While teaching Pre-AP Music Appreciation last school year, I stumbled upon an excellent YouTube channel, Inside the Score, which features videos explaining and analyzing some of classical and Romantic music’s greatest works and composers. It’s a wonderful resource for exploring famous works in greater depth, and has greatly enhanced my own appreciation for music.
At some point, I ended up on Inside the Score‘s mailing list, and I receive little e-mail newsletters from the site periodically. These are like delicious, bite-sized treats compared to the longer videos (which themselves are by no means daunting, coming it at around twenty minutes a pop).
Recently, one of these morsels found its way into my inbox: a look at Gustav Mahler‘s daily routine. Mahler wrote incredibly long symphonies—to this day, the single longest piece of music I have ever sat and listened to live is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which clocks in at an impressive seventy-five minutes—and did so while touring the world as a conductor. According to Inside the Score, Mahler had summers off to compose at a little shack on the Attersee in Austria, and stuck to a fairly consistent schedule.
According to Inside the Score (emphasis from the original):
He woke at 6:00 or 6:30 A.M. and immediately rang for the cook to prepare his breakfast: freshly ground coffee, milk, diet bread, butter, and jam, which the cook carried to Mahler’s composing hut.
With his coffee (and warmed milk), Mahler would work until midday, and then go into the lake for a swim with his wife.
After a light lunch, Gustav would take Alma on a 3-4 hour walk along the lake shore, occasionally stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. These composing breaks would sometimes last for an hour or longer.
Mahler’s schedule looks what I attempted—feebly—to replicate this past summer: productivity in the morning, followed by refreshment around lunchtime, with lighter productivity in the evenings. But Mahler was rising as early as 6 AM and setting to work quite quickly following his breakfast, putting in a solid five or six hours of concerted effort before enjoying a more leisurely day.
Also, Mahler’s composing shack was, according to his wife Alma Mahler, “was stripped of all dross, almost inhuman in its purity.” The hut consisted of a piano and a beautiful view of the Attersee. Otherwise, it appears to have been devoid of distractions—perfect conditions for focused work.
Any creative type, or anyone with the least bit of artistic blood in their veins, will instantly recognize the appeal of having a designated, quiet space for creative work and reflection. There’s a whole cottage industry of “lifestyle” goods dedicated to helping would-be artists and writers focus on their craft, including all manner of desks, stationary, journals, and the like. I have to confess I’m a sucker for these things, which often give the illusion of productivity, rather than actually catering to it.
Nevertheless, having a space for reflection and contemplation is important for anyone engaged in creative work—or just work in general. I know people who thrive in chaos; I am not one of them: I need long stretches of quiet time where I can dive into work, undisturbed, especially if it is either a.) creative work (writing, composing, etc.) or b.) rapid-fire mundane work, like grading. Either way, I need to get “in the zone,” as they say.
Mahler had the right idea: get a little cottage, strip it down to what you need, and get to work.