Mahler on the Couch


Gustav Mahler was a brilliant composer, and a bit of a control freak. He liked to be in charge of everything: As a composer, he conducted his own work. As a husband, he forced his wife to stop composing her own music. And, as a Jew, he converted to Catholicism, hoping that it would help his career in pre-WWII anti-Semitic Austria.

So it might come as a surprise that Mahler, while in a midlife depression, surrendered himself to psychotherapy treatment–at the hands of Sigmund Freud.

The new film Mahler on the Couch (watch the trailer here) is based on the story of Mahler’s troubled relationship with his wife, Alma. Seemingly doomed from the start, their courtship was looked down upon by her family (anti-Semitism) and by his family (they thought she was a flirt). There were problems in the relationship from both sides–Alma had extramarital relationships with the painter Gustav Klimt and others, and Mahler was distant and career-driven.

Mahler’s treatment under Freud was a significant turning point in the composer’s career. Notably, after their meeting, Gustav started encouraging his wife to compose music, and helped her to publish her compositions. The film doesn’t purport to tell the truth behind the treatment–those conversations were behind closed doors, and the only account we have of their meeting is a single-page account written by Freud’s biographer. But the film does show the fiery and forceful personalities behind the Mahlers’ story.

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