It’s always worth tuning in to Donald Macleod’s Composer of the week on BBC Radio 3. Even for a Mahler fanatic like me, last week’s programmes (based on the well-trodden theme of his years with Alma) were instructive.
We all know (don’t we) about Mahler’s settings of Hans Bethge’s embroidered translations of Tang poems for Das Lied von der Erde (composed in 1909 but only performed after his death in 1911). In 1910, as he was fêted in New York, the Schirmers [some sources say the Roosevelts] took him and Alma on a visit to an opium den in Chinatown. Long before the stereotypes of Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, this could have been an intriguing encounter.
Their visit to the “teeming” Lower East Side Jewish quarter must have been more conflicted (among myriad discussions of Mahler and Judaism, Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? is accessible). Alma’s portrayals are not always reliable, but here it’s worth citing her account (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, pp.161–2)—more prurient than ethnographic:
We were invited by the music publisher, Schirmer, and his wife to dine with them one day and drive with them afterwards “down town”, into China town. The indispensable detective sat beside the chauffeur. We turned out of the busy streets into narrower ones which became by degrees quieter, narrower, darker and more uncanny. We got out, accompanied by the detective with a loaded revolver in his pocket, and went into an opium den. A creature with a sickeningly womanish face received us in an ante-room, where we had to put down a sum of money. He began at once to give us a long list of his successes with white ladies, and told us he acted female parts in the Chinese Theatre. A Chinese woman, of course, may not either act or look on in a theatre. He showed it in his face—it was the most degenerate man-woman face you could imagine. He showed us numerous photographs of American women he had—and he said the rest by gestures. Then he conducted us into several small but high rooms, empty in the middle but furnished with bunks along the sides, each of which contained a stretcher; and on each stretcher lay a doped Chinese with his head lolling into the room. Some of them raised their heads heavily as we approached, but at once let them sink again. It was a gruesomely horrible sight. They were simply dumped there to sleep off their intoxication. They might be robbed or murdered while they were in this state and know nothing about it. The whole scene resembled a baker’s shop with human loaves.
On now to a house of cards higher and higher, up into a room luxuriously furnished for strangers, cushions everywhere, and beside each cushion an opium pipe. And a Chinese, for payment, was ready to smoke a pipe on the spot while we watched him slowly succumb, rolling his eyes and twisting his limbs about. We were invited to smoke too but declined with horror. Next the theatre. Charming, but no play was being given. If it had been, no European would have been allowed among the audience. On again. Rats with long pigtails slunk nimbly and rapidly along the walls of the stinking street. Mahler said: “I can hardly believe that these are my brothers.”
On again. Small shops, small hotels, all silent. Finally, on the outskirts of this district we came on the habitat of a religious sect. There was a large hall at the far end of which sat a man with the face of a fanatic playing hymns on a harmonium in a pronouncedly whining style. The benches were occupied by a starving congregation. We were given the explanation. For listening to those hymns and joining in—a cup of coffee and a roll. What wretchedness in those faces! We pushed our way out, followed by hostile eyes, and for long afterwards we could still hear the flat notes of the hungry singers.
On again, and now the Jewish quarter. It was dark by this time. But here all was life and bustle, chaffering and shouting. The racial difference was staggering, but it was because the Jews worked day and night shifts to lose no time. The whole street was full from end to end of old clothes and rags. The air was heavy with the smell of food. I asked Mahler softly in his own words, “Are these our brothers?” He shook his head in despair.
With a sigh of relief we at last turned a corner and found ourselves in a well-lighted street among our own sort of people. Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?
Mahler’s music is so full of what would be known as folk and world music that his consternation is startling; can his success have made him so oblivious to his own background? And as ever, while trying to visualize the ethos of the time, we can only read this with later history in mind.