Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud

They were Jews by birth (unreligious, but puritanical) and Viennese by adoption. Freud had been a medical student in Vienna when Mahler was at the conservatory. Later Mahler served as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera. Opera was one of Freud’s few diversions. But they did not meet until Freud was fifty-four and Mahler, at fifty, had less than a year to live.

The encounter was occasioned by Mahler’s marital problems with the young and beautiful Alma. Immersed in his tenth symphony, Mahler suddenly found himself the object of domestic rebellion. Alma had, she said, submitted to his tyranny and neglect long enough; she felt used, drained by his self-absorption. The truth of her accusations, together with a case of impotence, produced both guilt and panic—panic that was not eased by the appearance of another man (Walter Gropius) on the scene. Action was called for.

Freud, vacationing in Leyden, Holland, that summer of 1910, received a telegram asking for an appointment. Next day came another telegram, canceling. Mahler’s vacillation was repeated twice more before he managed to conquer his resistance. They met in a Leyden hotel and spent the next four hours strolling about the town—the stocky, confident doctor and the thin, intense composer— smoking the cigars both adored. Freud conducted a sort of mini-analysis. A mother-fixation was diagnosed—Mahler was attracted by his wife’s youthful beauty but resented that she was not old and careworn like his mother. Alma, to even things out, had a father complex and found her husband’s age appealing. Mahler was reassured.

They parted friends. Mahler’s potency returned—and psychoanalysis got the credit. Alma said later that Freud had reproached her husband for marrying one so young, but his attitude was closer to sympathy than to censure. A good wife—in Freud’s view as in Mahler’s—was but a ministering angel put on earth for the comfort and support of her husband.

—Nancy Caldwell Sorel