“I am being lazy,” Gustav Mahler wrote in a letter to his father-in-law in Vienna from the Hotel Majestic in New York in February 1908. “That is an art I shall never master.”
No doubt he wrote this during one of the few moments no demands were being made on him by the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera. As he wrote, he had never learned the art of relaxation. In fact, it is almost impossible to understand how he managed to performed all his duties – in New York as music director of the Philharmonic and the Met and in Vienna as director of the Hofoper for ten years – and compose his ten symphonies. No wonder he died exhausted at the age of fifty-one on May 18, 1911 – a hundred years ago.
Thomas Mann was in Venice when Mahler died. He had known him and reported later that Mahler had been the only person he ever met of whom he was conscious of being in the presence of a great man. Mann was deeply moved by Mahler’s death. During Mahler’s last days, repeated communiqués were published about his deteriorating condition, “like that of a reigning monarch,” Katia Mann remembered in her memoirs.
It is no coincidence that Thomas Mann gave Gustav Aschenbach, the central figure in Death in Venice, Mahler’s features and that Luchino Visconti used the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in his film version.