What Marion from Manchester put into Mahler’s first symphony

What Marion from Manchester put into Mahler’s first symphony


norman lebrecht

May 31, 2021

My monthly essay in The Critic spotlights the love affair that turned Gustav Mahler into a symphonist:

Mahler biographers have concluded that Marion was a bored army wife in a market town with nothing much else to do — Madame Bovary with apple strudel. We now know that she was both more interesting and more important to Mahler’s emergence.

Marion, it turns out, came from Manchester, where her German-Jewish father, Adolf Schwabe, owned a textile factory with 650 employees. The family were part of the city’s German-speaking bourgeoise. Her mother Mathilde befriended the children’s hospital founder, Louis Borchardt, a noted campaigner for women’s rights in the medical professions. The Schwabes dined with Friedrich Engels and supported Charles Hallé when he started an orchestra in 1858, the best in England. Thomas Carlyle and Florence Nightingale visited their home at 313 Oxford Road.

Their daughter Marion, born in 1856, played the piano well enough to accompany the great violinist Joseph Joachim in recital. It was a cultural idyll among the northern smokestacks until the family fell apart in 1868 when Adolf heard that his wife was having an affair with Dr Borchardt and returned to his homeland. A fatherless adolescent, Marion joined Adolf in Berlin…

Read on here.




  • Mahler,like Wagner,was amoral….another man’s wife if it pleased him,a new religion if it furthered his career.Yet he was full of self pity if he felt life was unfair to him.In short,a pretty awful example of
    manhood, a fraudulent,nasty,short tempered person.Does such hypocracy compromise his art ? can you listen to it with the same love and respect you would give to a work of Beethoven’s.

    • minacciosa says:

      When I hear Mahler I hear a fertile composer who was also an inveterate whiner. It rather compromises the totality of effect for me.

    • Ashu says:

      [can you listen to it with the same love and respect you would give to a work of Beethoven’s.]

      Yes, because Beethoven was at least as much of a scumbag as Mahler.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    I love Ethel Smyth calling Mahler ugly. She was no oil painting herself.
    Anyway, very interesting research

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Very interesting. Is there any special significance to the existence of the Blumine movement, and especially to Mahler’s later excision of it? Did he remove it for purely musical grounds, or because it was perhaps too personally revealing, too closely connected to his former love?

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      It’s an interesting question, but I’ve yet to come across a Mahler biography that explains the removal of “Blumine” in anything other than purely musical terms. It’s beautiful, but it really does sort of kill the energy whipped up in the coda to the first movement, which is generally carried right on into the scherzo movement. In the parlance of younger and less formal folks, it’s a buzz killer.

  • M says:

    Thanks for inspiring me to relisten to the Mahler First, even if my attention was interrupted several times. It is fascinating to speculate how personal events, however accurately or inaccurately they are recorded, may have shaped his music. My sense on this occasion is that Mahler was deeply influenced by the opening moments of the First Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, then taking a different direction expanding upon the Second Movement of the Pastoral Symphony with its celebration of nature, and ending with an allusion to the comical ending of the Second Movement of the Beethoven Ninth. The ending of the Fourth Movement of the Mahler First seemed rather forced, recalling some lesser moments of Shostakovich, who was deeply influenced by Mahler, of course. Herbert Weisinger, who had profound insights into Shakespeare, his classes at Stony Brook, whereupon he read every single word of the plays, together with miraculous commentary, once commented how he found Mahler overly sentimental, an opinion that astonished me at the time, this being the height of my personal admiration for the Mahler. However, more recently, I have had difficulty with the composer’s work, at the very least rarely if ever going back to listen. Here is another facet to explore in terms of the intellectual and spiritual makeup of Friedrich Ruckert, who is credited with being an important influence upon Mahler. “Combining the genius of the poet with the learning of the scholar, Ruckert was preeminently fitted to be the literary mediator between the East and the West. And his East was not restricted, as Goethe’s or Platen’s, to Arabia and Persia, but included India and even China. He is not only a devotee to the mystic poetry of Rumi and the joyous strain of Hafid, but he is above all the German Brahman, who by masterly translations and imitations made the treasures of Sanskrit poetry a part of the literary wealth of his own country.” (Arthur Remy, 1901)

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am not sure I understand NL’s reference to “Mahler’s … troubling funeral episode that conjoins a child’s death to a pub dance.” To my knowledge Mahler himself referred to a painting that portrayed various animal “pallbearers” having rather a good time at the funeral of the hunter who would have himself enjoyed killing them.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Interesting comments by M. Mahler also used Hans Bethge’s anthology “Die chinesische Floete” of Chinese poets including Li Po as a source for texts of “Das Lied von der Erde”, adding some lines by Mahler himself in the “Abschied”.

    Friedrich Rueckert was indeed a strong source and influence, bot only in “I breathe a new air” and “I am lost to the world” but in “”At midnight”, so magnificently performed by Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Leonard Bernstein.