1911 No. 3: Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s second season with the New York Philharmonic opened on 1 November 1910. He conducted his own Symphony No. 4 in New York on 17 and 20 January 1911. In February he became seriously ill with a severe, ultimately fatal, streptococcal blood infection. Today penicillin would have saved his life. He returned to Paris in April (where Chantemesse, a celebrated bacteriologist, told Alma Mahler “I have never seen streptococci in such a marvellous state of development – it’s like seaweed!”) and died in a Vienna nursing home on 18 May 1911.

Alma describes his last days in her book Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe:

After a time he lay completely still. His mind was becoming confused. [Mahler’s sister] Justine paid him another visit and at the sight of her his eyes dilated unnaturally:

“Who is this woman?” he stammered. She fled.

[Dr. Arnold] Berliner [who had taught Mahler English in his Hamburg days] arrived from Berlin, true to their old friendship, and Mahler recognized him and grasped his hand. “My dear friend,” he said, and then turned to the wall, perhaps to hide his emotion.

During his last days he cried out: “My Almschi,” hundreds of times, in a voice, a tone I had never heard before and have never heard since. “My Almschi!” As I write it down now, I cannot keep back my tears.

When Gucki [Anna, the couple’s surviving daughter, known as Guckerl] came to his bedside he put his arms round her. “Be my good girl.”

Did he know? Or not? It was impossible to tell. He lay there groaning. A large swelling came up on his knee, then on his leg. Radium was applied and the swelling immediately went down. On the evening after, he was washed and his bed made. Two attendants lifted his naked emaciated body. It was a taking down from the cross. This was the thought that came to all of us.

He had difficulty in breathing and was given oxygen. Then uraemia – and the end. [Professor Dr Franz von] Chvostek [the celebrated Viennese doctor] was summoned. Mahler lay with dazed eyes; one finger was conducting on the quilt. There was a smile on his lips and twice he said: “Mozart!” His eyes were very big. I begged Chvostek to give him a large dose of morphia so that he might feel nothing more. He replied in a loud voice. I seized his hands: “Talk softly, he might hear you.” “He hears nothing now.”

How terrible the callousness of doctors is at such moments. And how did he know that he could not hear? Perhaps he was only incapable of movement?

The death-agony began. I was sent into the next room. The death-rattle lasted several hours.

The ghastly sound ceased suddenly at midnight on the 18th of May during a tremendous thunder-storm. With that last breath his beloved and beautiful soul had fled, and the silence was more deathly than all else.

I was not allowed in the death-chamber. I was removed that night from my room next to his. The doctors insisted. But I felt it a humiliation not to be allowed to stay near him. I could not understand it. Was I alone? Had I to live without him? It was as if I had been flung out of a train in a foreign land. I had no place on earth.

I can never forget his dying hours and the greatness of his face as death drew nearer. His battle for the eternal values, his elevation above trivial things and his unflinching devotion to truth are an example of the saintly life.

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