Mahler and Leipzig
SINCE THE 1960S, around Gustav Mahler's one-hundredth birthday, Mahler's music has been firmly integrated in the canon of the classical music world. Mahler (1860–1911)—one of the greatest opera conductors, especially known for his interpretations of works by Wagner and Mozart, and the composer of ten symphonies, a cantata, and various songs—functions as an essential bridge between the romantic tradition and modernism in classical music of the early twentieth century. Scholarship about him is abundant and diverse. One aspect, however, seems to have been ignored until now: Mahler's reception in the GDR. This essay is an introduction to this topic that will also add to the discourse about the social influence of the classical music apparatus in a restrictive state.
Mahler has an especially close relation to Leipzig, the city where he worked as a colleague of Arthur Nikisch at the Neues Stadttheater—the predecessor of the Leipzig Opera and one of the three workplaces of the Gewandhaus Orchestra—between July 1886 and May 1888. There, he conducted a Wagner cycle in 1887, wrote his First Symphony, and premiered Carl Maria von Weber's Die drei Pintos in 1888, a previously unfinished opera for which Mahler had prepared the performing version (with compositions of his own). Long after his death, Mahler was honored by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig with a Mahler cycle and a symposium. Mahler is considered a forerunner of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg or Dmitry Shostakovich, who played an important role for new music in the GDR. One of the most prominent tributes to Mahler in Leipzig is the ceiling painting in the Gewandhaus—the only newly built concert hall of the GDR—which is also the biggest ceiling painting in Europe. The painter Sighard Gille was inspired by Mahler's Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) and even included Mahler's portrait as well as scores of the piece in his painting.
Despite these connections, scholars and educational institutions in the GDR seemed to have shown only little interest in Mahler, and political officials did not take an official stance on him (as they did, for example, for Bach or Beethoven) even though Mahler's works were very much present in the GDR's concert halls.