About the Music
Direct contact between Gustav Mahler and Universal Edition was established as late as 1909, that is, two years before the composer’s death. Of course, the publisher was but a newcomer on the Austrian music scene, founded as it had been in 1901. Also, until the appointment of Emil Hertzka as Director in 1907, UE concentrated its activities on classical music.
However, the rights to Symphonies Nos 1-4 were acquired from Weinberger and Doblinger in 1906 (pocket scores and arrangements for piano duet). Three years later, UE approached the composer about his Symphony No 8 and a contract was duly signed.
In February 1910, Mahler wrote to Hertzka:
“I want to pay my sincere compliment to your firm (and its leaders). What a pity that you have not published my other compositions as well. With heartfelt thanks to you and especially Mr v. Woess, in a great hurry, most sincerely yours, Mahler.”
In the same year, 1910, UE published Symphony No 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. The letter Mahler wrote from Toblach to Hertzka on 3 July 1910 indicates that the relationship between the two of them was developing into genuine friendship. The composer informed the director that “the bowels are functioning normally” and asked for quite a number of scores, from Bach to Schubert, to be sent to his address. He added:
“Please forgive me for inconveniencing you with such things, but you, dear Hertzka, are yourself to blame if I - in a simple, laconic manner, like an old friend – burden you with my private matters.”
Another letter, written in the same year in the same place, provides some fascinating insight into Mahler’s thinking. He had been approached to supply a “guide” to the Eighth Symphony and he explained why he rejected such “a piece of paper” out of hand:
“A modern composition no longer comprises themes and such like – you could just as well try and characterise a man by describing some of the typical cells of his body (e.g. his tissues or muscles). But whatever you may think about it and whatever you may decide to do in future: I will not allow any such thing for the world premiere! If people are interested, they should purchase the vocal score. Please bear with me and do put my mind at rest straight away. A piece of paper like that in the hand gets between the work and the listener (who immediately turns into an onlooker). It is exasperating to have to concern myself with such things again and again.”
Another letter by Mahler, written in New York on 29 December 1910, is similarly informative. Emil Hertzka advised him that Universal Edition had arranged for the world premiere of a new composition (in all likelihood Das Lied von der Erde) and had sent scores to a number of people – a fact that put out the composer no end.
“Your confirmation of the information today induces me to declare in the most unequivocal manner that I reserve the first performance of a new work of mine (the rights of which have been accorded to me under our contract) solely for myself. At the moment, I am not considering any premiere and please wait with your planning until my arrival in Vienna. – Also, until new scores have received my imprimatur and I have given permission for their publication, they are to be treated as confidential, indeed, a secret. I may decide to subject the score to a thorough revision. -…Once again: I forbid access to my new compositions by whoever it may be.”
The world premiere of Das Lied von der Erde took place after Mahler’s death, on 20 November 1911 in Munich. The conductor was Bruno Walter, a close associate of the composer, one who will have had a clear idea of Mahler’s intentions. Still, we shall never know what revisions the composer would have made had he been able to conduct the world premiere himself. Bruno Walter is also credited with the first performance of the Symphony No 9 in Vienna, on 26 June 1912.
A music publisher works not merely for the present, but also for the future. Mahler was not the only composer whose genius was recognized by Emil Hertzka at a time when it was anything but obvious for public opinion. Mahler surely cost the publisher a great deal more than he earned: he wrote works of unusual dimensions both as regards their orchestration and their duration. Also, he kept on revising them. On the other hand, the number of performances was negligible. There was little to presage the cult figure he was to become half a century or so after his death. Indeed, a publisher works not merely for the present but also for the future.