Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.”

One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died.

Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; he wasn’t there at all, having left before the performance ended to catch the last train home to a distant suburb. When Mahler called him on the carpet the next day, the timpanist said he could not afford to live in the city and support a wife and child on his salary. Mahler immediately decided to raise the salaries of every musician in the orchestra and economize on scenery and costumes, if necessary.

When eating out, Mahler always wiped every piece of table service before using it. One day he and his sister sat on the upper terrace of an elegant restaurant in Budapest. His back to the balcony, he rinsed his out his glass and tossed the water over his shoulder. Of course, it landed on some shocked, well-dressed ladies below. He apologized profusely, and they, recognizing the famously absent-minded opera conductor, quickie forgave him. Five minutes later, his sister asked for a glass of water. He rinsed out her glass, too, again tossing the water over his shoulder and showering the ladies before. The waiter almost dropped his tray, laughing so hard. Mahler did not go anywhere near that restaurant again for a long time.

Mahler thought his music never achieved everything he intended. Passages inspired by his deepest emotions always seemed to be spoiled by commonplace melodies. Late in life, he remembered that he had fled the house to avoid watching a painful argument between his parents, and outside, a hurdy gurdy was playing a popular tune. He concluded that with high tragedy and light amusement coexisting in that one moment, one mood forever after invoked the other.

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