Mahler, Freud and a Walk

(1.Adagio 10th symphony)

Gustav Mahler

Mahler and Freud, two Jewish geniuses, both living and working in Vienna. They had mutual acquaintances, such as the writer Arthur Schnitzler and Max Graf, the father of ‘Little’ Hans, a music critic and student of Freud. Freud was the first-born child of his father’s third marriage, and was the apple of his still very young mother’s eye. Within a year of Freud’s birth, a second son was born, Julius, who died after only eight months. Also in that first year, Freud’s father, who owned a flourishing wool-business, went bankrupt as a result of the financial crisis. From early on, there was a shadow of death and loss that loomed over the young Freud. Just as it did over Mahler. Mahler was born as the second child in a family that would ultimately count 14 children. Many of these children died before reaching the age of one, including the boy born before Gustav. Gustav’s father was a hot-tempered and aggressive man. Despite having to bury a large number of her children and suffer under her husband’s aggression, Mahler’s mother retained an open attitude and surrounded Gustav with a great deal of love.

Sigmund Freud

As a child, Mahler was, on the one hand, his mother’s main pillar of support, while, on the other hand, he was very anxious and had many dreams about death. For him, life and death lay close to one another. He lacked a mother, and he did not have a father to carry and guide him. In a sense, he had only himself. This was not a good foundation for development from the dyad into the triad. In this way, a man was gradually formed – one who retreated from a threatening world into himself, into an inner world full of music and unconditional love, but at the same time full of fear and intense, unsatisfied desire. It was this internal world that was central to the psychoanalysis of Freud. Both men surpassed their fathers. For both men, their respective fields of work, music for Mahler and psychoanalysis for Freud, were of primary importance in their lives.

Friedrich Rückert

( 2. Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866): Songs on the Death of Children)

I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste much time;
It has for so long known nothing of me,
It may well believe that I am dead.

I am dead to the world’s tumult
And rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!

(Translation: Richard Stokes)

Vienna was, at that time, an important center of cultural and intellectual activity. It was the Vienna of great thinkers like Wittgenstein, Klimt, Schnitzler and Mahler, each of whom left an indelible mark on his respective domain. Both Freud and Mahler were born in the present-day Czech Republic. Freud was born in 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia.

Alma Schindler – Almschi

Mahler was born in 1860 in Kaliste, Bohemia. In 1902, Mahler married his beloved Alma Schindler, the most beautiful girl in Vienna, giving her the nickname Almschi. For Mahler, 1907 was a disastrous year. He had to resign his position at the Vienna Opera, his young daughter Maria (Putzi, 1902-1907) died and he was diagnosed with a heart defect, one that would ultimately take his life. Besides Maria, who was named for his mother, Mahler had a second daughter, called Anna (Gucki). Mahler was offered a new position in New York and the family left Europe. In 1910, there was yet another crisis in the life of Mahler, when he caught his wife, Alma, having an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.

Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, a form of psychotherapy in which primary emphasis is given to the role of interpersonal relationships in examining the genesis and processing of psychopathological symptoms. In general, psychoanalytic therapy is seen as a very long-term form of treatment. From early on, though, there have been two visible trends: one towards longer and longer treatments, and one towards shorter forms of treatment. Gaining insight into the cause of symptoms was central to this. In the early days of psychoanalysis, treatment entailed using one theme in order to gain access to the unconscious, where crucial meaning was stored. The structure of the personality (in Mahler’s case, the structure of the obsessive neurosis) was never discussed and was therefore never understood. It was the time in which Freud wrote his well-known medical histories of the Rat Man and Little Hans, and when his work about a childhood of memory of Leonardo da Vinci was published. Psychoanalysis was still in the beginning phase of its unprecedented development. It was still constrained to the analysis of life drives (the Id) and would only later begin analysis of the Ego (defense). Freud’s interventions were not yet aimed at direct emotional processing within the therapeutic relationship. Rather, they were focused on what was happening in the dynamic unconscious, viewed through the perspective of cognitive clarification,

“A seeker of God”

Shortly before their meeting, both men had visited the new world to help set their careers on a new course. Both men would surely have reflected on the double meaning of the word ‘Leiden’: Leiden in the sense of leadership, and Lijden in the sense of suffering. Both men inspired admiration, but also resistance. Both men were what Peter Gay referred to as ‘Godless Jews’. The conductor Bruno Walter, a friend of Mahler, called Mahler “a seeker of God”. Both men viewed being a Jew more as an impediment than as a boost to their careers. Just like Mahler, Freud was very restrictive and demanding within his personal environment. Just as Mahler demanded that his Alma give up her own music and turn completely to the music of Gustav, Freud implored his Martha to break all ties with her family (P. Roazen). If she did not do this, she would lose Freud and never break free from her family.

Freud’s treatment of Mahler is known as one of his short treatments. It was a member of Mahler’s wife Alma’s family, the Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Nepallek, who referred Mahler to Freud; though, the conductor Bruno Walter, a friend of Mahler and former patient of Freud, may have also contributed to their meeting. Walter was treated by Freud for an inexplicable paralysis in his arm. This treatment was more supportive in nature, however, and more focused on ‘forgetting’ than on ’remembering’.

In his autobiography (1947), Walter writes: “The condition took an alarming form when the rheumatic-neuralgic pain became so intense I could no longer use my right arm to conduct or play the piano. I went from one prominent physician to the next. Each confirmed the presence of psychogenic elements to my illness.” At this point, he contacted Freud, ready to subject himself to a months-long study of his illness. Their conversation, however, was completely different than he had expected. After a short examination of his arm, “He asked me if I had ever been to Sicily. When I said I had never been there before, he told me the island was very beautiful and interesting, and much more Greek than Greece itself. In short, I needed to depart that very evening, not think about my arm or opera, and spend a few weeks doing nothing more than use my eyes. I did as he said.”

Bruno Walter

Upon returning from his trip, Walter was still experiencing problems with his arm. He resumed his meetings with Freud, who recommended he begin conducting once more. Walter recalled the following dialogue:

WALTER: But what if I can’t move my arm?
FREUD: Try, at least
WALTER: And what if I have to stop?
FREUD: You don’t have to stop
WALTER: Can I accept the responsibility that I could possibly bungle a performance?
FREUD: I take that responsibility

“And so I began to conduct once more …. there were moments at which I would forget my arm thanks to the music. At the next session with Freud, I noticed that he seemed especially concerned with forgetting …. I tried to become acquainted with Freud’s ideas in order to learn from him …. So, I succeeded, through lots of effort and trust in Freud, through learning and forgetting, to ultimately find the way back to my profession.”

The case of Bruno Walter shows that Freud was concerned not only with insight-yielding treatments, but also with supportive treatments based on forgetting. Evidently, he weighed his options in deciding when there should be an expository treatment or a more supportive treatment. In the case of Mahler, Freud was impressed by Mahler’s psychological insight, and was probably able to present Mahler, with only a limited number of interventions, with the core of his neurosis: maternal attachment, as we will see later. Freud spoke briefly of his treatment of Mahler, in a letter to Theodore Reik in 1935, that the issue was an obsessive neurosis based on maternal attachment, and that the results had been positive. It is not unthinkable that this led Mahler to implicit insight into his own issue. The effect of the treatment can probably be explained by a combination of supportive and expository interventions. In any case, on his journey back to Vienna, Mahler was extremely positive about his conversation with Freud, as though words of redemption had been spoken.

There are only a few sources to inform us about the walk Freud and Mahler shared. One of these is Freud’s letter to Theodore Reik, another is the diary of Marie Bonaparte (annotated and published by Celia Bertin in 1982), and Jones, in his biography of Freud, reflects quickly on the walk. In addition, there are two short writings by Alma in which, along with the maternal attachment of Mahler, the paternal attachment of Alma is mentioned. After his walk with Freud, a relieved Mahler returned to Munich to resume rehearsals of his eighth symphony – without the experience of any internal division or torment. Along the way, he sent Alma the following verse:

Nocturnal shadows disappear through a mighty word
Silenced are the thrashings of continuous tumult
My doubtful thinking and my sparkling feeling
Have merged into one single chord!

He also wrote to his Alma: “Freud is completely right, you are always my light and my center! I mean the inner light, the light that shines on all, and this happy realization – now without shadow or limitation – has enhanced all my feelings towards infinity.”

I will now further explore the historic meeting between Freud and Mahler in Leiden. The gentlemen met in the restaurant ‘In den Vergulden Turk’ (In the Gilded Turk), located in the Breestraat. From there they embarked on a four-hour-long walk through Leiden.

On the way to the walk

In late August 1910, the moment had finally arrived; Mahler and Freud met each other in a restaurant in Leiden, shortly before Freud would leave for Sicily. Mahler had already arranged to meet with Freud three times previously, only to cancel each appointment (speaking of fear and doubtfulness!). Ultimately, Freud set a kind of limit. He pointed out that the end of August would be the last possibility for them to meet, since he would be spending a considerable amount of time in Sicily after that, together with Sandor Ferenczi. Finally, the meeting could proceed. On August 25 Mahler began his journey to the Netherlands, and on August 27 he traveled back to Vienna before continuing on to Munich. Mahler was familiar with the Netherlands thanks to his excellent, friendly contact with the Dutch musicians Mengelberg and Diepenbrock.

Gustav and Alma

Mahler sought contact with Freud because of serious relationship problems with his wife Alma, problems that also manifested themselves in impotency. Ernest Jones writes in his biography of Freud, that the two men shared a four-hour stroll through Leiden, constituting a kind of psychoanalysis. This analytic conversation appears to have been beneficial, as the impotency symptoms disappeared and the marital relationship was improved. Unfortunately, Mahler died less than a year after their conversation. Though Mahler was not at all well-versed in psychoanalysis, Freud claimed to have never before met anyone who so quickly understood the workings of psychoanalysis.

Gustav Klimt

On the meeting between Freud and Mahler, Alma writes in her autobiography that Mahler turned to Freud out of fear of losing her. Freud would have told Mahler that he looked for his mother – who had been poor, suffering and anguished – in every woman. Later, Alma writes that Gustav, when she met him, with the exception of a few seductions by experienced women, had remained chaste, though he was already 40 years old. That was no coincidence, she reflects. Mahler was celibate, and afraid of ‘the woman’. “His fear of being ‘pulled down’ was boundless, and thus he avoided life …. and as such, the feminine”. Freud also said that Alma sought after her father as a spiritual principle in her relationships with men, and that she would therefore never leave Mahler. Alma’s father died when she was 12 years old. Alma writes about the passing of her father: “I felt that I had lost my leader, the star that guided me, without anyone but him having understood that. I was used to doing everything for his sake.” She lived in a world of courtiers, adorers, artists and art lovers. Her first great love was for the much older Klimt, 19 years her senior. At an early age, she was already an excellent pianist, writing her own songs and studying composition.

In December 1901, shortly before Gustav and Alma began their marriage, he wrote her a highly elaborate love letter, one that typified his character. On the one hand, Mahler writes that he can hardly sleep thanks to the pure elation he feels surrounding the coming marriage. On the other hand, he attaches unequivocal conditions to their relationship. Alma must give up her musical ambitions, including composition. He forbids her to speak about her own music. If music is to be discussed in the Mahler home, it will be his music. For her music, there is no place. Mahler is very insistent on this condition. Later we will see why this was the case. While much later, Mahler would soften somewhat in his conviction, in this conscious letter, Mahler is clear. Her own happiness rests upon the creation of the optimal circumstances under which he can be happy. Put simply, she needs to be there for him, in the way that he desires. This is not the proclamation of an arrogant, presumptuous and spoiled person. There is simply no room in his life for someone else with their own life, wishes, needs and ambitions. Alma must be there for him, she must be an extension of him, in order to nullify a fundamental ‘failing’ in himself. When she abstains from this, his fear of being lost will increase. He needs her to be like this, since a more reciprocal or equal relationship would be too threatening.

(3. Adagietto from the 5th symphony)

The famous Adagietto from the 5th symphony is a declaration of love to Alma. In his film ‘Death in Venice’, Visconti uses it as a lamentation. But Mengelberg saw it as a love letter: “How much I love you, you my sun, I cannot tell you that with words. I can only lament to you my longing and love”.

Willem Mengelberg

He could only reveal his true feelings through music. Also in the 10th symphony, which can be viewed as a musical autobiography, Mahler describes his painful love for Alma. Mahler alternated between his intense desire for Alma’s love and his fear of losing it. Mahler ends the score of his 10th symphony with the words: “Almschi! To live for you! To die for you!”


In her monologue ’Alma’, Anna Enquist describes what this must have meant to Alma: the surrender of herself. Before her relationship with Mahler, Alma had had an affair with Zemlinsky, her composition teacher, in which something similar played out, albeit in mirror-image. Zemlinsky pampered her and was mesmerized by her talent in a way that made him disappear.
Anna Enquist, in her monologue, has Alma write a letter to her beloved Gustav in which she states,
“I am wholly yours. Beyond your wants and needs, nothing else concerns me. My dearest wish is to surrender myself completely to you and your music.”
A bit later, she has Alma say, “Then I could lose myself. I wanted to be absorbed completely by him, or rather, to absorb him completely.” On the other hand, Alma writes of how inadequate her marriage to Mahler was, how she felt like she was married more to an abstraction than to a human being. Both Gustav and Alma seemed to view life in terms of all or nothing, of giving or taking instead of giving and taking. It would be all too easy to define Gustav and Alma’s relationship as one of Gustav the culprit and Alma the victim. At stake in the unconscious communication between these two talented people, was their shared inability to be alone without disappearing into solitary isolation, or to be together without losing themselves. Both appear to be caught in an agonizing, unconscious, almost sadomasochistic back-and-forth communication, one which both of them needed in order to preserve their identities.

In his foreword to the autobiography of Alma Mahler, Willy Haas writes that Alma was a woman who could not love a man, or be friends with him, if she was not under the spell of or impressed by his work. She was concerned not merely with the artist but also, maybe even more concerned with his art. Perhaps she was more focused on the art than on the artist, more on the blossoming than on the flower, more on assimilation than on autonomy. The tragedy, though, is that there is no blossoming without the flower, no art without the artist, no music without the composer.

The motive

In his short story ‘Mahler’s Mater Dolorosa’, Martin van Amerongen attempts to reconstruct Mahler and Freud’s walk, both the conversation itself and its dramatic background. In the short story, Van Amerongen describes Alma’s reaction when confronted by Gustav about her affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.

Alma reacts furiously. Livid, she asserts that she cannot be blamed for her actions. For years, she has felt negated and squashed – as a person, as a woman and as an individual with personal wants and desires. She says: “You, who weaves such passion into your symphonies, you have killed every spark of life in this house.” When he asks her if she will leave him for Gropius, she responds immediately: “No Gustav, my choice is fixed, you knew that!” And when her lover Gropius asks her the same question, she replies: “Walter, how can you ask me to choose? You know this is impossible! I cannot leave him.”

When Mahler later finds his wife’s diary, which she had left apparently invitingly on the secretary desk, he reads about how torn and stuck she feels in their relationship. When Alma returns home, Gustav is sitting at the piano, singing one of her songs. He is enraptured, and desperately asks himself what he has done. He wants to immediately take back what he had said and publish her songs. But Alma is overcome by intense hesitancy and recoils, bursts into tears and leaves the room, as Mahler throws his hands over his eyes. Gustav is in a panic as a result of this confrontation with Alma’s adultery, and his reaction borders on the psychotic. Once again, he is threatened with abandonment by a person he loves, a pattern that typifies his life. This was not just a marital crisis, but a personal crisis, too.

Two people caught in an impossible relationship. Two people tormenting each other, not from a position of luxury, but from a position of pain. They sought in one another what they missed in themselves. They used each other to nullify their own shortcomings. To be together in a satisfactory manner was nearly impossible, but so was being apart. It was against this backdrop, and in deep crisis, that Mahler finally boarded a train to Leiden in August 1910 to consult Freud, having canceled the three appointments previous. Van Amerongen recalls an excerpt from a letter written by Mahler to his wife while taking the train to his meeting with Freud:

My beloved, madly beloved Almschi! Believe me, I am lovesick. Since our parting, I am more dead than alive. If I do not again hold you in my arms within 48 hours, I am a lost man. To live for you! This afternoon, 1 P.M., appointment with Prof. F. To live for you! To die for you! My Almschititzilizilitzi!

Eternally your Gustav

Oskar Kokoschka

Mahler could not be without his Alma, nor she without him. But when their intimacy grew, so did their fears, causing them to distance themselves from one another, both literally and figuratively. When the distance became too great and abandonment loomed, though, the fear on the other side of the spectrum increased. It appeared to be a question of all or nothing, of life and death, of either melting and disappearing into one another or losing one another. For both, it was nearly impossible to have a reciprocal relationship in which they did not lose themselves. As the intimacy increased, so did the fear of losing oneself, for both Alma and Gustav. Gustav could find himself again in his music, Alma in her relationships with others, with Gropius, Kokoschka and Werfel. One would almost say that Mahler’s only fertile, vivacious relationship was with music. He could surrender himself to music, to his music, but he needed Alma so as not to lose himself to his music. Alma needed the other in order to rediscover herself and to not lose herself in her relationship with Gustav. Duality could not exist, yet, nor could symbiotic assimilation. This was the tragedy of their joint life – fear was omnipresent. This is where duress and coercion came into play.

The Walk

During their walk, Mahler tells Freud his life story. Freud quickly notices how much, as a child, Mahler must have felt connected to his mother in a very specific way, and how this specific attachment casts a shadow over the adult life of the composer.

Mahler’s childhood family

Mahler was the second child in a family of 14 children, including eight children that died young, and a musically talented brother that committed suicide. Father and mother were of opposite natures, both in a social-societal sense and in a psychological sense. Father was a brute, healthy, ambitious small-businessman that owned a cafe. Mother, on the other hand, was sickly, had a heart condition, limped when she walked, and had a musing disposition, descended from the bourgeoisie. Mahler later described himself as a man without a home, a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew among all other nations. Loss, abandonment, menace and displacement were themes that played a clear role in the early life of Mahler. There was surely a great deal of anxiety in his life. Safety and comfort were apparently not sufficiently present in his childhood.

In the short story ‘Mahler’s Mater Dolorosa’, Mahler describes to Freud the atmosphere at home growing up: “The mood at home was far from cheerful. My parents got along poorly, completely the fault of my father, who had a tyrannical personality. And who drank. I remember an incident from that time …. It was one of the times my father attacked my mother, drunk. In my presence. My God, what could I do? I was barely six! Wholly overwhelmed, I fled the house, straight into the arms of the organ grinder, who had just started playing the tune ‘Oh, dear Augustin’.”

It is Mahler himself who, during the walk, connects this memory to the fact that he, in his music, alternates between sustained, grandiose passages and folksy songs and tunes from his childhood. Little safety, an abundance of threat and loss. Fertile soil for a talented person like Mahler to seek safety and grounding in music. Music had to give him what real life could not. Thus, music was unequivocal for him; his music was a matter of life and death.

Unsatisfied needs

The first relationship a child has is with its mother, and young Gustav’s mother could not give him what he needed. She herself was handicapped, always just out of childbirth or pregnant anew, often mourning the death of a child, trapped in a contentious marriage. It was not a situation in which she could be truly available to any of her children. Gustav learned, based on his life experiences, that ‘emotional attachment’ was not a foregone conclusion; on the contrary, it was dangerous. Loss, threat and conflict were always close by. He will have had the experience of things happening around him over which he had no control. Things happened to him, instead of him having control over his own life. It was fertile ground for the development of an obsessive neurosis. The only safe relationship Mahler knew was with his own music. He could retreat into his music, he had control over it, because it was his music.

The first relationship a child has is with its mother, as mentioned earlier. In such a relationship, a child looks for unconditional safety, availability, mirroring and consolation. In such a relationship, a child can be absorbed, it can lose itself without consequence. And from such a relationship of security, a child can subsequently detach itself and individualize. Through this process of breaking away and individualizing, the young child gradually learns how to be together without losing the self, and how to be alone without losing the other. Fundamental to this development is, on the one hand, the fact that the mother allows herself to be used as an extension of the child, and, on the other hand, the child’s self-evident knowledge that mother, in the background, will always be available as a safe haven to fall back to. This was not the case with Mahler’s mother. Not that it was her fault, but nonetheless. Maria Mahler came up short, Gustav came up short, and Gustav’s father, incapable of making up this deficit, came up short, too. With that, an extremely basic need of the young Gustav was left unmet. He spent his life striving towards the fulfillment of his unsatisfied need for a mother who is available in the way that he and every child requires. This is what he sought in Alma, and what she could never give him – apart from any personality problems she herself may have had – since she was not his mother, and thus not the extension of him that could give him the satisfaction he so desperately sought. Alma was a woman unto herself, a woman with her own life and her own ambitions. The circle is thus complete: again, a woman who fails, not giving Mahler what he wants so badly and seeks so vehemently. And again, there is music, his music. Music as the primary relationship Mahler could rely on.

Hate, Love and Guilt

But there is something else at play. The relationship between Mahler and his mother was highly complex. To Gustav, her person must have been connected with both life and death. That would have made her extra frightening for Mahler. Additionally, when someone fails, it makes the person who has been failed furious, but how can you be angry at someone who’s life is as characterized by anguished suffering as Maria Mahler’s? Put another way: Gustav will not only have loved his mother, he will have hated her, too. And he will have, simultaneously, felt immensely guilty for his rage. He will have done everything to free himself from his oppressive feeling of guilt. His rage had to be locked away inside his compulsion. There can be no place in real life, then, for desire and pleasure. Gustav Mahler brought all of this to his relationship with Alma, creating a nearly impossible challenge. One’s heart could not stand it! In the same year that Mahler’s oldest daughter, Putzi, died, Mahler himself was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. And again there was music, his music.

Fear of the end

So, it was not without reason that Mahler canceled his first three appointments with Freud. Could this be related to the fact that Mahler, in some unconscious way, had knowledge of all that has been said until now? If Mahler, in his conversation with Freud, had truly felt confronted by all these underlying feelings, conflicts and failings, and by the real function and meaning of composition for his life, would he have ever written another symphony? Perhaps Mahler was deathly afraid that insight into the depths of his soul would dry up his well of creativity. With that, he would simultaneously surrender a final unconscious motif in his life, the desire for immortality. The theme of loss and death, and thereby of mourning, is clearly present in Mahler’s life. The desire to be immortal is a way to mask the pain from all that loss, and not just the loss experienced in his early childhood. He never truly overcame the premature death of his oldest daughter. She was his child, named after his mother. By identifying himself with his music, Mahler could entertain the fantasy of surviving death. In addition to all of this, he was gravely ill.

Mahler needed his music. He could not do without it, seeking, as he was, the mother that he so wanted but never had, and thus had to hate. Alma was, thereby, his indispensable muse, in what was a truly tragic entanglement. And Alma, she could not be without her Gustav. In him, she sought the father she had had to live without from such a young age, whom she had loved so intensely, for whom she had let herself disappear, and whom she therefore also had to hate so much. She would never leave Mahler, and she took care of him until the end of his life. In spite of all the relationships Alma had after Mahler’s death: with Gropius, who she was married to for a short time; with Kokoschka, the painter, with whom she could probably not bear the intensity of her deep feelings; and finally with Frans Werfel.

Alma, every day occupied by Mahler’s music

In each house where she lived, there was a room for the music of Mahler. Every day until the end of her life, she was occupied by the music of Mahler, with his music. (Speaking of loyalty!)

(4. Purgatorio from the 10th symphony.)