Gal on Mahler

As we celebrate the release of the new Gal CD, I’m hoping to use this blog to give readers a chance to get to know a little bit more about this fascinating musician and figure. I thought we might make a nice bridge from recent topics by starting with Mahler. Here are two wonderful and telling anecdotes from an article by Martin Anderson. The first is from an interview recorded by Anderson and Gal in 1986, when the composer was 96.

I believe you heard Mahler conduct in Vienna .

Yes, it was always an extraordinary experience. I attended one of his earliest performances at the Opera. It was Auber’s Fra Diavolo, curiously.

But that was in 1897!

Yes, that is correct. I was only a small boy, but in those days it was the custom for children to go to the opera with their parents, and so we went to see Fra Diavolo. We heard Mahler conduct quite often at the opera house, where he remained until 1907. It is extraordinary how these things stick in the memory. But it was the most marvellous conducting – in all these years I’ve never heard anything to equal it.

In the appendix to this article, Anderson relays a story Gal told to Malcolm Smith at Boosey and Hawkes

When I was a school-lad, I lived in Vienna [he did tell me what Gasse it was, but I can’t now remember]. It was on the first floor, above a confectioner’s. I was taught by my mother to play the piano, and after a time, of course, when I was nine or ten, she couldn’t teach me any more, so I had a gentleman in from the Conservatoire there. He used to come in on a Saturday morning and leave me a couple of pieces to learn by the next Saturday.

One particular Saturday he said: ‘Hansi, you’ve done very well today – here’s a pfennig for you: go and buy some sweeties downstairs’. After he’d gone, my mother said: ‘Alright, you can go down’. So I went downstairs. I knew the people in the shop very well: a couple of daughters and an old dear, who was about 80-odd and sat behind the door and took the money; the daughters made the sweets and cakes and they served.

When I came in with my pfennig [it might have been a groschen – it was the equivalent of about a ha’penny], one of the girls said: ‘Oh, Hansi, you played very well today, we enjoyed it very much. What can we do for you?’ So I said I had a pfennig and I’d like some sweeties. They said: ‘Well, as you know, you can have ten of your choice for a pfennig’. So they made a cardboard cornet for me out of paper and I put various selections in. Then they said: ‘As you played so well, you can have two more’. So I thanked them very much and went to pay my money to the old dear.

She said: ‘You played very well. It reminds me that, when I was a young girl, I used to live in such-and-such a Gasse. We lived on the second floor, and there was a flat above us, and there was a musician there who caused us terrible trouble. I slept in one room and my parents in another, and he used to bang on the piano all through the night, and my parents had to stand on the bed with a broomstick and bang on the ceiling and shout at him to stop. Of course, I saw this chap as I went to school in the morning – he’d be coming done the spiral staircase and I used to follow him down the road. He used to wear a long black coat and a top hat, and all the children used to shout and throw things at him. After a time he moved because he didn’t pay his rent’.

I said: ‘Who was that?’

She said: ‘It was Beethoven’.

Read the whole thing here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “Gal on Mahler”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    So…those are charming stories. I am not sure how much credence I give to the 70+ year-old memories of an old man about a conductor he last heard as a teenager.

  2. Erik K

    Those memories pretty much affirm the popular consensus of Mahler the conductor, though, don’t they? Perhaps it’s just a myth that’s been perpetuated by 12 guys in a smoky room in Geneva, but I’ve never heard or read anything but the highest praise about Mahler’s conducting (if not his behavior and temper).

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Lisa! Lovely to hear from you- I continue to read ITOM often. I hope I’m not over-hyping some of the folks I heard in teens- Solti, Berstein, Miles Davis….. a long list! Gal’s recollection matches those of the NY Phil players interviewed in the 1960s, who all said that whatever his personality quirks, he was the best they ever played for (and totally over-shadowed Toscanini!)

  4. Lisa Hirsch

    What he says may well be in line with what everyone else says. I’m just thinking…if you’re very old, and you have some memories from your teenage years and before, AND you’ve been around people who also have memories or you’ve read others recollections…what do we know about what is Gal’s actual memory of Mahler and what he might have absorbed from the atmosphere?

    Thanks, Ken – I have been reading you, though I am behind on the concertmaster stuff. 🙂

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