TBT: Mahler’s Composing Shack

We’re getting into the time of year when my personal creativity seems to spark.  I should be way more productive creatively in the summer, when I enjoy loads of unstructured time, but I find that I work better in the constrains and confines of a busy schedule.  For whatever reason, that extra pressure helps me to eke out, if not diamonds, then at least some lesser gems.

One well from which I have drawn some considerable inspiration the last couple of years was my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class.  It was a broad survey of Western music from the medieval period to the present, with a strong emphasis on the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.  Due to a combination of scheduling difficulties and lower enrollment last year, the class did not run this year.

On the one hand, I’m thankful—it’s given me more time to focus on other endeavors.  On the other, I do miss the almost-daily baptism in the works of some of the greatest composers in the Western canon.

One element of the course that was particularly intriguing was learning about the lives and creative processes of the composers.  Many of them lived quite tragic lives; others (rarer, it seems, among composers) lived quite contentedly.

Gustav Mahler seemed to have developed a nice little work routine, as detailed in this post from October 2021.  I like the idea of having a stripped-down cottage by the sea, with a healthy breakfast brought to me as I work.  Sounds like the good life!

With that, here is 13 October 2021’s “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 like 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, 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.


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