Jean-Sébastien Caux

Mahler, Schrödinger and de La Grange

Posted on 2021-02-23   Anecdotes

As you probably know, for symphonic composers, legend (or running joke) has it that there is a curse about the number 9. A lot of famous chaps died around the moment of completing their 9th sympthony, for example Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak.

Gustav Mahler was a very prominent composer who came into his own in the late 19th Century (actually, to his great frustration, he was during his lifetime primarily recognized as a conductor rather than a composer).

Mahler always goes full grandiose in his orchestration: witness his 6th Symphony (do listen to the whole thing, but don't miss the 3rd movement starting around 39:30; things get pretty intense between 50:00 and 53:00).

The super-exuberant 8th is perhaps my personal favourite (I always used to play the first movement as "baptism" of any new place I lived in, and I can sing most of the second movement (based on Goethe's Faust II) for you if you ever wish to hear it). It was premiered in 1910 and was the moment of greatest acclaim for Mahler during his lifetime.

Mahler tried to trick fate. He did not give a symphony number to his subsequent work, Das Lied von de Erde, though this is very much a (sung) symphony. He worked on another two symphonic works, one completed (which became his 9th posthumously) and one partial (two movements of what would have been his 10th). Mahler was diagnosed with a defective heart and died in 1911 at the age of 50, right after having completed his 9th Symphony.

Perhaps the best symphonic concert I have ever attended was of Mahler's 9th, in London, by the Berliner Philharmoniker led by Claudio Abbado. Here is a link to another wonderful rendition by the Lucerne orchestra and the same conductor.

Now the funny sociological thing about Mahler is that his music often leads to a certain kind of teenage-style obsession in people. For some that lasts a while, for some that lasts a lifetime.

There was a famous musicologist called Henry-Louis de La Grange (bio) who admittedly took obsession for Mahler to extremes, even for an academic. He published a famous biography of Mahler, perhaps the most detailed biography of anybody I have ever come across (3 bulky volumes in the French edition I have, around 3600 pages in total; it even contains his favourite recipes!). You'd think the guy knew absolutely everything there was to know about Mahler.

As you might know I used to be a graduate student in Oxford, which is a pretty cool place because lots of well-known people come through to give talks and interact with students. So guess what? One day Henry-Louis de La Grange comes to give a seminar (whose subject I don't need to specify). I was there of course, and at the end, I had a bit of a chat with the great biographer.

By a stroke of luck, I had just read a nice biography of Erwin Schrödinger by Walter Moore, in which a little detail had struck me. You see, I had read de La Grange's biography of Mahler during my teenage years, and remembered long passages about a certain lady called Natalie Bauer-Lechner (link) who had been Mahler's "companion" for many years before he went off to marry Alma Schindler (link). The detail was that this Natalie's maiden name was Lechner, but that the Bauer was added after she married (at the age of 17!) a certain Alexander Bauer (they divorced after 10 years), who you will no doubt have immediately recognized as the maternal grandfather of our good friend Erwin Schrödinger.

So there I am, after that talk in Oxford, chatting to Henry-Louis de La Grange. The conversation went approximately like this: I told him I had read the big biography and enjoyed it very much (especially the recipes). But there was a detail I didn't find anywhere, namely: did he know that Mahler's youth sweetheart's first husband was none other than Erwin Schrödinger's maternal grandfather?

"I didn't know that!" he said. "It's not every day I learn something new about Mahler."

So that's my claim to fame in the world of musicology: I taught something about Mahler to Henry-Louis de La Grange (by pure luck!).