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Famous Migraineurs: Gustav Mahler

by Nancy Harris Bonk

Gustav Mahler may be one of my favorite composers. The son of Bernard and Maria, he was born in 1860 and was one of 12 siblings. Mahler's childhood was extremely miserable due to his father's cruelty. However, his father did recognize Mahler's musical talent and sought out piano lessons for him at an early age.

When Mahler turned 15, he began studying at the Vienna Conservatory where he was acclaimed for his piano playing and compositions. He also began his conducting career to earn some extra money. He was a gifted conductor; his methods and rehearsal techniques were often questioned, but equally mesmerizing. Mahler conducted in famous concert halls and great opera houses all across Europe.

This left little time for his first love, composition. Needing a well deserved respite after an exhaustive conducting schedule in Vienna, he went to Maiernigg (in Austria) and attempted to compose the last movements of Symphony No. 7. This is where he often found his creative impetus, but not on this occasion. Even the beauty of the ocean and long walks on the beach weren't enough to help him begin his music. It also appears he was suffering from an unremitting Migraine attack, made worse due to the loud, celebratory Corpus Christi guests who were staying at the same inn. In a letter to his wife Alma, who was almost twenty years his junior, he said, "I plagued myself for two weeks until I sank into gloom, as you well remember."

What I find truly amazing about Mahler, and most Migraineurs, are the things we do on a daily basis while in great pain. For instance, if Mahler wanted his Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," performed (which is one of my favorites), he was required to hire the Berliner Philharmoniker with his own money. On December 13, 1895, he conducted the premiere of "The Resurrection" much to critics' contempt. The audience loved it, but what's more remarkable to me, is that he conducted the entire piece with a severe Migraine. This stunningly beautiful, lyrical, and at times bombastic symphonic masterpiece can be difficult and long to listen to, even for me, and I love Mahler. To conduct something like this with a Migraine, forget it. I've  included some excerpts for you to listen to so you can get a "feel" or "hear" - for - what he "endured" during his performance while having a Migraine. These audio excerpts are from Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (II. Andante moderato) and Audio Excerpt 5 Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"  (V. Più mosso, "Sterben") 

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