Freud and Mahler


Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, two Jewish geniuses, both living and working in Vienna. Freud, born as the first child in his father’s third marriage, and the apple of his very young mother’s eye. Within a year after he was born, a second son was born, Julius, who died after 8 months. Early in his life, there was the shadow of death and loss, just like in Mahler’s life. And there were more likenesses between the two men. Vienna, in those days, was a centre of great cultural and intellectual activity. It was the Vienna of great minds, such as Wittgenstein, Klimt, Schnitzler and Mahler, who all left their mark in the area they were active in. Both men were born in what is now called Czechia: Freud in Moravia and Mahler in Bohemia.

Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, a form of psychotherapy which was the first to emphasize the importance of the interpersonal relationship in the occurrence and the working through of psychopathological symptoms.

Usually, psychoanalytical treatments are considered to be long-term. However, from the beginning, within psychoanalysis two tendencies were visible. One, towards longer and longer treatment, and another, towards more short-term forms of treatment. All this within the maxim: “Short when possible, long when necessary”. Focus point in this was gaining insight in the cause of the complaints. In the beginning of psychoanalysis, the treatment took place by forcing, through one central theme, the entrance into the place in the unconscious where crucial meanings are hidden. The structure of the character or, in Mahler’s case, the structure of the obsessive neurosis itself, remained undiscussed and therefore not understood. It was the time in which Freud wrote his well known case histories about the rat man and little Hans, and in which also his work about a childhood memory of Leonardo da Vinci was published. Psychoanalysis was still in the beginning of an unknown development and concerned only the analysis of the Id and would only later develop into the analysis of the Ego. Freud’s interventions were not yet aimed at the direct emotional working through within the therapeutic relationship, but were much more cognitive-clarifying aimed at what was going on in the dynamic unconscious.

Freud’s treatment of Mahler is known as one of Freud’s short-treatments. A relative of Mahler’s wife Alma, the Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Nepallek, referred him to Freud. But also Mahler’s friend, the conductor Bruno Walter, had been treated by Freud, and so possibly contributed to the meeting between the two. Walter had been treated by Freud because of a paralysis of his arm, which nobody could find the cause of. This treatment, however, was more or less supportive, and more aimed at ‘forgetting’ than at ‘remembering’. In the case of Mahler, Freud was impressed by Mahler’s psychological insight, and he probably, in a limited number of interventions, presented him the core of his neuroses, which was, as we will later see, his mother-fixation. It is not unthinkable that this led to implicit insight in his problems, probably the effect of the treatment can be explained on the grounds of a combination of supportive and insight-giving interventions. Be that as it may, on his return to Vienna, Mahler is remarkably positive about his conversation with Freud, as if it had finally given him a solution.

I will begin by indicating what the basic principles of the psychoanalytic frame of reference are. Consequently, I will discuss the historic meeting between Freud and Mahler in Leiden. The two men met in the restaurant ‘In the gilded Turk’ at the Leidse Breestraat. From there, they walked for four hours through Leiden.

Psychoanalytic principles

In order to mark and clarify the difference between the method he developed for working through of psychic problems, and the till then, prevailing suggestive cathartic method, Freud made use of Leonardo da Vinci’s formulas ‘Per via di porre’ and ‘Per via di levare’.

• As an example of using the ‘via di porre’, Da Vinci describes the art of painting. The painter covers the empty canvas with colour and layers of paint, just like suggestion and convincing add something in order to bring about change or cure.
• Opposite this is the art of sculpting. This removes from the stone everything which covers the sculpture which is locked up in the marble from sight. This is what Da Vinci describes in the ‘via di levare’. Just like in sculpting, psychoanalysis does not want to add something, it wishes to remove something in order to free the individual and bring forward its authenticity.


Inner Working Models

People, during their life, have thousands of experiences, and on the basis of these experiences, they slowly develop a certain pattern of expectations, which then leads to a characteristic way of behaving. To formulate it a bit more elegant: people organize their experiences in inner working models. It is these working models that colour our behaviour and our perception of the things we experience. Thanks to our inner working models, we are able to anticipate happenings, to give meaning to our experiences and to develop a sense of continuity and of identity.

Our inner working models, therefore, function as interpretation schemes, on the basis of which we organize our experiences. But, such schemes also distort reality in the direction of our pattern of expectations. In short: such working models organize ánd screen our experiences. This means that such an inner working model organizes and colours our perception of things in such a way that it can be extremely stimulating but can also sometimes slow us down considerably.

What psychoanalytic treatment aims for is tracing on the one hand and revising on the other, of the inner working models we have adopted. The intention is then to make this revision happen in such a way that the inner working models are no longer, or less, restrictive and slowing us down. We must always realize that what we call inner working models are unconscious models.



The concept ‘unconscious’ is a central one in psychoanalysis. Freud, when he was talking about the unconscious, distinguished between three aspects.

• In the first place, he meant that which is inaccessible for the consciousness and yet not repressed, also known as the procedural unconscious, which has to do with habits and skills. In such cases, behaviour does not (yet) have an underlying psychological meaning, but the behaviour is what it is. In such cases, the patient communicates by way of his behaviour and not through words. Interpreting the behaviour, of course, is useless, because, as just said, there is no hidden meaning behind the behaviour.
The purpose of the treatment, then, is to let the patient have a new experience, which works correctively concerning an earlier traumatising experience, so the patient can experience that things can go different than they did before. Through this, the inner working model can be extended and adapted, which can help along a stagnated development, in the sense that the psychological representation of experiences, or the mentalizing abilities, can improve. In such treatments, the analyst is at first used as a new parental object, which is there for the patient, unconditional. The analyst must be prepared to be used as an extension of the patient. On this level, it is much less about memories, and much more about behaviour. Doing is more important that reflecting.

• In the second place, he meant those things that had to be repressed because it was, on a conscious level, unacceptable because of the amount of anxiety and fear that they would otherwise evoke. It is about conflicts and impulses. By way of interpreting, this can become conscious again. With the becoming conscious, the underlying and repressed conflict will come to the surface, and it can then be worked through and completed. Having done this, the patient will create inner space for perceiving things differently, and behaving differently. In short: the inner working model is adapted, and in such a way, that it is less pinching or hurting. It is about remembering and insight, reflection is more important than doing.

• Finally, Freud describes the pre-conscious, that which you cannot spontaneously remember but which can be made conscious as soon as attention is directed towards it.


Towards the walk

In 1910, the end of August, finally, Mahler and Freud were able to meet, in a restaurant in Leiden, just before Freud was leaving for Sicily. Three times before, Mahler had made an appointment with Freud, but three times, at the last moment, he had cancelled it. Talk about fear and scepticism! In the end, Freud put him a sort of ultimatum. He pointed out that the end of August would be the last chance of meeting, as he would leave for some time, to stay in Sicily, with Sandor Ferenczi. Only after this, the meeting could take place. On the 25th of August, he travelled to the Netherlands, and on the 27th of August, he was leaving for Vienna again. Mahler was acquainted with the Netherlands because of his very good and friendly contacts with Mengelberg and Diepenbrock.

Gustav and Alma

Mahler contacted Freud because of serious relationship problems with his wife Alma, showing among others in potency complaints. Ernest Jones, in his biography of Freud, writes that the two men walked through Leiden for four hours, in which a kind of psychoanalysis took place. This analytical talk would have had some effect, because the potency complaints disappeared, and the marital relationship supposedly improved. Unfortunately, Mahler died within the next year. Although Mahler was totally uninformed about what psychoanalysis was, Freud said never before to have met anyone who understood so quickly what psychoanalysis was about.

Alma, in her autobiography, writes about the meeting between Freud and Mahler, that Mahler contacted Freud out of fear of losing her. Freud would have told him that he, Mahler, was, in every woman he met, looking for his mother, who was a poor, suffering and anguished woman. A little further in her book, Alma writes that Gustav, when she met him, apart from a few seductions by experienced women, had remained a virgin although he was already 40 years old. She said this was not a coincidence: Mahler was celibate and afraid of ‘the woman’. “His fear of being ‘pulled down’ was enormous and this is why he avoided life… and therefore everything female”. By the way, Freud had also said that Alma was looking for her father as a psychological principle in her relationships with men and that, because of this, she would never leave him. Alma’s father died when she was 12 years old. She writes about her father’s dying: “I felt I had lost my mentor, the star that guided me, and no-one but him would have understood that. I was used to doing most things for him.” She lived in a world of admirers, artists and art lovers. Her first great love was the much older Klimt and the age difference between her and Mahler was 19 years. She was an excellent piano player when she was young, composed her own songs and studied composition.

In December 1901, shortly before Gustav married Alma, he wrote her a very extensive love letter which was at the same time characteristic for him as a person. On the one hand, Mahler writes that he can hardly sleep because of his pure delight in the coming wedding. On the other hand he makes explicit conditions to their relationship. Alma must give up her own musical ambitions, such as composing. If in the Mahler house, there is talk about music, it must be about his music, there is no place for hers. Mahler is very compelling about this condition. Later on, we will see why this was. Much later, by the way, he (partly) changed his mind about this. But in the aforementioned letter, Mahler is very clear. Alma must have only one task in this life, and that is to make Gustav happy. Her own happiness must be found in creating the optimal circumstances in which he can be happy. In short, she is to be there for him and in the way he wants her to. These are not the words of a conceited, self-centred and spoiled person. There is just no room in his life for a person with a whole life, wishes, needs and ambition of their own. Alma must be there for him, she must be an extension of himself, in order to make up for fundamental defects in himself. If she doesn’t do this, his fear of getting lost will increase. He needs her in this way because a more mutual or equal relationship would be too threatening for him.


In her monologue ‘Alma’, Anna Enquist writes about what this must have meant to Alma: the giving up of her self. By the way, Alma, before she had a relationship with Mahler, had a relationship with Zemlinsky, her composition teacher, and in that relationship there was a similar, albeit reversed situation. Zemlinsky adored her, and was fascinated by her talent, in such a way that he himself disappeared from view. Anna Enquist makes Alma, in her monologue, write a letter to her beloved Gustav, using the following words: “I am all yours. Apart from your needs and wishes, nothing interests me. My dearest wish is to totally surrender myself to you and to your music”. And a bit further on, she makes her say: “Then I could lose myself and wanted to totally be lost in him, or rather, he in me”. On the other hand, Alma writes about how incomplete her marriage to Mahler was. She had the feeling that she shared life with an abstraction instead of with a human being. Both with Gustav and Alma, it always seems to be about all or nothing, about giving or taking instead of giving and taking. It would be too simple to define the relationship between Gustav and Alma as Gustav the wrongdoer and Alma the victim. What it was about, in the unconscious communication between these two talented people, was the fact that they were both incapable of being alone without disappearing into lonely isolation and of being together without losing themselves. Both seem to be imprisoned in a excruciating, unconsciously almost sadomasochistic communication, which they both needed in order to be able to keep their identity.

Willy Haas, in his foreword in Alma Mahler’s autobiography, writes that she was a woman who was unable to love a man or be friends with him if she wasn’t also fascinated or impressed by his work. To her, it wasn’t merely about the artist, but at least as much, or perhaps even more, about his art, more about the blooming than about the flower. More about the merging than about autonomy. The tragic fact about this, however, is that there can be no blooming without a flower, no art without artists and no music without composers.

The cause

In his novella ‘Mahler’s Mater Dolorosa’, Martin van Amerongen tries to reconstruct Freud and Mahler’s walk, both their conversation and its dramatic previous history. In the novella, Van Amerongen describes Alma’s reaction when Gustav confronts her with her extramarital relationship with the young architect Walter Gropius. Alma responds with great anger. Furiously, she says she is not to blame. For years, she has been feeling that as a person, as a woman, as an individual with her own needs and wishes, she has been denied and destroyed. She says: “You, who puts so much passion in your symphonies, have killed every bit of life in this house”. When Mahler subsequently asks her whether she will be leaving him for Gropius, her answer comes immediately: “No, Gustav, my choice has been made, Gustav, and you knew it!”. And when her lover asks her to make a choice, she says: “Walter, how can you ask me to choose! You know this is impossible! I cannot leave him.”

When Mahler, some time after this, finds his wife’s diary, which she, as it were, leaves on her desk for him to read, and starts to read it, he finds how torn and impossible she feels in their relationship. When Alma comes home, Gustav is behind the piano and is singing one of her songs. He is delighted by it, and he desperately asks himself what he has done. He wants to undo this by saying he will publish her songs immediately. But Alma is overcome by great despair and she recoils, bursts into tears and leaves the room, leaving Mahler who puts his hands over his eyes. Gustav is totally panicked by this confrontation with Alma’s adultery; his reaction seems almost psychotic, again he is threatened with being left by a beloved person, his life is characterized by this. Not only the marriage was in crisis, but also he himself went through an intense personal crisis.

Two people, imprisoned in an impossible relationship, two people torturing each other, not because they wanted to but because they were in pain. They tried to find in each other what they missed in themselves. They used each other to cancel out what was missing in themselves. To be together in a satisfactory way was practically impossible, but to be without the other was also not possible.
It was against this background and in a great crisis that Mahler got on the train to Leiden in August 1910 to finally, after three previous attempts, consult with Freud. Van Amerongen quotes a bit from a letter Mahler wrote to his wife while he was on the train: “My beloved, madly beloved Amschili! Believe me, I am sick with love. Ever since we said goodbye, I am more dead than alive. If I cannot hold you in my arms within 48 hours, I will be a condemned man. To live for you! This afternoon at 13.00 hrs., appointment with prof. F. To live for you! To die for you! My Almshititzilizilitzi! For ever, your Gustav.”

Mahler could not be without his Alma, and she couldn’t live without him, but when their intimacy grew, their fear grew, too, and then both would literally or figuratively take a step back. If then the distance grew too big, and separation would threaten, on that side the fear would grow again. It seems as if it had to be all or nothing, of life or death, of merging and disappearing inside the other or losing each other. One could almost say that the only more or less satisfying, fruitful and living relationship Mahler could have, was the one with his music. He was able to surrender to this, to his music.


The walk

During their walk, Mahler told Freud his life history, and very soon Freud notices how Mahler, as a child, must have felt very specially linked with his mother, and how this specific link would throw its shadow over the adult composer.

Parental family
Mahler was the second child in a big family of 14 children. 8 of them died young, among them, one musically talented brother who committed suicide. Father and mother were opposite natures, both in social and in psychological respect. Father was a healthy, ambitious and brutal tradesman who owned a café. Mother was often ill, had a weak heart, walked with a limp and was a rather dreamy woman, of good family. Mahler would later describe himself as rootless, a Bohemian between the Austrians, an Austrian between Germans and a Jew between all the other nationalities. Loss, abandonment, threat and being rootless were themes that played a central part in Mahler’s life. There must have been a lot of fear in his life. Safety and comfort were apparently not often provided during his childhood.

In ‘Mahler’s Mater Dolorosa’, Mahler characterizes the atmosphere in his family as follows, to Freud: “The atmosphere at home was far from cheerful. My parents did not get on well, which was all my father’s fault, who was rather a tyrannical person. He drank. I remember an incident when I was a child… It was one of the times my father attacked my mother again. In my presence. My God, what could I do! I was only 6! Completely upset, I fled the house, straight into the arms of an organ grinder, who at that moment was playing ‘O du lieber Augustin’.

Mahler himself links this memory, during the walk, with the fact that, in his music, he always alternates exalted passages with folksy tunes and music from his childhood. Little safety, much threat and loss. An excellent breeding ground for a talented person such as Mahler to make him look for comfort, safety and an anchor in music. Music had to give him what real life couldn’t offer him. This was also the reason that about his music, no negotiation was possible, it was a matter of life and death to him.


The unsatisfied longing

The first relationship a child has is with his mother, and she couldn’t give young Gustav what he needed. She was handicapped, had either just given birth or was pregnant again, or in mourning because another one of her children had died, and she was imprisoned in a discordant marriage. Not the kind of situation in which it is easy to be available for any child. Gustav learned, from his experiences in life, that to ‘become emotionally attached’ was not something that just happened, on the contrary, it was dangerous. Because loss, threat and conflict were never far out of sight. He had, most probably, the experience that most things around him happened to him, rather than that he had any control over them. A fruitful basis for an obsessive neurosis to develop. The only safe relationship Mahler knew was the one with his own music. Therein, he could withdraw and over it, he had control, because it was his music.

The first relationship a child has is the one with his mother, we’ve said it before. In such a relationship, a child looks for unconditional safety, availability, mirroring and comfort. In such a relationship a child can disappear, it is allowed to lose itself in it without this having consequences. And from such a relationship of safety, he may then extricate himself and start to become an individual.
In this process of extricating and individuating the small child learns to be with others without losing himself and to be alone without losing the other. Fundamental in such a development is, on the one hand, that the mother lets herself be used as an extension of the child, and on the other hand the certain knowledge of the child that his mother keeps being available as the safe haven to return to and fall back on. Which Mahler’s mother wasn’t. Not that she can be blamed for this, but still…

Maria Mahler couldn’t give him what he needed, Gustav lacked what he needed and father was unable to compensate for this lack and therefore also failed. With this, an essential need of young Gustav remained unsatisfied. And all his life, he kept on trying to find fulfilment of this unsatisfied need for a mother who would be available in the way he, and every child in the world, needs. This was what Gustav tried to find with Alma, and this was what she was unable to give him, (whatever personality problems she herself may have had), but: she was not his mother. With this, the circle is round again: another woman who was lacking, and didn’t give him what he needed and was looking for so desperately. And there again, is music, his music.


Hate, love and guilt

But there are other things, too. The relationship between Mahler and his mother was a very complex one. Her person must, for Gustav, at the same time have been connected with life and death. This must have made her, to Mahler, extra frightening. Furthermore, if someone fails, this also makes the person who is hurt by this angry – but then how can you be angry with someone whose life is so characterized by suffering as Maria Mahler’s was? In other words: Gustav didn’t only love his mother, he will have hated her as well. At the same time, he must have felt immense guilt about this anger. He would have done anything to free himself of this oppressive feeling of guilt. The rage had to be hidden away behind his compulsiveness. With all this, there is no room left for things like lust and fun. These things Gustav Mahler brought with him in the relationship with Alma, an almost impossible task, enough to make your heart stop. In the same year that Mahler’s eldest daughter Putzi died, it was discovered that he suffered from a severe heart disease. And again, there was music, his music.


Fear of the end

We can see that Mahler had his reasons for cancelling his appointment with Freud three times. Could it have to do with the fact that Mahler, unconsciously, knew all the above? If Mahler, in his talk with Freud, would be confronted with all these hidden feelings, conflicts and deficiencies, and with the significance composing his music had for him, would he ever have been able to compose another symphony? Possibly, Mahler was scared to death that insight into the depths of his soul would make the fountain of his creativity run dry. And with that, he would have given up a last unconscious motive in his life, which is the need for immortality. The theme of life and death, and with that, mourning, is clearly present in Mahler’s life. The wish to be immortal, and to mask the pain of all that loss through that. And not just the loss from his early childhood. He never really recovered from the untimely death of his eldest daughter. She was his child. By identifying with his music, Mahler was able to have the fantasy of outliving his own death. On top of that: he was also, of course, seriously ill.

Mahler needed his music. He couldn’t live without it, trying, as he was, to find the mother he longed for, never had had, and therefore, had to hate as well. Alma was his necessary muse, you could rightfully call it a tragic entanglement. And Alma couldn’t live without Gustav, she looked for the father she had lost when very young, that she had loved so much, for whom she had effaced herself, for which she had to hate him, as well. She would never leave Mahler, and she took care of him until the end of his life. Despite all the relationships Alma had after Mahler’s death, with Gropius to whom she was married for a short while, with Kokoschka, the painter, in whose presence she presumable couldn’t bear the intensity of her deep feelings, and finally with Frans Werfel: in every house she lived in, there was a room for Mahler’s music, until the end of her life, every day she thought about him, about his music – talk about fidelity.


© M.H.M. de Wolf, Ph.D.