A Brief Encounter: Gustav Mahler & Sigmund Freud

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Mahler & Freud
Gustav Mahler & Sigmund Freud

In 1910, when Viennese composer Gustav Mahler took leave from his rehearsals in Munich to visit Sigmund Freud in Leyden, Holland, he certainly had a lot to talk about. Mahler had grown up in an unhappy household, bearing witness to the frequent abuse of his mother by his father and the deaths of his younger siblings. It’s difficult to imagine his extraordinary musical gift being the product of such a difficult background, but then again, those painful themes frequently color his monumental works: dread, suffering, redemption, death, and resurrection. Song cycles like Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) mirror the deaths of seven of his fourteen siblings.

Mahler auf der Couch
A scene from the film, Mahler on the Couch

I’ve always loved the fourth movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The adagietto is as sweeping and gorgeous a movement as any in classical music. It employs motifs that Richard Wagner had used earlier in his own works, like Siegfried Idyll: repeated passages that don’t quite resolve themselves until the final climax. Mahler’s breathtaking adagietto is followed by a lighthearted segment that has always seemed to me like an incongruous juxtaposition. Or maybe Mahler just wanted to change moods?

That being said, I’ve nevertheless always wondered how this unusual pairing came about, and one day heard about Mahler’s four-hour-long session with the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud. The latter helped his patient to recall an unhappy episode when Mahler once ran away from home, anguished and miserable. Through free association technique, he remembered happening upon an organ grinder with a monkey, which humored and amused the composer, lifting him from his despondency. Perhaps somehow, unconsciously, this incident might have been responsible for the abrupt mood change between the two movements of this great symphony?

Who knows, this may be totally apocryphal. Whether this unlikely musical segue relates back to Mahler’s childhood memory or is complete baloney, I will leave to the musicologists to determine.

Anyhow, here is a beautiful version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by Valery Gergiev in 2010: The fourth adagietto movement begins at 45:15; the following movement at 55:12.

A trailer from Mahler on the Couch, chronicling the composer’s life, work, and love.

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