In the film Tár, up for six Academy Awards this weekend, Cate Blanchett stars as a conductor on the brink of personal and professional demise as she prepares to record a live performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphonie No. 5.
The sweeping work, regarded as one of Mahler’s greatest achievements, plays a key role in the drama. It’s also attracted a new mass of Mahler fans. Within weeks of the film’s release last October, streams of the symphony on Apple Music were up 50 per cent from the previous month.
This is not the first time Hollywood has precipitated a ‘Mahler moment’. The Austrian conductor-composer’s work was also featured in the 1971 film Death in Venice, as well as several television shows, from Fargo to The Simpsons.
Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, is the fictional protégé of Leonard Bernstein, the subject of the upcoming Netflix movie Maestro, starring Bradley Cooper. Bernstein, also a conductor-composer, felt an affinity to Mahler and is credited for creating a 20th century resurgence of interest in the latter’s music.
When Bernstein brought the New York Philharmonic to Centennial Hall in London, Ont. in 1967, he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. He also took in the Gustav Mahler-Alfred Rosé Collection, now housed at Western Libraries.
Largest collection, local connection
Bernstein visited the collection at the home of Alfred and Maria Rosé. Alfred was the son of Mahler’s sister, Justine, and a professor at Western, where he taught singing and music history. Alfred left a successful career behind in Vienna, fleeing with Maria when the Nazis marched in Austria. They first settled in the states before arriving in London in 1948, when Alfred was hired at Western. With them came the collection, which Maria donated to the university in 1983.
The collection includes a Rodin bust of Mahler, music manuscripts, photographs and more than 600 family letters. Among the contents are the earliest known examples of Mahler’s writing for orchestra. Curiosities include a lock of Mahler’s hair, a series of conductor batons and a family cookbook.
“It’s astounding we ended up with the Mahler material as an accident of history,” said Brian McMillan, director of Western’s music library.
“People are often surprised to hear that out in the middle of southwestern Ontario is North America’s largest collection of unique and rare items related to Mahler and his family life.” – Brian McMillan, director, Western’s music library
McMillan, a musician and Mahler specialist, is not surprised Tár director Todd Field chose Symphonie No. 5 to capture the inner conflict of its protagonist.
“Mahler’s works were written for these huge forces of an orchestra,” McMillan said. “And the mood changes on a dime. His music has been described as being ‘spliced,’ like a modern film edit, and it can change character quickly.
“The Adagietto (a slow movement of the symphony) that’s used in Tár, and also in Death in Venice, is a very long legato (smooth and slow) that constantly feels like it is growing towards this huge climax after about 10 minutes of building. It has a longing that stretches throughout. Lydia Tár is a conductor at the pinnacle of her career, yet there’s all this angst and boiling inside. On the exterior, she exudes calmness, but there’s also this sudden juxtaposition that almost seems neurotic.”
Mahler himself has been characterised as neurotic, and a “genius” yet dictatorial conductor who held his orchestras to demanding practice schedules and the highest standards.
The Mahler-Rosé collection, however, also offers scholars and fans insight into Mahler as a man.
Amanda Jamieson, a Western Libraries archivist who co-curates the collection with McMillan, said it’s that personal aspect that makes the collection so rich.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have a collection of this stature at Western,” Jamieson said. “The collection itself is so fulsome. It’s not just a snippet of Mahler’s life, it’s all manner of materials, plus his family’s records as well. You really get a good sense of who he was as a person and how important his family relationships were, especially with his sister, Justine.”
Mahler’s letters to Justine, many translated by Huron University College professor and author of The Mahler Family Letters, Stephen McClatchie, capture the excitement of a young man with a bourgeoning career as a conductor and his daily activities.
“There’s a lightness to the letters that contrasts with his persona as a conductor,” Jamieson said. “You see him as a warm brother.”
Alma Rosé: Auschwitz ‘entertainer’
McMillan and Jamieson field enquires about the collection from around the world, and not just about the famous conductor.
“There’s an incredible family history that goes beyond Gustav Mahler,” McMillan said. “He draws international attention because of his longevity as a performer, his notoriety as a conductor and his accomplishment as a composer. But there is such great value to be gained from the Rosé side.”
Alfred’s father (Justine’s husband), Arnold Rosé, was the principal concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for 50 years. Alfred’s sister Alma, named after Mahler’s wife, was an eminent violinist, who led a successful women’s orchestra in Vienna.
Alma and her father fled Austria in 1939, a year after Nazi Germany annexed their country. Once her father was safely settled in England, Alma went to Holland to raise money for the family playing concerts. When the Nazis invaded, she was caught fleeing to Switzerland and eventually sent to Auschwitz. There she was assigned to lead an orchestra to amuse her captors and perform marches to “motivate the workers”. She died of illness in the concentration camp in 1944.
“Alma saved a number of people’s lives by pulling them in and creating an orchestra with whomever ended up at the camp and through whatever instrument they had available to them,” McMillan said.
Her story was adapted in the 1980 made-for-tv movie Playing for Time, with her character played by Jane Alexander opposite Vanessa Redgrave.
“There are so many different angles that make this collection rich,” McMillan said. “The addition of the Rosé family history to the Mahler materials really deepens the collection in terms of understanding the cultural milieu the Mahler’s and the Rosé’s lived in – the musical world, pre–First World War Vienna, and also the absolute collapse of that world through both the First and the Second World War.
“The collection gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world at those times, and how the families functioned, and I’m so thankful we have it.”
Celebrating Mahler’s music
McMillan and Jamieson are currently curating an exhibition of the Mahler collection for an upcoming weekend-long Mahler celebration at Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music.
On Friday, March 24, as part of the Fridays at 12:30 concert series, mezzo-soprano and doctoral student Carmen Specht and faculty member/baritone Todd Wieczorek will be accompanied by adjunct faculty member Simone Luti on the piano, performing selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
On Sunday, March 26, at 2 p.m., Luti will conduct the Western University Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 4 in G Major as part of the program, The Two Titans: Music from Beethoven and Mahler.