From a 1922 memoir of Alfred Roller, set designer at Vienna Opera:
Mahler never hid his Jewish origins. But he had no joy from them. They were a spur and a goad towards ever higher and more lofty achievement. He once explained to me the effect of his background on his creative works. "You know," he said, "it's like a man who comes into the world with one arm shorter than the other. The other arm has to cope with so much more, and in the end perhaps manages to do things that two sound arms would never have achieved." People who were trying to be pleasant to him would often say that because of the way he had developed, he was really no longer a Jew. That made him sad. "People should listen to my work," he said, "and see if it means anything to them, then either accept or reject it. But as for their prejudices for or against a Jew, they should leave those at home. That much I demand as my right." . . . He was not a card-carrying Jew and at times was more attacked for not being so than he was from the other side. "It's a funny thing," he often said with amusement during his final period as Director [of the Opera] in Vienna, "but it seems to me that the anti-Semitic papers are the only ones who still have any respect for me." . . .
Ernst Bloch describes Mahler among other things as "a human hymnal" and that is probably the most apt summing-up of Mahler's essential nature. He was deeply religious. His faith was that of a child. God is love and love is God. This idea came up a thousand times in his conversation. I once asked him why he did not write a mass, and he seemed taken aback. "Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there's the credo in it." And he began to recite the credo in Latin. "No, I couldn't do it." But after a rehearsal of the Eighth [symphony] in Munich he called cheerfully across to me, referring to this conversation: "There you are, that's my mass."
[Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (London 1987), pp. 163-4.]
From a 1911 memoir of music critic Ernst Decsey:
A great many books were piled high in his living-room. . . . Of an evening, he would often stretch out and have someone read aloud to him. . . . But mostly he asked me to read from Goethe: Faust, Part II. It enabled him to savor passages he already knew by heart. . . . After one such evening of Goethe, Mahler also spoke about a personal experience when he had just begun composing the Eighth [symphony] . . . . He had got hold of the text of the old hymn Veni creator spiritus from somewhere and was setting it to music when half-way through the work he noticed that the music was overflowing the text, like water spilling over a full basin. In other words, the structural concept of the music was too big for the length of the verses. He lamented his problem to a friend, a philologist, who pointed out to him that this was perfectly natural. The version he was using was incomplete: about a verse and a half were missing. So Mahler rapidly arranged for Luze, the conductor of the Court Orchestra in Vienna, to obtain the complete text for him. And when the hymn arrived he found to his absolute astonishment that the words were exactly the right length to cover the music -- that his sense of form had made him compose too much but now all the new words fitted effortlessly.
[Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered, pp. 253-4]
From Alma Mahler's diary:
March 22 : . . . [Hans] Pfitzner and I had stayed at home and spent the time playing first his songs and then mine. We were to meet Mahler and Hauptmann in Meissl Schadn's restaurant. In the ardor of playing we forgot the time and were late, but no one took it amiss. Pfitzner played each of his songs about ten times, or as often as I needed in order to enjoy it thoroughly. Today there was another argument between Mahler and Pfitzner about "the eternal feminine draws us onward." Anything less refreshing than this discussion it would be hard to imagine. Each purposely misunderstood the other and at the end each felt insulted. Besides, Mahler is jealous.
[Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, translated Basil Creighton (New York, 1946), p. 77.]
From Alma Mahler's memoirs:
[Gustav Mahler had intercepted a love letter to Alma from Walter Gropius and was upset by it]. And now -- at last -- I was able to tell him all. I told him that I had longed for his love year after year and that he, in his fanatical concentration on his own life, had simply overlooked me. As I spoke, he felt for the first time that something is owed to the person with whom one's life has been linked. He suddenly felt a sesne of guilt. . . . We spoke to each other as we had never spoken before. But the whole truth could not be spoken. My boundless love had lost by degrees some of its strength and warmth; and now that my eyes had been opened by the impetuous assaults of a youthful lover, I knew how incredibly ingenuous I was. I knew that my marriage was no marriage and that my own life was utterly unfulfilled. I concealed all this from him, and, though he knew it as well as I did, we played out the comedy to the end, to spare his feelings. . . .
He realized that he had lived the life of a neurotic and suddenly decided to consult Sigmund Freud (who was then living at Leyden in Holland). He gave him an account of his strange states of mind and his anxieties, and Freud apparently calmed him down. He reproached him with vehemence after hearing his confession. "How dared a man in your state ask a young woman to be tied to him?" he asked. In conclusion, he said, "I know your wife. She loved her father and she can only choose and love a man of his sort. Your age, of which you are so much afraid, is precisely what attracts her. You need not be anxious. You loved your mother, and you look for her in every woman. She was careworn and ailing, and unconsciously you wish your wife to be the same."
He was right in both cases. Gustav Mahler's mother was called Marie. His first impulse was to change my name to Marie in spite of the difficulty he had in pronouncing "r." And when he got to know me better he wanted my face to be more "stricken" -- his very word. When he told my mother that it was a pity there had been so little sadness in my life, she replied: "Don't worry--that will come." I too, always looked for a small slight man, who had wisdom and spiritual superiority, since this was what I had known and loved in my father. Freud's diagnosis composed Mahler's mind, although he refused to acknowledge his fixation on his mother. He turned away from notions of that kind. . . .
One night I was awakened by an apparition by my bed. It was Mahler standing there in the darkness. "Would it give you any pleasure if I dedicated the Eighth [symphony] to you?" Any pleasure! All the same I said: "Don't. You have never dedicated anything to anybody. You might regret it." "I have just written to [the publisher] now -- by the light of dawn," he said.
[Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, pp. 157, 159, 161-2.]
Sigmund Freud's diagnosis of Gustav Mahler:
I analyzed Mahler for an afternoon in the year 1912 (or 1913?) in Leiden [actually August 17, 1910]. If I may believe reports, I achieved much with him at that time. The visit appeared necessary to him, because his wife at the time rebelled against the fact the he withdrew his libido from her. In highly interesting expeditions through his life history, we discovered his personal conditions for love, especially his Holy Mary complex (mother fixation). I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability for psychological understanding of this man of genius. No light fell at the time on the symptomatic façade of his obsessional neurosis. It was as if you would dig a single shaft through a mysterious building.
[Source: letter of January 4, 1935 to Theodor Reik, published in Reik's The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (New York: 1953) 343.
Summary of an unpublished letter from Freud to Marie Bonaparte (1925):
Mahler was greatly impressed by a remark of Freud's: "I take it that your mother was called Marie. I should surmise it from various hints in your conversation. How comes it that you married someone with another name, Alma, since your mother evidently played a dominating part in your life?" Mahler then told him that his wife's name was Anna Maria, but that he called her Marie! She was the daughter of the famous painter ["Maler" in German] Schindler, whose statue stands in the Stadt Park in Vienna; so presumably a name played a part in her life also. This analytic talk evidently produced an effect, since Mahler recovered his potency and the marriage was a happy one until his death, which unfortunately took place only a year later.
In the course of the talk Mahler suddenly said that now he understood why his music had always been prevented from achieving the highest rank through the noblest passages, those inspired by the most profound emotions, being spoilt by the intrusion of some commonplace melody. His father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was a specially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air "Ach, du lieber Augustin." In Mahler's opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.
[Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (London 1953-7) vol. 2, pp. 88-9.]
Mahler's letter to Alma explaining the text of Goethe:
. . . Your interpretation of the final stanza is good; better, I am sure, than those offered by the learned commentators (whom, I confess, I have never read, but I know this passage has kept them busy for the last hundred years). It is a peculiarity of the interpretation of works of art that the rational in them (that is, what is soluble by reason) is almost never their true reality, but only a veil which hides their form. . . . Hence, one has to approach the poem [Faust] in various ways and from different sides. But the chief thing is still the artistic conception, which no mere words can ever explain. Its truth shows a different face to each one of us -- and a different one to each of us at different ages . . . . [Faust] is all an allegory to convey something which, whatever form it is given, can never be adequately expressed. Only the transitory lends itself to description; but what we feel, surmise but will never reach (or know here as an actual happening), the intransitory behind all appearance, is indescribable. That which draws us by its mystic force, what every created thing, perhaps even the very stones, feels with absolute certainty as the center of its being, what Goethe here -- again employing an image -- calls the eternal feminine -- that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, in opposition to the striving and struggling toward the goal (the eternal masculine) -- you are quite right in calling the force of love. There are infinite representations and names for it . . . .
And so in immediate relation to the final scene Goethe in person addresses his listeners. He says:
"All that is transitory . . . is nothing but images, inadequate, naturally, in their earthly manifestation; but there, freed from the body of earthly inadequacy, they will be actual, and we shall then need no paraphrase, no similitudes or images for them; there is done what here is in vain described, for it is indescribable. And what is it? Again I can only reply in imagery and say: The eternal feminine has drawn us on -- we have arrived -- we are at rest -- we possess what on earth we could only strive and struggle for. Christ calls this "eternal blessedness," and I cannot do better than employ this beautiful and sufficient mythology -- the most complete conception to which at this epoch of humanity it is possible to attain."
I hope I have expressed myself clearly. There is always the danger of an exuberance of words in such infinitely delicate and, as I said above, unrational matters. That is why all commentary is so disgusting. No more for today.
A thousand greetings from
[Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, 257-9]