Notes on a doomed affair

Norman Lebrecht on how Marion von Weber was both interesting and important to Mahler’s emergence

On Music

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Visiting Leipzig for a Gustav Mahler cycle in 2011, I stumbled across some new research into the woman who inspired his first symphony. Their connection is well known to Mahlerians, indeed scandalous.

Mahler, junior conductor at the Leipzig Opera in 1885, was approached by an army captain with an uncompleted opera by his grandfather, Carl Maria von Weber. Might he have a go at finishing Die Drei Pintos? Mahler, mid-20s and upwardly mobile, was soon dashing over to Baron von Weber’s with sheets of ink-wet score. He stayed for dinner and wrote a bedtime lullaby for the Weber children. Before long he was madly in love with the captain’s wife.

Baroness Marion von Weber, 16 years younger than her husband and much closer to Mahler’s age, was a social misfit in military circles. Like Mahler, she was Jewish, an artist and an intellectual. In late-night duets at the piano she urged Mahler to write a symphony, a statement of intent.

One night as midnight struck, he came round with the first movement. Before long they decided to elope and start life together some place else. Mahler bought train tickets and waited for his beloved on the platform. Marion never showed up. Her husband, soon after, went mad.

An English visitor to Leipzig, the composer Ethel Smyth, heard all about it. Mahler, she wrote in her memoirs, “fell in love … and his passion was reciprocated — as well it might be, for in spite of his ugliness he had demoniacal charm. A scandal would mean leaving the army and Weber shut his eyes as long as was possible. One day, travelling to Dresden, Weber suddenly burst out laughing, drew a revolver and began taking William Tell-like shots at the headrests between the seats.”

Weber was strait-jacketed off to a mental home and Mahler landed a new job in Prague. He had no further contact with Marion, although she remembered him wistfully when the composer Richard Strauss and the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg came visiting in later years. Marion told them that Mahler had left her some music sheets including, Mengelberg heard (more likely misheard), four unknown symphonies. Marion died in 1931 and the mansion with all its secrets was destroyed in Allied bombing.

From these wisps of memory, Mahler biographers have concluded that Marion was a bored army wife in a market town with nothing much else to do — Madame Bovary with apple strudel. We now know that she was both more interesting and more important to Mahler’s emergence.

Marion, it turns out, came from Manchester, where her German-Jewish father, Adolf Schwabe, owned a textile factory with 650 employees. The family were part of the city’s German-speaking bourgeoise. Her mother Mathilde befriended the children’s hospital founder, Louis Borchardt, a noted campaigner for women’s rights in the medical professions. The Schwabes dined with Friedrich Engels and supported Charles Hallé when he started an orchestra in 1858, the best in England. Thomas Carlyle and Florence Nightingale visited their home at 313 Oxford Road.

The symphony is composed under the spell of Marion from Manchester, a kindred Jewish alien in an uncomprehending Saxon city

Their daughter Marion, born in 1856, played the piano well enough to accompany the great violinist Joseph Joachim in recital. It was a cultural idyll among the northern smokestacks until the family fell apart in 1868 when Adolf heard that his wife was having an affair with Dr Borchardt and returned to his homeland.

A fatherless adolescent, Marion joined Adolf in Berlin, where she met Captain von Weber, a musical heir with an aristocratic title and an army career. Accepting Roman Catholic baptism, she married the captain, gave birth to three children and ran a lavish household where musicians, welcomed after their concerts, were served vintage champagnes by liveried servants. She showed no interest in her husband’s officers’ mess.

Mahler was smitten by Marion on sight, describing her as “a beautiful person … the sort that tempts one to do foolish things”. He went on to say that her “musical, radiant and aspiring nature gave my life new meaning”. The “meaning” is evidently his first symphony. She was his inspiration.

Why did Marion fail to abscond with him? Her history was such that she would have done anything to avoid inflicting her mother’s disgrace on her own children. Mahler, for his part, would never fall in love again with a married woman.

Her influence, however, endures. Mahler’s first symphony breaks all sorts of rules with a four-minute themeless intro and a troubling funeral episode that conjoins a child’s death to a pub dance. I have returned to the work recently and found more Jewish elements than previously suspected.

The double-bass solo at the start of the funeral movement is easily recognized as the lullaby “Frère Jacques” converted into a minor key. But it is also a Jewish melody, known in Israel as “yamin u-semol”, left and right. Frère Jacques has four beats. The Mahler theme has five. For the first time in symphonic history Mahler encodes two messages in the same phrase.

The pub dance that succeeds it is a klezmer dance, which you may recognise as the refrain of “If I Were a Rich Man” in Broadway’s shtetl musical, Fiddler on the Roof. The conjunction of child’s funeral and boozy romp is a comment on public indifference to appalling rates of infant mortality. The symphony is composed under the spell of Marion from Manchester, a kindred Jewish alien in an uncomprehending Saxon city.

Their love is expressed in ancestral melodies that Marion knew by ear. Mahler’s first symphony has more Jewish music than anything else he would ever write. It’s his tribute to a love so powerful and a rejection so painful that he never spoke of it again.

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