During my recent trip to Salzburg, I went out to the tiny town of Steinbach, in the spectacular lake-and-mountain region of Salzkammergut, to see Gustav Mahler's composing hut. There are, in fact, three Mahler composing huts — in Steinbach, Maiernigg (to the south, on the Wörthersee), and Toblach (now Dobbiaco, in Italy). This is the one where the big man wrote much of his Second Symphony and drafted his Third. He built it to escape ambient noise at the Gasthof zum Höllengebirge, which is now the Gasthof Föttinger. Mahler's unquiet ghost is no doubt upset by the fact that his idyllic lakeside retreat is surrounded by an RV site and campground, where kids squeal all day long and German rap pumps from boomboxes.
If you look up to the colossal rockface of the Höllengebirge, which towers hundreds of feet above the lake, you can get a sense of why Mahler found this site so inspiring:
From Bruno Walter's memoir of Mahler: "I arrived by steamer on a glorious July day; Mahler was there on the jetty to meet me, and despite my protests, insisted on carrying my bag until he was relieved by a porter. As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this away!" The rockface became the introductory theme of the Third Symphony, the unison chant for eight horns, which he dubbed in one sketch "What the rocky mountain tells me."
Accompanying me on the expedition was Jeremy Eichler, critic at the New York Times, whose own report on the Salzburg Festival can be read in Sunday's paper. We picked up the key to the hut from the Gasthof reception desk. Turning the key in the lock seemed to trigger a switch; the Third Symphony started blaring when we walked in. Inside the hut is the piano on which Mahler composed, or a replica thereof. Photographs and fascimile manuscripts line the walls. There's a guestbook in which pilgrims can record their impressions; one visitor made an evocative sketch of Mahler at work.
I was prompted to make the trip to Steinbach after receiving a copy of Calling on the Composer, a new guide to composers' houses and museums by the late musicologist Stanley Sadie and his wife Julie Ann Sadie. Portions of the book had been appearing in Gramophone for several years. Sadie, whose life's work was the massive New Grove Dictionary of Music, finished this book just before his death last March. The last music he heard was the slow movement of Beethoven's final string quartet, Op. 135. The Chilingirian Quartet, which had just performed in a concert series that the Sadies had organized near their home, played it for him in his bedroom, as he went in and out of consciousness. He died the following day. The usual admonition to "rest in peace" seems unnecessary.