Joseph Steiner (1857-1913)

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Joseph Steiner (1857-1913).

  • Profession: Librettist, Lawyer.
  • Residences: Austria.
  • Relation to Mahler: Friend, classmate, contact with Gustav Schwarz.
  • Correspondence with Mahler: Yes.
    • Between 17-06-1879 and 19-06-1879, Year 1879.
  • Born: 00-00-1857. Habry (Habern)
  • Died: 00-00-1913.
  • Buried: Unknown.

Gustav Mahler began his creations at an early age. Probably in 1866 he composed Polka for Piano as a “job” for his mother and the song Turks Have Beautiful Daughters (Die Türken haben schöne Töchter) as an “order“ for his father. In the summer of 1875 in Jihlava the idea of writing an opera, Ernest, Duke of Swabia (Herzog Ernst von Schwaben) on a text by his classmate, Josef Steiner, was born. Shortly before the work’s origin Gustav Mahler’s brother Ernst had died – thus it is possible that the choice of theme reflected his brother’s death. His second opera project, which was not preserved either, was the opera Argonauts (Die Argonauten 1877-78), on a text by Gustav Mahler and Josef Steiner according to Franz Grillparzer. His opera Krakonoš (Rübezahl 1879-1883) also remained uncompleted and unpreserved.

Joseph Steiner introduced Gustav Mahler to Gustav Schwarz (around 1875 and 1877). According to Steiner’s son Felix an aunt discarded the script of Hertog Ernst von Schwaben in 1876.

Year 1879. 17-06-1879: Gustav Mahler to his friend Joseph Steiner

Dear Steiner,

Don’t be cross with me for taking so long to reply; but everything around is so bleak, and behind me the twigs of a dry and brittle existence snap. A great deal has been going on since I last wrote. But I can’t tell you about it. Only this: I have become a different person; whether a better one, I don’t know, anyway not a happier one. The greatest intensity of the most joyful vitality and the most consuming yearning for death dominate my heart in turn, very often alternate hour by hour – one thing I know: I can’t go on like this much longer! When the abominable tyranny of our modern hypocrisy and mendacity has driven me to the point of dishonouring myself, when the inextricable web of conditions in art and life has filled my heart with disgust for all that is sacred to me – art, love, religion – what way out is there but self-annihilation?

Wildly I wrench at the bonds that chain me to the loathsome, insipid swamp of this life, and with all the strength of despair I cling to sorrow, my only consolation. – Then all at once the sun smiles upon me – and gone is the ice that encased my heart, again I see the blue sky and the flowers swaying in the wind, and my mocking laughter dissolves in tears of love. Then I needs must love this world with all its deceit and frivolity and its eternal laughter. Oh, would that some god might tear the veil from my eyes, that my clear gaze might penetrate to the marrow of the earth! Oh, that I might behold this earth in its nakedness, lying there without adornment or embellishment before its Creator; then I would step forth and face its genius. ‘Now I know you, deceiver, for what you are! With all your feigning you have not tricked me, with all your glitter you have not dazzled me! Lo and behold! A man surrounded by all the glamourous gambols of your falsity, struck by the most terrible blows of your scorn, and yet unbowed, yet strong.’ May fear strike you, wherever you hide! Out of the valley of mankind the cry goes up, soars to your cold and lonely heights! Do you comprehend the unspeakable misery here below that for aeons has been piling up mountain high? And on those mountain peaks you sit enthroned, laughing! How in the days to come will you justify yourself before the avenger, you who cannot atone for the suffering of even one single frightened soul!!!

Yesterday I was too exhausted and upset to go on writing. Now yesterday’s state of wild agitation has yielded to a gentler mood; I feel like someone who has been angry for a long time and whose eyes at last fill with assuaging tears. Dear Steiner! So you want to know what I have been doing all this time? A very few words suffice. – I have eaten and drunk, I have been awake and I have slept, I have wept and laughed, I have stood on mountains, where the breath of God bloweth where it listeth, I have been on the heath, and the tinkling of cow-bells has lulled me into dreams. Yet I have not escaped my destiny; doubt pursues me wherever I go; there is nothing that affords me complete enjoyment, and even my most serene smile is accompanied by tears. Now here I am in the Hungarian Puszta, living with a family who have hired me for the summer; I am required to give the boys piano lessons, and occasionally send the family into musical raptures, so here I am, caught like a midge in the spider’s web, just twitching… But in the evening when I go out to the heath and climb a lime tree that stands there all lonely, and when from the topmost branches of this friend of mine I see far out into the world: before my eyes the Danube winds her ancient way, her waves flickering with the glow of the setting sun; from the village behind me the chime of the eventide bells is wafted to me on a kindly breeze, and the branches sway in the wind, rocking me into a slumber like the daughters of the elfin king, and the leaves and blossoms of my favourite tree tenderly caress my cheeks. – Stillness everywhere! Most holy stillness! Only from afar comes the melancholy croaking of the frog that sits all mournfully among the reeds. 

Then the pallid shapes that people my life pass by me like shadows of long-lost happiness, and in my ears again resounds the chant of yearning. – And once again we roam familiar pastures together, and yonder stands the hurdy-gurdy man, holding out his hat in his skinny hand. And in the tuneless melody I recognised Ernst of Swabia’s salutation, and he himself steps forth, opening his arms to me, and when I look closer, it is my poor brother; veils come floating down, the images, the notes, grow dim: Out of the grey sea two kindly names emerge: Morovan, Ronav! And I see gardens, and many people there, and a tree, with a name carved in its bark: Pauline. And a blue-eyed girl bends sideways – laughing, she breaks a bunch of grapes from the vine for me – memory causes my cheeks to flush for the second time – I see the two eyes that once made a thief of me – then once again it all recedes. – Nothingness! Now, over there, that fateful umbrella rises, and I hear the prophetic voices for-telling, from its ribs and entrails, like a Roman augur, the misfortune that is to befall me. Suddenly a table rises out of the ground, and behind it stands a spiritual figure veiled in blue clouds: it is Melion (the old school master) hymning the ‘Great Spirit’, at the same time sensing him with genuine Three Kings tobacco! And beside him the two of us sit like altar-boys about to serve at Mass for the first time.

And behind us a grinning goblin hovers, decked out in piquet cards, and he has Buxbaum’s (ugly) face and calls out to us in a terrible voice, to the melody of Bertini’s Etudes: ‘Bow down! for this glory too shall turn to dust!’ A cascade of smoke from Melion covers the whole scene, the clouds become even denser, and then suddenly, as in Raphael’s painting of the Madonna, a little angel’s head peers out from among these clouds, and below him Ahasuerus stands in all his sufferings, longing to ascend to him, to enter the presence of all that means bliss and redemption, but the angel floats away on high, laughing, and vanishes, and Ahasuerus gazes after him in immeasurable grief, then takes up his staff and resumes his wanderings, tearless, eternal, immortal.

O earth, my beloved earth, when, ah, when will you give refuge to him who is forsaken, receiving him back into your womb? Behold! Mankind has cast him out, and he flees to you, to you alone! O, take him in, eternal, all-embracing mother, give a resting place to him who is without friend and without rest!

This single letter, written when Mahler was nineteen years old, not only illustrates the imminent spirit of the time, the zeitgeist to come, it also details precisely the elements to be found in all of Mahler’s eleven symphonies. I’ll deal first with the composer’s anticipation of Viennese fin de siècle (end of era) angst, by way of his personal philosophy, as expressed in the letter.

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