On 23-02-1897 (Year 1897) Gustav Mahler walked into the St. Michael's church small (Hamburg) and was “received” or baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. The rite of conversion, Mahler believed would clear away a major stumbling block as a prerequisite for being named principal director of the Vienna Hofoper, the Court Opera, today’s Vienna State Opera, and a position for which he and his supporters had been discreetly campaigning for many months.
Certainly Alma Mahler (1879-1964), who shared the cultural anti-semitism of so many (including Jews) in nineteenth-century Central Europe, but an affinity for personal relationships with creative and intellectual Jews, chalked up the conversion to worldly concerns. If so, it was not untypical. Mahler followed many converts in Austria, Hungary, and Germany.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had famously cited baptism as the ticket of admission (entreebillet) to gentile society. The timing and disclosure of Mahler’s intention was apparently calculated to keep the world of friends (and perhaps of gossip) from learning that the step was imminent, but at the same time to suggest to the officials in Vienna that he had undergone baptism earlier for its own sake and not just to become eligible to fill the vacancy.
In letters to his sister Justine (Ernestine) Rose-Mahler (1868-1938) three years earlier and to his friend Friedrich Fritz Lohr (1859-1924) about a year later, he acknowledged the obstacle of his Jewishness to his career but gave no intention of conversion, indeed seemed genuinely depressed by the opportunities foreclosed.
Letters as late as early 1897 suggest no intention of baptism, but they may well have been written from tactical reasons lest public knowledge of the forthcoming step derail the lobbying efforts in Vienna; for his sister Justine, who decided to share his conversion, revealed to her friend, Ernestine Löhr (see Friedrich Fritz Lohr (1859-1924)) as of early December 1896, that the siblings were undergoing Catholic religious instruction in view of the Vienna opera position.
Mahler’s formal conversion was opportunistic and apparently not devoid of pricks of conscience. As he wrote his Hungarian journalist supporter Ludwig Karpath (1866-1936), it “cost me a great deal.” Allow for exaggeration; still, what exactly did it cost? Just the sense of attachment to his family’s Jewish tradition? Perhaps a sense of deserting a beleaguered minority? On the other hand, he preferred to wear identities lightly even if the anti-Semitic press made this an effort.
If he could not summon up acceptance of Catholic dogma – Justine admitted she could not -- perhaps distress at the pretense required? Perhaps distaste about denying to friends that it was impending or claiming to court circles that it had long since taken place. In the religious instruction required prior to baptism, he apparently had engaged in a real dialogue (perhaps even a bit of a contest) with the priest who taught him, so his intellect and commitments must have been partially involved.
Mahler left his friends fragmentary statements of belief, and the limits of his belief, but it is doubtful that any such efforts to sum up personal creed are unchanging or precise. Not that they are false: they are just one of the layers of our onion-like sense of self that peel off under the different circumstances in which we are compelled to construct a coherent narrative of our life, whether the circumstances spring from creative ecstasy, worldly opportunity, falling in love, or fear of death.
So one could start this paper by exploring Mahler’s conversion although there is no full record of what happened inside that church, nor despite reams of commentary, little of what was really going on inside Mahler’s head. Nor can I add anything to the extensive discussion of Mahler’s Jewishness and post-Jewishness to what Leon Botstein, Thalia Pecker Berio, the biographer Jens Malte Fischer, and most recently Carl Niekerk have ventured.
Still, if scholars and commentators continually ask, how Jewish was Mahler, we should also ask, how Christian was Mahler? And not only Mahler, but other Jews who elected conversion. There are several reasons to pose the question. First, it often remains difficult for Christians and perhaps even more so for Jews really to believe that conversion from Judaism to Christianity takes place as the result of authentic religious conviction.
Can the convert really believe in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and the authority of the Church? And even if and when beliefs evolve, Jews and often Christians tend to talk as if Jewish “identity,’ while not racial, still retains dimensions beyond (or more fundamental than) any confession of faith. To what degree does the convert cease to be Jewish?
The Christian clergyman may feel conversion has followed from the simple illumination of the convert’s soul; indeed until the Second Vatican Council Catholic liturgy prayed for such illumination on a large scale. Most of the convert’s acquaintances, however, tend to attribute non-religious motivation -- perhaps the desire on the part of a spouse or loved one matched by desire for the beloved on the part of the convert; perhaps the advantages of worldly advancement in societies where prejudice against Jews often remained general and residual, as it did in Western countries deep into the twentieth century.
If conversion seems to be meaningful and authentic, sometimes the mental robustness of the convert is questioned – perhaps, one suspects, fear of death and the Christian promise of some spiritual life after physical life ceases has played a role. Even if the affirmation follows from extraneous motivation, that, too, is a sociological, psychological fact also worth investigation. What was going on in the convert’s head or “heart and mind”? Normally such questions strongly motivate adolescents, but middle-aged adults learn they may never be resolved.
Nonetheless, conversion remains to challenge explanation, and constitutes an important theme in Central European Jewish history. Some Christian sources attribute Jewish conversion to the unproblematic acceptance of the New Testament – seeing the truth of revelation and acting upon it; converts themselves have described their journey. Nonetheless these histories often disquiet serious Jewish observers, if the convert’s friends and family are relatively religiously indifferent and/or remain connected to the convert by friendship or family ties, they still cannot understand the new religious conviction very easily. Conversion, to be sure, does not describe just the renunciation of one faith for another; the term also applies to the process of being “born again” or awakening from religious indifference to spirituality whether from one formal affiliation to another or within the same denomination. Testimonies suggest that the awakening comes suddenly and with tremendous force – blinding Saul, summoning Augustine – “tolle lege” -- from sex to scripture.
In this sense Mahler does seem to have had a genuine moment of spiritual awakening three years before his baptism – not one that then suggested he should formally become a Christian, but nonetheless an experience that he described in terms compatible with a Christian message.
This intense moment of liminality (call it Mahler’s authentic conversion) occurred at Hans von Bulow (1830-1894)’s funeral service in 29-03-1894 (Year 1894) and not the formal baptism that he underwent for his career three years later. Not surprisingly, it came as a flash of artistic inspiration as well as spiritual illumination.
As he described the moment in a letter written only a week before his baptism, when he heard the hymn based on Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803)’s poem that became the basis for the finale of his Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: “It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for –‘conceiving by the holy ghost’.”
In the case of Mahler, I think, there is evidence of a sufficient convergence between the Christian promise and the assurances he might draw from musical inspiration to understand how he might accept the “larger” message.
Four years after his testimony of 1897, on 20-12-1901 (Year 1901), Gustav Mahler participates in a performance of Symphony No. 2 by Ernst von Schuch (1846-1914) in Dresden and further filled out his religious vision in the program notes:
“Softly there rings out a chorus of the holy and the heavenly. ‘Risen again, yea thou shalt be risen again!’ There appears the glory of God! A wonderful gentle light permeates us to our very heart – all is quiet and blissful! – And behold there is no judgement. – There is no sinner, no righteous man – no great and no small—There is no punishment and no reward! An almighty feeling of love illumines us with blessed knowing and being.”
- Alma Mahler (1879-1964) was baptized a Catholic, and converted to the Evangelical Lutheran faith in 1900.
- Her sister, Margarethe (Grete) Julie Legler-Schindler (1881-1942), married the Protestant Wilhelm Legler (1875-1951).
- Alma’s father, Jakob Emil Schindler (1842-1892), was Catholic
- Alma's mother, Anna Sofie Moll-Schindler-Bergen (1857-1938), was Protestant.
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