Gustav Mahler in Toblach. NATURE AND INSPIRATION PROOFREADER: Abigail Fine, PhD
Photographs of Gustav Mahler
Who was Gustav Mahler?
Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 as the son of the innkeeper Bernhard Mahler and his wife Marie (born Hermann) in Kalischt (Bohemia). His musical talent was recognized early on. Gustav himself gave piano lessons at the age of 6 and composed pieces that have not survived.
In 1875 Mahler began studying music at the Vienna Conservatory. His career unfolded in several phases: music and choir director at the royal theater in Kassel, opera conductor at the German state theater in Prague and at the city theater in Leipzig, director of the royal Opera House Budapest, conductor at the Hamburg city theater, conductor, and later artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera. Here he tried to realize his ideas for a reform, while also conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
In 1907, Mahler resigned as director of the Vienna Court Opera due to family problems and frequent anti-semitic attacks. In his words:
"As things are now in the world, my Jewishness prevents me from entering any court theater. Neither Vienna, nor Berlin, nor Dresden, nor Munich is open to me. The same wind is blowing everywhere."
With that, he accepted a position as guest conductor with the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra in New York.
It was only during the summer months that Gustav Mahler composed in his famous composing huts in Maiernigg, Attersee, and Toblach.
Mahler was married to Alma Schindler, who was likewise a composer, writer, intellectual, and socialite.
On May 18, 1911, Gustav Mahler died of bacterial endocarditis in Vienna.
Recollections by Mahler's contemporaries
Natalie Bauer-Lechner (1858-1921, violist and longtime confidante of Gustav Mahler) described Gustav Mahler in 1923 as follows:
"Mahler, who had an average height, a seemingly delicate frame, was light and of slender build. But some more powerful might envy his exceptional and suppleness. For example, he displayed great skill and endurance in athletics; he was an excellent swimmer, cyclist and climber.
His small brown eyes were fantastically vibrant and fiery. I can well believe that a poor devil of a player or a singer might be ready to sink through the floor when Mahler turned his keen gaze on him.
I must not fail to mention a peculiarity in the shape of his head: the straight line from the back of the head to the nape of the neck, reminiscent of an otter's head. Imperious was the hooked nose with its finely sensitive nostrils and the energetic, fairly wide and tight-fitting mouth that hide a row of irregular but healthy snow-white teeth. However, the delicate, rather thin lips were intended to indicate a lack of sensuality.
Mahler, whose outward appearance gave so much cause for criticism, responded to the allegations: "I cannot lead an aesthetic life; my personality and temperament are otherwise inclined. And if I were not what I am, I could not write the symphonies.”
He was extremely forgetful and absent because he was busy and distracted inside. Once he drank black coffee at a party. Without thinking, he stirred the cup with his cigarette instead of his spoon and then, imagining he had smoke in his mouth, blew coffee across the table straight into his hostess' face!
Needless to say, the cleanliness of his dress left everything to be desired. His boot straps were always sticking up or a bit of shoelace was hanging out. If he went out in the morning without being looked at, he often came back at noon with white marks of tooth powder or shaving soap on his mouth or cheeks.
Most notable about Mahler was his gait. It drew attention everywhere—even the kids made fun of it. As he stomped along, he twitched with every step he took, impatient like a stepping horse or a blind man feeling his way. When he was engaged in lively conversation with someone, he grabbed his hand or lapel and forced him to stand his ground. Meanwhile, he himself, getting more and more agitated, would stamp his feet on the ground like a wild boar."
Mahler and Toblach
4. Mahler and Toblach
Photographs of Mahler and Toblach.
Gustav Mahler probably got to know Dobbiaco for the first time in July 1897 while on a bicycle tour through the Puster Valley from Vahrn.
While he was working on the 4th to the 8th symphony, he made several trips to Toblach and the surrounding area.
In July of 1907, his four year-old daughter Maria died in Maiernigg of scarlet fever and diphtheria. This was one of the reasons Mahler was looking for a new summer residence and found it in Toblach. Mahler spent the summer from 1908 to 1910 with his wife Alma and daughter Anna in the Trenkerhof in Alt-Schluderbach-Toblach. In the nearby spruce forest he had the wooden "composing house" built.
Gustav Mahler was enthralled by his summer vacation in Dobbiaco: "It's wonderful here and definitely repairs body and soul..." (1909 to Arnold Berliner)
Mahler often walked into the village center of Dobbiaco or to neighboring Aufkirchen, and he went on excursions in the area and entertained many guests. Among them were Richard Strauss and his wife, with whom he dined at the Grand Hotel. The summer of 1910 was marred by a serious marital crisis. The architect Walter Gropius appeared in Dobbiaco to confess his love for Alma and obtain a divorce from Mahler; Alma chose Gustav. His work was also interrupted by a trip to Holland to consult Sigmund Freud. On the couch he discussed coping with his marital crisis and coming to terms with his mother figure.
In 1908, Mahler wrote to Bruno Walter:
"This time I have to change not only the place but also my whole way of life. You can imagine how difficult the latter is for me. I have been accustomed to constant and vigorous exercise for many years. Roaming on mountains and forests to create my drafts. I only went to my desk like a farmer in the barn to get my sketches in shape. Even mental indispositions have given way after a hard march (mainly uphill). I should avoid any physical effort, constantly control myself.
At the same time, in this solitude, where I am attentive to the inside, I feel more clearly everything that is wrong with me physically. Maybe my outlook is too bleak, but since I've been in the country I feel worse than in the city, where the distraction also belied many things."
Mahler finally left on September 3, 1910, badly affected. The following May, 1911, he died in Vienna of bacterial endocarditis.
Via Carbonin Vecchia 3, 39034, IT
Photographs of the Trenkerhof
In 1978, Alma Mahler recalled:
"....In May, in deep snow, we searched every house until we found the right one. A large farmhouse, outside of town, eleven rooms, two verandas, two bathrooms, a bit primitive, but in a wonderful location. The we immediately took it for the summer, came back, packed up and moved to Dobbiaco...."
The Trenkerhof was the main building where Gustav Mahler and his family stayed. There was probably a grand piano in the living room for Alma.
Letter to Alma Mahler (June 24, 1909)
“...But the house and the place is too delightful—except for the noise, which embarrasses me incessantly. The peasants either whisper so that the windows rattle or they tiptoe and the house shakes. The two lively heirs chirp all day long: Bibi! Bibi! (That's her Volapük and means: everything.) The dog lets me feel again that I am ‘a human among humans.’ The dog barks all day, from dawn until farmers start dreaming sweetly. I wake up every quarter of an hour being jealous about those who snore gently. The devil take it: how beautiful the world would be if you had fenced off two yokes and were alone in the middle..."
In 1957, a plaque for Gustav Mahler was installed at the Trenkerhof by the International Mahler Society Vienna.
Unfortunately, the interior of the Trenkerhof may no longer be visited today.
Memories of Marianne Trenker
In the summer months of 1908-1910, Gustav Mahler rented part of the Trenkerhof and had a wooden house built in the nearby spruce forest, which he would use for composing.
An essay by Marianne Trenker, the adopted daughter of the Trenker family, who in 1938 recorded vivid memories of Mahler from this period. These memoires are likely to have originated from stories told by the maid, Jesacher Maria, who worked at the Trenkerhof during Mahler's time there.
"Over three years, Gustav Mahler spent his summer holidays with his family at the beautiful Altschluderbach farm, which is located in an idyllic setting near the edge of the forest. In the summer of 1907, Gustav Mahler was in Neuschluderbach, now Carbonin. Gustav Mahler must have noticed the scenic, quiet location of our house during a walk, and so in the spring of 1908 he rented the apartment, where his widow still lived in 1911. The old, castle-like apartment is large and spacious, with ten rooms and a beautiful enclosed veranda. The house is one of Toblach's historic manors and dates back to Maximilian's time. In the large salon, the von Leis family coat of arms can be seen on the ceiling. Five minutes away from the house, in a quiet spruce grove, is a simple summer cottage that was Gustav Mahler's actual place of work. Three pianos would be brought to the cottage every spring. He spent most of the day there and was not to be disturbed by anyone, not even his wife. Early in the morning, breakfast had to be ready: tea, coffee, butter, honey, eggs, pastries, fruit and poultry.
Master Mahler would leave for work as early as six o'clock in the morning. The cottage came complete with a stove, which he would light himself and cook his breakfast on. The cottage had to be surrounded by a 1 and 1⁄2 m high fence within a radius of 1 km. Despite this, two journeymen once climbed over the fence and pestered the famous composer, begging him for money. Now the fence had to be fitted with spikes. On one occasion, a vulture chased a raven and it flew into Mahler's study, looking for shelter. The Master complained bitterly to old man Trenker, the proprietor of Altschluderbach, about the insolent intruder. Mr. Trenker laughed in his face and Gustav Mahler had to laugh along. On another occasion, the rooster upset him by waking him from his morning slumber with its cock-a-doodle-doo. "Can you train a rooster not to crow in the morning?" asked the Master. "Oh yes", said Mr. Trenker, "You just wring its neck!" but Gustav Mahler did not want to know about that either. In his dealings with people, he was kind-hearted and jovial. He would often tell us how, as one of many children from a poor family, he would live for days on just a piece of bread so that he could pay for his studies. He would gather poor journeymen together on the street, provide them with clothing and money so that they could find a job more easily; they no doubt thanked him for his generosity, even beyond the grave.
Gustav Mahler received many guests, among them Selma Kurz, a famous singer. He was once among his wife's guests, who apparently did not like him very much. Suddenly he gets up and starts gesticulating, saying: "Vienna is full of louts, perhaps there are even some among us?" One of my earliest childhood memories is of being able to picture Gustav Mahler exactly, with his ruffled hair, plain work suit and distinctive gait. We have an autographed photo of him, which we hold very dear; it is a cherished souvenir of the great composer."
Composing hut Gustav Mahler Toblach
The composing hut during Mahler´s time
The composing house was probably built in 1907. Unfortunately, the name of the carpenter is no longer known.
In Gustav Mahler’s day, there was probably a piano (make unknown), a table, a chair and a small stove in the little house. Mahler had three pianos delivered every summer, an upright for the composing house and two more for the Trenker house, one of which was probably a grand piano.
From this hut, Mahler enjoyed the landscape of Toblach and surroundings.
Mahler described this place as follows:
"It's wonderful, and the seclusion and tranquility of this place allows me to curl up again in the usual way."
“...The weather is almost continuously cold, inclement and rainy. Nevertheless, there are often beautiful moments. I take my afternoon walk to Dobbiaco every day, rain or sunshine...”
The composing hut after Mahler´s time
It is a miracle that this little cabin survived after Mahler’s death, unnoticed in the forest and largely unused.
There are stories that the cabin was used by the Vinzentinum Institute Bozen as a summer camp for young boys. Locals say that they played tennis and football in the flat area below the hut and used the cabin itself as a kitchen.
For a long time it was not known that this simple cabin was the site where Mahler made history.
Perhaps it is thanks to the Toblach teacher Heinrich Oberhammer that people recognized the importance of this cabin and the value of the place itself.
Under his advisement, Toblach got in contact with the International Gustav Mahler Society Vienna (IGGM).
In 1957 there was an official inauguration of the commemorative plaque at the Trenkerhof and the IGGM then installed the exhibition in the composing house.
The Mahler composing house was first restored in 1981.
Since November 30, 1998, the Gustav Mahler composing house has been protected on the registry of historic sites as a "summer house at the Trenkerhof."
In 2022 it was carefully restored for the second time by the “Kaiser and Wolf“ company in accordance with strict historic preservation requirements. The restoration work included, among other things, elaborate drainage, shingle roof cladding (according to the specifications of an old photo from Mahler's family album), and comprehensive restoration of all windows and doors.
Unfortunately, the spruce forest from that time could not be preserved and had to be cut down to protect the composing house.
Today, as in the past, the composing house remains in the same place.
The current exhibit in the interior does not contain original furniture. The exhibition shows objects that hint at Mahler busy at work composing. In Mahler's time there was probably a wood stove and a upright piano in the interior.
Gustav Mahler and nature
Videos and photographs
Gustav Mahler once called himself a “singer of nature.”
Here you will find short videos of places that most likely inspired Gustav Mahler on his excursions. Mahler was a health enthusiast and embraced all kinds of physical activities.
His attitude towards nature is reflected in many remarks he made throughout his life. Here you can find some favorite passages selected by his granddaughter Marina Mahler.
“As one had perhaps aptly called Mozart ‘the singer of love,’ one will also (naturally with considerable leeway) be able to give me the title: ‘singer of nature.’
1898 letter to Joseph Stransky
“I always feel it strange that when most people speak of ‘Nature,’ what they mean is flowers, little birds, the scent of the forest, etc. No one knows the god Dionysus, or the great Pan. Well: there you have a kind of program—i.e., a sample of how I compose. Always and everywhere it is only the sound of Nature.”
1896 letter to Richard Batka
“But I have already written to you that I am working on my large work. Don’t you comprehend how this demands the whole person and how one is often so immersed in it that one is as if dead to the outer world. […] But now imagine such a large work that, in fact, mirrors the entire world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays. […] At such times I do not belong to myself […]."
1896 letter to Anna Mildenburg
“I know that, so far as I myself am concerned, as long as I can express an experience in words I should never try to put it into music. The need to express myself musically—in symphonic terms—begins only on the plane of obscure feelings, at the gate that opens into the ‘other world,’ the world in which things no longer fall apart in time and space. “
1896 letter to Max Marschalk
“What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet—if I had not already borne the work within me—how could I have had that experience? […] It is always the same with me: only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience!”
1897, Symphony No. 2
“A burning, painful feeling crystallizes: What a world this is that emits such sounds and forms as a reflection of itself! Something like the funeral march and the storm that then breaks out seem to me like a burning indictment of the Creator. And in each new work of mine (at least up to a certain period) this cry rises up again and again: ‘You are not their father, but their tsar!’”
1909 letter to Bruno Walter
“A music-maker’s life, after all, offers nothing in the way of external events—he lives inwardly. It is probably rather significant that musicians take little interest in the visual arts; it is their nature to try to get to the bottom of things, to go beyond external appearances.”
1896 letter to Max Marschalk
"How can people forever think, that Nature lies on the surface! Of course it does, in its most superficial aspect. But those who, in the face of Nature, are not overwhelmed with awe at its infinite mystery, its divinity (we can only sense it, not comprehend or penetrate it)—these people have not come close to it. […] And in every work of art, which should be a reflection of nature, there must be a trace of this infinity.”
1900 letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner
Symphonies created in Toblach
Photographs and links to the symphonies
1. THE SONG OF THE EARTH- “DAS LIED VON DER ERDE“ (1908)
The Song of the Earth was one of Gustav Mahler's last symphonic works.
Gustav Mahler was inspired by the classical Chinese poems from Hans Bethge's collection "The Chinese Flute," including works by the great poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Taibai.
The world premiere of "Das Lied von der Erde" took place in Munich in 1911 after Mahler's death.
He himself said that the song from the earth was “the most personal thing I have ever written.”
Here you can find the complete score in the New York Philharmonic Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archive:
2. The 9. SYMPHONY (1909)
The 9th symphony is the last completed work by Gustav Mahler.
Mahler likely began work on this symphony in July of 1909.
Most of it was written inside the composing hut in Dobbiaco.
His wife Alma and their daughter stayed in Levico that summer. Mahler enjoyed this quiet time to compose, only interrupted by occasional walks. "It's nice to be alone all day long—very nice," he wrote in a letter.. Mahler later completed the manuscript in New York.
Here you can find the complete score in the New York Philharmonic Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archive:
3. THE 10. SYMPHONY (1911)
An unfinished 10th Symphony by Gustav Mahler is the composer's last work.
Starting in the second half of the 20th century, various composers attempted to complete it.
Here you can find the complete score of the New York Philharmonic Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archive:
Do you want to listen to music?
Take your smartphone and use our wooden grammophone to listen to Mahler´s music.
The grammophone was produced in 2022 in Kiew as a sign of peace.
Gustav Mahler Music Festival Toblach
Via Dolomiti 41, 39034 Dobbiaco, IT
Videos and photographs
In 1981, the Gustav Mahler Music Weeks were launched. The idea for the festival came by chance on a press trip to Arnhem. Herbert Santer, hotelier and owner of the Mahler cottage, sought "to do something with Mahler."
At long last, enthusiastic and culture-loving people found themselves in Dobbiaco for the Gustav Mahler Music Weeks starting in 1981.
In 1983, a sculpture of Gustav Mahler by Bojan Kunover was unveiled in the village square in Toblach as part of the 3rd festival.
The Gustav Mahler Music Weeks have been taking place in Dobbiaco for over 40 years. It is a small, intensive, and internationally recognized music festival that celebrates Mahler's summer landscape, the Dolomites. Now committed to Gustav Mahler's legacy, Dobbiaco has become a meeting place for the performance and study of Mahler’s music.
The current president of the festival is Hansjörg Viertler and the artistic director is Josef Lanz.
Some highlights of the Gustav Mahler Music Weeks Dobbiaco:
"The Song of the Earth" in the Trenkerhof
A high point in the history of the Mahler Weeks was the performance of "The Song of the Earth" in 1983. The starting point was an arrangement of the "Song of the Earth" begun by Arnold Schönberg, which Rainer Riehn had completed for the performance in Toblach. The premiere of this arrangement took place in the living quarters in the Trenkerhof in Alt-Schluderbach, where Mahler had resided in the summer months of 1908-1910. (Photo Rainer Riehn and Musica Negativa in the Trenkerhof ("Song of the Earth"))
In 1986, Henry Louis de la Grange took over as artistic director. The Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote a version for chamber orchestra of five early songs by Gustav Mahler for the Toblach Mahler Music Week. They were premiered by the Haydn Orchestra of Bozen and Trento under the direction of Hermann Michael and the then unknown young baritone Thomas Hampson. (Photo: Thomas Hampson (l.) with conductor Hermann Michael)
In 1997, the festival commissioned the American-Cuban composer George Lopez to compose "Dreamtime and Interpretation of Dreams, symphonic action for instrumentalists in the mountain region op. 11"; the work was written for the natural amphitheater around the Zsygmondy Hut (Sextner Dolomites) and was premiered there by the Tyrolean Ensemble for New Music. "Following the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin's Dream Paths," says Lopez, "I think some places are just made for bringing an inner voice to life." (Photo: Performance at the Zygmondy Hut (Sextner Dolomiten)-Picture in the middle: George Lopez as conductor)
An exceptionally memorable festival in 1998 featured the evocative night concert by Uri Caine in the composing house in Alt-Schluderbach and a concert with Mahler improvisations by the jazz ensemble of Uri Caine. This concert was released by the record label Winter&Winter with the title "Gustav Mahler in Toblach" and was highly praised in the international press.
(Photo night concert with Uri Caine (l.) and friends)
From 2000 to 2004, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was won as Orchestra in Residence. Conductors as Daniel Harding, Marc Minkowski and Alan Gilbert were amongst the highlights of those years. (Photo: Daniel Harding with musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra)
TEXT about Highlights Gustav Mahler Music Weeks: Josef Lanz
Musicological lectures from the Gustav Mahler Music Weeks can be found under this link. Only in original language
More information and pictures
Cultural center and Nature Parkhouse Toblach
Dolomitenstraße 37, 39034 Toblach, IT
Would you like to learn more about the Dolomites and cultural events held in Toblach?
In the nature parc house in the Grand Hotel in Neu-Toblach you will find a small but interesting insight into the Dolomites, with a small section dedicated to Gustav Mahler.
Gustav Mahler himself was inspired by this unique mountain scenery.
The Gustav Mahler Cultural Center is a cultural center for culture and music in South Tyrol. In addition to the Gustav Mahler Music Weeks and the South Tyrolean Festival, numerous events and concerts take place here. In the first Floor of the Grandhotel you will find a Small permanent exhibition on Gustav Mahler.
THE SINGER FOR THE EARTH John Warner- Orchestra for the Earth
Film: THE SINGER FOR THE EARTH by FRANK SCHEFFER about the Orchestra for the Earth
The Orchestra for the Earth (OFE) was founded in 2017 by conductor John Warner. The orchestra is convinced that classical music also has a responsibility to contribute to the protection of nature. John Warner: “Our orchestra brings together some of the UK's most dedicated professional musicians who are committed to preserving our world, which we will bequeath to future generations.
We cooperate with well-known environmental protection organizations and use our concerts for fundraisers, educational and other projects.
It is also our intention to lead by example and plan how we and other orchestras can make our actions more sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint. Gustav Mahler's music bears witness to a deep feeling and understanding of nature. The beauty of the mountains, lakes and folk songs was a major inspiration for his music, and each year the OFE holds concerts in places Mahler visited, such as Toblach, Maiernigg and Steinbach".
GET INSPIRED BY THIS BEAUTIFUL FILM