope, although none was used during the public performance. Vienna Court Opera Music;opera Opera Theater;opera [kw]Mahler Directs the Vienna Court Opera (early 20th cent.) [kw]Vienna Court Opera, Mahler Directs the (early 20th cent.) [kw]Opera, Mahler Directs the Vienna Court (early 20th cent.) Vienna Court Opera Music;opera Opera Theater;opera [g]Austria;Early 20th cent.: Mahler Directs the Vienna Court Opera[00020] [c]Music;Early 20th cent.: Mahler Directs the Vienna Court Opera[00020] [c]Theater;Early 20th cent.: Mahler Directs the Vienna Court Opera[00020] Mahler, Gustav Roller, Alfred Richter, Hans

Mahler collaborated with Alfred Roller in achieving new stage designs that were based on light and symbolism rather than on the stereotypical painted backdrops that had for so long inhibited attempts to create the illusions necessary in opera. Roller’s first stage design, for a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Tristan und Isolde (Wagner) (1859, pr. 1865), bathed the stage in deep red for the passions of the first act, in deep purple to suggest night in the second, and in a pervasive gray for the extended death scene of the closing—all innovative effects for the time.

Mahler insisted on complete accuracy from the singers and orchestra in matters of text and tempo; the vocal cadenzas that had accrued to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s scores were deleted, and the Wagner operas were performed without the usual cuts, extending some performances by as much as an hour. Singers were expected to follow exactly Mahler’s sometimes tyrannical directions in matters of interpretation in order to achieve his concept of the complete work. Within a fairly short time following his arrival at the opera, many of the established singers left, as did a significant portion of the orchestra. Those who remained, however, stated repeatedly that the musical ideas they encountered with Mahler compensated for the heavy demands he placed on them. Mahler used his position to encourage many new singing talents. He was constantly searching for new singers, and he often favored performers whose voices might be less than the most beautiful if the singers could sustain the elements of dramatic acting that fit with his idea of the whole. This was a marked departure from the reigning tradition of bel canto and all that it implied.

Mahler’s attention extended to audience conduct as well, a fact reflected in a published list of rules he established for visitors to the opera. Cannons were to be fired in the city to inform the citizens of the appropriate time they should depart their homes for each evening’s performance; late arrivals, be they aristocrats or not, were refused admission until the first intermission. Mahler also forced each singer to sign an agreement eliminating claques (fans whom singers paid to applaud their individual entries and solos). Persons of both sexes entering the opera house as couples might be required to give proof of their marital status, and strikingly beautiful ladies, who might attract the attention of gentlemen, could be refused admission (a response to the social intercourse for which the Vienna Court Opera had become famous). Those who enjoyed bringing musical scores to the opera were forbidden to turn the pages of their scores because of the distracting noise.

Although he continued much of the traditional Italian repertory, Mahler became most famous for the attention he gave to the operas of Wagner, establishing complete performance of the four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1874; The Ring of the Nibelungs) Ring of the Nibelungs, The (Wagner) and insisting that these and all other works be presented without cuts. Here he came into conflict with the locally revered conductor Hans Richter, who had worked with Wagner at the festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria, and who, presumably, had been anointed by that master as interpreter of his works. Mahler himself, however, was very much a champion of Wagner’s idea of the total work of art; he announced within a short time that he would assume responsibility for all Wagner performances, and soon after, Richter, one of the most celebrated interpreters of German Romanticism, left for London. Mahler came to be recognized as a spokesman for the “music of the future” movement as it had been championed by Wagner, and his uncut performances of Wagnerian music dramas were considered to be among the highlights of his tenure as director.

Clearly, Mahler was in control; he imposed his extraordinary talents and musical concepts not only on the performers but on the audience as well. The resulting intensity led to a level of performance acknowledged by all who attended the opera as the outstanding musical achievement of the age—the crescendo of criticism notwithstanding.

Gustav Mahler.

(Library of Congress)

The impact on Mahler’s own career as a conductor and composer was at least twofold. As a conductor, he achieved international recognition as a leading virtuoso of the baton and was invited to appear at many major musical centers, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. As a composer, he may have had limited productivity, given that his activities with the opera relegated his own composing to the relatively short months of summer, yet his work toward achieving an operatic performance that represents a totality of the composer’s intent also appears in his symphonies, large-scale works that are self-sufficient musical entities, creations that extend well beyond the traditional four-movement sequence. Many of these works carry autobiographical connotations, which may also reflect Mahler’s total and personal immersion in each of his operatic endeavors. Certainly, his awareness of the problems of words and music would have figured in both activities, and a significant portion of Mahler’s compositions call for the combination of orchestra and voices, either solo or chorus.

The intensity of his personal involvement with any work he addressed as either conductor or composer may have contributed to Mahler’s personal problems, conditions sufficiently disturbing to lead him to a consultation with Sigmund Freud Freud, Sigmund in 1910. The similarity between Freud’s approach to his new science of psychoanalysis and Mahler’s approach to his creative processes, either as opera conductor or as composer, attracted the attention of many.


Although Mahler alienated many with his uncompromising standards and dictatorial musical administration, he also brought to fruition a type of operatic performance that united all facets of the musical theater into the service of one entity: the conception of the composer as interpreted by Mahler. The performance of an opera as a unified whole, one into which all musical elements were cohesively bound, stood as the hallmark of the productions for which Mahler was responsible as director, even when he was not on the podium himself. This was in striking contrast to most existing operatic traditions of the early twentieth century, and the Vienna Court Opera came to be identified as a crucible for new musical ideas and as the center of Viennese cultural life. It was said that Mahler was the second-best-known person in the city, his eminence surpassed only by that of the emperor.

Mahler’s fidelity to the composer’s intent, although with some noted exceptions, set the tone for musicians in many other areas, a quality reflected in practices of notation and performance that endured well beyond the middle of the twentieth century. With Mahler as a model, composers annotated their scores with great attention to the nuances of articulation, dynamics, fluctuations in tempo, and similar matters. Performers were expected to respond in kind through the careful and accurate realization of such notation. Gone was the element of change through free additions, inserted improvisations, and “creative” interpretations dominated by performers’ individual personalities.

Mahler’s collaborations with Roller in matters of stage design broke with the past and established procedures that were emulated at Bayreuth and in most other opera houses of the twentieth century. Mahler and Roller established the principle of using light instead of fixed lines, symbolism instead of literal and inherently limited statement, to project desired illusions.

Mahler’s concern for the whole ensemble led him to place the conductor’s desk on the far side of the orchestra, between the instrumentalists and the audience, the better to command the attention of the orchestra as well as that of the performers on stage. Previously the conductor had worked from an area near the stage where he could address the singers directly, with the orchestra seated between the conductor and the audience. Like Mahler’s other innovations, this ensued from his concern for the whole ensemble—orchestra as well as singers.

Through his extraordinary musical achievements in the opera house, Mahler restored to Vienna some of the musical glory the city had lost with the passing of Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. The opera had symbolized all that was great and glorious in the principal city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the declining political fortunes of that city made these musical developments all the more notable in the eyes of the Viennese. Whether they approved of Mahler or vilified him, there was no question that he was the major artistic and intellectual force in the city.

Mahler’s elevation of the complete dramatic concept above the merely musical led to the emergence of a new type of singer, one who above all could project the illusion of the drama. Although this emphasis led to the departure of several prominent stars—many of whom were probably ready to depart for vocal reasons under any circumstances—it also led to the establishment of several new and important operatic careers. Anna von Mildenburg, Leo Slezak, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, and Richard Mayr were among the singers who came forth during Mahler’s tenure, and they dominated the German operatic repertory until well into the twentieth century. Through the process of careful selection of his own singers and painstaking training through many rehearsals, Mahler developed one of the most renowned operatic ensembles of all time.

Mahler’s central position on the musical scene and his forceful musical intellect brought him to the forefront among young musicians, such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg, who were champions of new styles in music. Although not always in accord with their views, Mahler and his work as composer and conductor nevertheless stood for what many of these musicians thought was needed to free music from the encrustation of nineteenth century Romanticism. It was from the creative work of these composers, particularly Schoenberg and Webern, that the music of the twentieth century received much of its impetus. Vienna Court Opera Music;opera Opera Theater;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banks, Paul. “Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Modernism.” In The Late Romantic Era, edited by Jim Samson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. A study of the broader cultural forces at work in Vienna during the last years of the nineteenth century. Reviews Mahler’s work within the context of the political and cultural firmament of which it was a part.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bauer-Lechner, Natalie. Recollections of Gustav Mahler. Translated by Dika Newlin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. An account of personal associations with Mahler from childhood through his years in Vienna. Aside from many items of purely personal interest, offers much information concerning Mahler’s musical development and the sources of his ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feder, Stuart. Gustav Mahler: A Life in Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Psychoanalytic biography addresses emotional themes in Mahler’s life and compositions, connecting particular crises with musical themes and works. Discusses Mahler’s consultation with Freud in 1910.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gartenberg, Egon. Mahler: The Man and His Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1978. One of the most accessible biographical studies of Mahler. Includes frequent references to and quotations of source materials, an extensive list of photographs of Mahler and his associates supplemented by biographical sketches, and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Michael. Mahler. 2d ed. London: J. M. Dent, 1990. This brief and accessible work is primarily biographical and analytic, but it is supplemented by a calendar of Mahler’s life and activities, a catalog of works, a sketch of Mahler’s associates, and a select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kralik, Heinrich. The Vienna Opera House. Translated by Michael H. Law. Vienna: Brüder Rosenbaum, 1955. A useful history of the physical structure known as the Vienna Opera. Addresses many of the unwritten traditions of the house and the differences among directors. Includes many color plates of the opera house’s interior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Grange, Henry-Louis de la. Gustav Mahler: Vienna, the Years of Challenge, 1897-1904. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Biographical study depicts the society of prewar Vienna, the range of artists among whom Mahler lived and worked, and Mahler’s engagement and turbulent marriage to Alma Schindler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Mahler. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Extensive biographical study of Mahler through 1902, presumably based, at least in part, on the original text of Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Much of the text derives from personal correspondence, which is quoted liberally, but the contexts of many quotations are not clearly identified. Many photographic plates, annotations, and an extended bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newlin, Dika. Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: King’s Crown Press, 1947. A cornerstone for studies concerning musical developments in Vienna around the beginning of the twentieth century. Gives much attention to the relationships among the three composers named and to musical traditions in Vienna; a short chapter addresses Mahler’s tenure as director of the opera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prawy, Michael. The Vienna Opera. New York: Praeger, 1970. A valuable documentary study of the Vienna Opera, its productions, traditions, famous performers, and conductors. Includes many photographic plates, playbills, and other documents that illustrate the history of this famous institution.

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Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres

Categories: History