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Main heading: The Music of Gustav Mahler: A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Sources [rule] Paul Banks





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This feature of the libretto had been already noted in 1910 by Paul Stefan (PSGM1, 14).




This story, from which in Alma Mahler's version Justine does not emerge with honour, can be pieced together from from the published correspondence between Mahler, and Alma and Justine, Alma's memoirs and HLGIV, 282–4; another good summary is to be found in GMBaAE, 372–3 which forms the basis of the account offered here (GMBaA does not contain some important, more recent information).



De la Grange also connects these events with the report from a Paris news agency at the end of November 1909 that Mahler was working on an opera entitled Theseus: this was widely reported in the European and American press even after Mahler issued a denial towards the end of December 1909. The linkage is tempting in terms of shared subject matter (some ancient sources include Theseus among the Argonauts although chronological inconsistencies result from this), but it has to remain conjectural.



For an interesting discussion of the links between Lipiner's interpretation of Goethe's Faust, his Hippolytos and Mahler's Eighth, see Caroline Kita, 'Myth, Metaphysics and Cosmic Drama: The Legacy of Faust in Lipiner’s Hippolytos and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony', Monatshefte, 105/4 (Winter 2013), 543–564.



Die Argonauten (Opera)




Die Argonauten


  [c. 1878–1880?]


  Mahler or Josef Steiner (1857–1913)  










Printed Editions






The earliest published reference to this opera appears to be Ludwig Schiedermair's short study of the composer written in 1900 and published the following year, where the only two works from Mahler's youth mentioned are 'the opera Die Argonauten, which remained incomplete, and a fairytale (Märchenspiel) Rübezahl...' (LSGM, 11). Although Schiedermair had no close links to Mahler, it is clear that the two men met, so he may have heard about both from the composer. A few years earlier, Mahler had certainly alluded to part of the opera in a conversation with Natalie Bauer-Lechner on 21 June 1896 (NBL2, 55; NBLE, 57–8 (revised here)):

Ein Klavierquintett und zwei Symphonien sowie ein Vorspiel zun den „Argonauten‟, das er früher gemacht, und eine preisgekrönte Violinsonate hat er nie ganz zu Papier gebracht. „Das war mir damals zu umständlich und mein Geist hatte sich noch zu wenig beruhigt und gesetzt. Ich schritt von Entwurf zu Entwurf und führte das meiste nur im Kopf aus; da wußte ich aber jede Note, daß ich es allezeit vorspielen konnte – bis ich es eines schönen Tages vergessen hatte.‟

A piano quintet, two symphonies, a prelude to Die Argonauten, composed earlier, and a prize-winning violin sonata were never fully written out. 'In those days I couldn't be bothered with all that – my mind was too restless and unstable. I skipped from one draft to another, and finished most of them merely in my head. But I knew every note of them, and could play them whenever they were wanted – until, one day, I found I had forgotten them all.

Fortunately there is another source that provides evidence for the one-time existence and the date of the opera prelude (GKKGM, 166ff.; trs. based on KBME, 156):

Der Preis der „Beethoven-Stipendiumstiftung‟ wurde am 1 September 1876 zum ersten Male ausgeschreiben. Man kam jedoch nicht in die Lage, einen solchen zuzuerkenen. Der nicht eben zutreffende Title wurde in „Beethoven-Kompositionsstiftung‟ umgeändert. Auch hat man die Frist, innerhalb welcher ein absolvierten Zögling sich bewerben durfte, von sechs auf zehn Jahre verlängert. Im Jahre 1878 konnte wiederum kein Preis verteilt werden. Unter den drei Bewerben war auch Gustav Mahler, der im demselben Jahre das Konservatorium absolviert hatte, mit einer Ouverture zu den „Argonauten‟ (Thematischer Anfang in den Akten aufbewahrt).

The competition for the Beethoven Scholarship Fund award was announced for the first time on 1 September 1876, but it turned out to be impossible to make an award. The somewhat unsuitable title was altered to the Beethoven Composition Fund, and at the same time the period within which a graduate might compete for it was extended from six to ten years after completing their studies. It was again impossible to make an award in 1878. There were three applicants, among them Gustav Mahler, who had graduated from the Conservatoire that same year, and who submitted an Overture to the Argonauts (a copy of the opening theme is preserved in the files).

Unfortunately, although the prize committee minutes for 1879 (together with thematic incipits) survive in the Gesellschaft archive, those  for 1878 have not been traced.

The Competition was given high-profile advertising in the Viennese press from the beginning of 1878 and reveal that, contrary to what GKKGM implies, neither the name of the award, nor time-frame within which graduates would be eligible, had been revised beforehand:


Facsimile of the announcement of the 1878 competition for the Beethoven-Stipendium offered by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.


Fig. 1. Early announcement of the 1878 competition for the Beethoven-Stipendium

Wiener Zeitung, 14 January 1878, p. 7

Under these rules Mahler, as a composition student who would graduate in July 1878, was not eligible to make a submission because only those who graduated in the years 1872–77 could enter. However, at the very end of the academic year a number of Viennese newspapers carried a rather less prominent announcement that in three respects the details had been modified: the name had been changed, composers who graduated in the eleven years 1868–78 would now be eligible, and the submission date had been extended to 30 September. Clearly there were concerns – justified as it turned out –  about the likely number and/or quality of entries, and the change in the rules did at least allow one more graduate to make a submission.

Black and white facsimile of the July 1878 annouvement that appeared in Die Presse

Fig. 2. Announcement of revisions to the rules relating to the

1878 competition for the Beethoven-Stipendium

Die Presse, 12 July 1878, 11

Interestingly Guido Adler referred to the opera in his (successful) submission, dated 23 January 1898, to the Gesellschaft zur Förderung deutscher Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur in Böhmen, in support of his proposal that the Gesellschaft should offer Mahler a subvention towards the publication costs of the first three symphonies (ERGA, 88):

In his youth (up to 1880) he composed chamber music pieces, songs and an opera Die Argonauten; from 1880-1890 a fairy-tale opera Rübezahl, for which, like the aforementioned, he also wrote the text.

In his later book (GA, 75, 97) Adler locates the opera in 1880 and reports that Mahler wrote  the libretto in Stabreim¹ (see also below) and that it was destroyed. So, none of the contemporary reports provide any clue about how much of the music, apart from the Prelude/Overture, was actually composed, and Donald Mitchell was of the view that probably the music for the opera may have progressed no further than the Prelude (DM1, 197).  Nevertheless, Die Argonauten was obviously an important work for Mahler because, contrary to Adler's report that the work had been destroyed,  Mahler retained manuscript material for many years, and in 1908 it became embroiled in a dispute between Mahler and his sister Justine:² Mahler had become aware that when in 1902 she left their home to marry Arnold Rosé, Justine had taken some of his manuscripts, including material relating to Rübezahl. He requested its return before he left for America in the autumn of 1908. Justine claimed she had burnt it, but then sent Mahler a packet purporting to be the libretto of Rübezahl. When it arrived, Mahler realised it was in fact the libretto of  Die Argonauten. De la Grange reports (GMBaAE, 312) that:

Alma claims to have helped Mahler throw the manuscript of Rübezahl into the sea during their voyage to America. But in fact it was still among her papers when she died. She too seems to have confused Rübezahl with The Argonauts....

So, if anything was thrown overboard, it was probably a libretto of Die Argonauten that - appropriately enough - was consigned to the ocean.³ However, it appears that there may have been another copy of the libretto of the opera in existence at least until the late 1930s (DM1, 314):

In a letter (1979) to Donald Mitchell, Dr. Felix Steiner refers to a MS libretto, apparently in his father Josef Steiner's hand with marginal comments in another hand-writing, which he last saw in Vienna in 1938, shortly before he was forced to leave that city. This MS is now presumed lost: it was in Stabreim and dealt with the subject of Jason and Medea; thus it may well have been the libretto of Die Argonauten, which perhaps was another joint project by Mahler and Steiner, like Herzog Ernst von Schwaben.

Evidence of Mahler's admiration for and critique of Grillparzer's play (which may also suggest how Mahler's libretto perhaps differed from it) is to be found in a letter he wrote to Siegfried Lipiner in the summer of 1900, after having read the latter's verse-play Hippolytos. At the end of Act II Phaedra kills herself because of feelings of guilt and shame for her unrequited love for her step-son, Hippolytos. Mahler was at first unconvinced, but changed his mind (GMB2a, 271–2; GMSL, 243):

Nur eins will ich Dir berichten: Im 2. Act war ich von der Motivierung ders Endes der Phädra bei der ersten Lesung etwas befremdet. Mir kam es wie eine Abschwächung des naiven Mythos vor, ungefähr wie ich es bei die Argonauten von Grillparzer immer empfinde. Es schein mir, als wäre diese »Milderung« der anscheinend brutalen Lösung sentimantal (im Schillerischen Sinn). Aber ich griff zu Deiner probaten Methode, dumm zu werden vor einem Kunstwerk, und ging ein zweites Mal ohne alle Voraussetzungen daran, und begriff ich Dich sofort. – Ja, ich könnet mir jetzt eine andere Lösung nicht mehr vorstellen.

Just one thing I must tell you: on my first reading of the second act I was rather disconcerted by the motivation of Phaedra's end. It struck me as a weakening of the naïve myth, rather the way I always feel it is weakened in Grillparzer's Argonauts. It seemed to me that this 'toning down' of the apparently brutal solution was sentimental (in Schiller's sense of the word). But then I resorted to your proven method – approaching a work of art in a mindless state – turned to it without any preconceptions, and thereupon understood what you meant. In fact, now I could hardly imagine any other solution.


See also: Herzog Ernst von Schwaben (opera; 1875); Rübezahl (opera; 1878-?), Opera Project (1888)

Select Bibliography
  NBL2, 55; NBLE, 57–8;  GMBaAE, 372–3; GMLJ, 530; GMLJE, 392.
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