Mahler’s Conversion

A play by Ronald Harwood

Gustav Mahler – Antony Sher
Siegfried Lipiner – Nickolas Grace
Father Swider/Sigmund Freud – Gary Waldhorn
Natalie Bauer-Lechner – Alexandra Mathie
Alma Schindler – Fiona Glascott

Directed by Gregory Doran
You might think that composers’ lives would be ideal subject matter for dramatists, but the list of failures far outweigh the successes. Film disasters have emanated from Ken Russell (including “Mahler” and “The Music Lovers”, loosely based on the life of Tchaikovsky) to that Beethoven banality, “Immortal Beloved”. On stage, there have been honourable exceptions – Schaffer’s “Amadeus” and Pownell’s “Masterclass” (about Prokofiev).Now comes Ronald Harwood bio-play about Mahler, pivoting on his acceptance of Catholicism in 1897, solely to get the job he hankered for – the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera.
Ronald Harwood has not only an impressive list of writing credits – including his Sir Donald Wolfit-inspired play, “The Dresser”, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney – he is also not afraid to tackle big issues (“J J Farr”, again starring Finney, broached fundamental questions about the nature of faith with a Terry Waite-style character returning home after years of being a hostage). Previous music-based plays have included “Taking Sides”, which dramatised the accusations of collaboration levelled after the Second War at Wilhelm Furtwängler (played handsomely by the late Daniel Massey). Yet “Mahler’s Conversion” seems woefully shallow by comparison, although it sports a fine performance by Antony Sher as Mahler, and one by Gary Waldhorn as Freud.
Despite both being in Vienna, Mahler and Freud met only once – and then, in 1910, outside the city when Freud was on holiday in Leiden, Holland. On the afternoon of 26 August Freud (who after Mahler’s death sent a bill for the ’appointment’!) seemingly allowed Mahler to analyse himself. Harwood quotes Norman Lebrecht’s “Mahler Remembered” as his most valuable source, and Lebrecht does list three references to this meeting – from Alma Mahler, written some 30 years after the event, and two letters from Freud himself, one dated 1925, the other dated 1935.
While this provides the most entertaining scene of the play, allowing Sher and Waldhorn to sparkle, it seems far too glib to take Freud’s ageing memory at face value and have Mahler suddenly realising that his music was difficult for his contemporaries because he juxtaposed music of high emotion with simple street ditties. I have no doubt that this was discussed, but Mahler surely had thought this through before hand – after all he had been composing for over twenty years.
That glibness mars the play, although there are a couple of nice pieces of stagecraft. Harwood also cites the importance of Bernstein’s TV documentary, “The Little Drummer Boy” (directed by Humphrey Burton, to whom the play is dedicated), and at the closing moment of Act 1, when Mahler is being baptised, the music of the Second Symphony (Resurrection – get it?!!) is suddenly transplanted by the oompah Jewish march from the slow movement of the First Symphony. Spotlight on Sher, with blackout for the rest of the stage (and cast), who looks shocked and then shakes his head, peering audience-wards as if seeing into the future that his conversion will incur the wrath of Jehovah.
And, of course, that is what Harwood has his Mahler believe. While the first half is set in 1897, with all the dithering about whether he is to be appointed to the Court Opera, and his own indecision about conversion, the second half jumps forwards in fits and starts. Mahler’s successes, as well as vociferous critical reaction, are illustrated by friends – the cultured Lipiner and devotee Bauer-Lechner, reading press notices in a Viennese coffee-house. Mahler’s infatuation with the young Alma Schindler is no sooner introduced, then a scene, rather ham-fistedly ushered on to the simple stage, shows how Lipiner and Bauer-Lechner are introduced to Alma and fall out with Mahler, in one fell-swoop. Marriage, childbirth and Mahler’s act of composition is indicated by a desk; with Sher madly scribbling at it, Alma walks a complete circuit around him with a pram.
Then to 1910 for his meeting with Freud, where we are reminded about his childhood nightmare that the wandering Jew, with a wooden branch topped by a golden cross, pursued him, after which Sher dons a cloak and grabs a staff (minus a golden cross) and disappears at the back of the stage. As I was wondering what on earth Schubert and the protagonist in Winterreise were doing in the play, the curtain came down, leaving me to try to rationalise the whistle-stop tour of Mahler’s life.
While there are some compensations – Sher particularly giving a believable persona to Mahler, albeit a far-too simple one, Waldhorn’s carefully-considered-of-speech Freud and the cyclorama behind the bare circular stage on to which is projected evocative fin-de-siecle imagery – Mahler’s Conversion is seriously flawed. It suggests a composer’s psyche is one-sided, and selects events in that defence. The snippets of music used, while not falling into Russell’s trap of being completely anachronistic, barely scratch the surface of Mahler’s emotional depths. The play is almost brutally short – take away the interval and your attention is distracted for less than two hours. There are some fine speeches, but these tend to be rather self-conscious scene-setting – having somehow to introduce the date so the audience can upgrade their internal calendars.
Three further instances.In Act 1 – 1897 remember! – Mahler talks passionately about his love for Vienna, remarking that although he was born two-hundred kilometres away in Bohemia, culturally Vienna seemed “a million light-years away”.Light-years? Surely not in 1897?
A page or two further on, Mahler is again back on his love for the city – revelling in the fact that walking down the streets he could go to visit Brahms or Bruckner. Bruckner died in 1896, and Brahms did not hang on much longer, dying on 3 April 1897. Harwood doesn’t explicitly date his first scene, but Mahler’s last performance in Hamburg was at the end of that same month, and his conversion around that time.Two of the ill-disguised scene-setting ciphers in the play – Lipiner and Bauer-Lechner – are misrepresented. There is a clear implication that Bauer-Lechner is a lesbian (caustic comments about dressing as a man), but – according to Henry-Louis de la Grange – Lipiner and she had an affair. Yet, Harwood illustrates his sexual liaison with one of Mahler’s earlier conquests, the soprano Anna von Mildenburg (Anna Francolini), albeit in an ill-judged effort at comedy. Of course there is the plea of dramatic licence, as Harwood could also claim in his reducing the guest-list for the meal at which Mahler introduced the truculent (and hence rude) Alma to his friends from nine (which, incidentally, did not included Bauer-Lechner) to two, but it is indicative of an unpalatable trait of simplification.
Perhaps most indicative of all is nothing to do with the play – the CD that has been produced to accompany the play. It includes excerpts from five of the symphonies and two songs, from Naxos recordings.Yet, this compilation retails at £12.99. For that you could get almost three full Naxos Mahler recordings and the price tag seems as short-sighted as the rather simplistic, one-sided view of Mahler as presented by Harwood. Why not sell the CD at normal Naxos price? I cannot be the only one that will express surprise at the sheer insolence that such cynical enterprise displays.
I suggest that £35 is better spent on one of Henry-Louis de la Grange’s volumes on Mahler (Oxford University Press). Exhaustively researched, they will give many more hours of fact, argument, intrigue and pleasure. You won’t get Anthony Sher’s commendable assumption of Mahler – looks and demeanour very plausible – but the rest of “Mahler’s Conversion” you can probably live without.

  • Ends 3 November 2001
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