Mahler on the couch

Given how Gustav Mahler's music generated so much antipathy in his lifetime, with critics pulling out words like "grotesque" and many listeners suspecting the composer harbored horrid neuroses, it's not surprising that he decided to consult Sigmund Freud.

But Mahler's famous four-hour meeting with the father of psychiatry in 1910 came about for somewhat less artistic reasons.


"He was suffering from all these worries about his wife, Alma, running off with a younger man — which she did after Mahler died," said Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

This weekend, "Analyze This," the latest entry in Alsop's informal "Off the Cuff" series with the BSO, will include a re-enactment of the Mahler/Freud session. The scripted show features actors and a singer, along with the orchestra.


"It's so fascinating to think about two great minds meeting at the beginning of the 20th century," Alsop said, "when everything was in flux, everything was up for grabs. It's so exciting to try to put ourselves in that place."

To help get to that place, the conductor enlisted Didi Balle, founding director of Symphonic Stage Shows, a production company that creates fusions of classical music and theater. The result is what Balle calls "a one-act symphonic play."

She wrote and directed a popular program the BSO presented two years ago called " CSI Beethoven," an examination of that composer's struggles with deafness. "Analyze This" looks at emotional obstacles Mahler faced, including intensely painful childhood memories, the early death of his eldest daughter and his troubled marriage.

"Before they got married, Mahler laid it all out for Alma," Balle said. "He asked her if she could consider his music her music from now on."

Alma agreed to stop composing, but resentment festered. She found occasional distraction with male admirers, including architect Walter Gropius, whose letter asking her to run away with him was — inadvertently? — addressed to Mahler himself. That incident pushed Mahler over the edge and had him seeking Freud's counsel.

"I developed an incredible empathy for Mahler that I never had before," Balle said. "I ended up realizing that what he had asked of Alma was not that far off in the context of his times. But I take her side, too."

At least Mahler, after his few hours with Freud, lifted his composing edict and even arranged for the publication of Alma's music. "But she was kind of over it by then," Balle said.

Although there are no transcripts of the Mahler/Freud meeting, a good deal of information in letters and diaries remains, material that Balle mined for the script of "Analyze This."


"It is clear that Mahler and Freud had a real connection," Alsop said. Added Balle: "Freud was later to say that he never met anyone in his lifetime who so understood psychoanalysis as Mahler did."

If you go

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