Mahler’s Composing Shack

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.


13 thoughts on “Mahler’s Composing Shack

  1. Great to read anything about such a magnificent and influential composer Tyler. I could go into raptures about Mahler’s song cycles but people might give me funny looks. I prefer them to his bigger pieces, but then I am a lover of singing and song over big orchestral works anyway which is not to say that I do not listen to other stuff because my meanderings through the classical music world take me to many places. Also I think German is a terrific language for song and of course lieder – or art songs as I think Americans refer to them – are a bottomless well of delights.

    As for having a quiet place to work I think that is almost a prerequisite for any writer or composer. Dylan Thomas had a little hut along the path from The Boathouse at Laugharne in Caramarthenshire, West Wales to retire to overlooking the estuary which is indeed a most beautiful view having been there on more than one occasion and, of course, Virginia Woolfe wrote a whole book about the importance of having A Room Of One’s Own. I have the necessary peace and quiet if I choose to write but unfortunately am too lazy and ill disciplined.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your wonderful comments, Alys, and my apologies for not responding sooner. This week has been insanely busy, and I’m finding it difficult to keep up with my regular blog posts, much less comments!

      I’m growing to appreciate and enjoy German lieder (and, yes, we do call them “art songs” here). I am in love with Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkoenig,” which I spent all of last week analyzing with both my Middle School Music and my Pre-AP Music Appreciation classes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like a good place to work – somewhere with a view. It’s got to be quiet though. A view can be easily spoiled by too much noise, as can your concentration. I wonder whether Mahler started working so early because it’s the best way to be spontaneous and not cut or change too much. I used to do that in my university days – write my essays, speeches and dissertations at the dead of night when I couldn’t be interrupted and when I knew I wouldn’t edit too much. A tired or tiring brain, I’ve found, can be useful in that respect – everything in your head comes flooding to the front, out of your fingers and onto the page without too much critical thought going into it. Without listening to Mahler’s compositions, I can’t compare but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s why he chose that time to start – for spontaneity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have always found eatly morning the best of time of day for anything that requires a period of concentration. I have always been an early riser and I like to think I alone am awake in a silent world – which of course I am not – but often it feels that way and watching through a window as the world comes to life while the sun rises is always a joy.

      Liked by 2 people

    • ” out of your fingers and onto the page without too much critical thought going into it. ”

      Yep. Jess and I compared notes once on that and we both found that our best posts, both in our minds and readers, took less than an hour and fewer than 5 revisions (per WordPress). The longer it takes, the more second thoughts the more mundane, and boring it becomes.

      The only editing I do anymore, on my or anybody else\s posts, is to basically spellcheck them. The key is that quiet time, organizing what you want to say, in your head, so it flows properly.

      Liked by 2 people

      • As you’ll know, over the last 2 years, I’ve written several articles, for your site, for Going Postal and TCW. On average, they take me 20 minutes to knock out. That’s mainly through anger and maybe they don’t always come out as well as I’d like them to but political and societal commentary are not my forte. That said, through my conversations with other people, off the back of my scribblings, I like to hope that my writing has improved which will only help my novel. For someone like me, whose rantings sometimes need validation, that can only be a good thing. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Sounds about right, Ponty. Jess and I were speaking of from sitting down to punching post. writing, editing, categories and links and all. Our best was three posts in 2 hours, a conversation of sorts.And great fun.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Tyler, I am so pleased you know that performance by Philippe Sly. I think he has a magnificent voice and is working his way up my list of favourite singers. At the pinnacle for me as far as lieder singing is concerned anyway is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. Then there is the stupendous baritone Thomas Allen whose warmth is all encompassing. Irish tenor Robin Tritschler is another exciting young singer whose rendition of Michael Head’s The Ships Of Arkady is a regular pre bedtime listen. Where female singers are concerned the peerless Janet Baker was my father’s favourite mezzo and she is mine also, her rendition of Elgar’s Sea Pictures is beyond a doubt in my mind the very finest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s thanks to this Pre-AP course that I know him. His recording of “Der Erlkoenig” (with Maria Fuller giving a masterful piano performance in her own right) is one of the “anchor works” for the Pre-AP Music curriculum, and it’s such a great piece to dissect and analyze. Students almost universally love his performance when compared to others.

      You’re far more versed in choral music than I am (I’m more of an instrumentalist by training), but I value your insights, and am learning to appreciate choral music and lieder more and more.


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