A letter from Gustav Mahler to Father Christmas: a parody by comedian John Sessions
Mr Sessions imagines what Gustav Mahler would write to Santa
May I begin by saying how I envy you all that peace at the North Pole. Quiet, quiet, quiet. Or is it? My fellow but inferior composer friend, Hugo Wolf – who some called insane but I simply found a bit chatty – once told me that polar bears, (Ursus Maritimes, in case you’ve never heard of them – you are so busy making toys as indeed I am at composing, conducting, shouting at people etc), are as gossipy as ostlers and cab drivers.
Perhaps you could put me straight? Now, for Christmas, I would like you to send me a small hut on a lake, and the lake must only make noises when I want it to. So if, say, I am writing a symphonic movement called, for example ‘what the birds tell me when they have the goodness to shut their bloody beaks’, I know that there won’t be a caw or a cheep or some other appalling noise of nature to shatter my concentration.
Oh, Santa, I suspect we are comrade-in-arms, are we not? When for example some mutton-witted elf paints a doll’s cheeks the wrong shade of pink, I bet you smash the toy to atoms before wringing the elf’s neck like a chicken. I don’t mean that you wring the elf’s neck after the manner of a chicken, oh, you know what I mean! Why do you ask me such ridiculous questions? Oh, I do apologise, Santa. You didn’t ask me a question, did you? It was just my acclimatisation to meat again that has, I imagine, set me off. You would be aware, I take it, of my being a vegetarian for many years.
So, where were we? Yes, a composing hut that only allows nature to make a sound when I want it to make it. Pretty straightforward for you, I’m sure. Now for the thorny bit. Could you perhaps give Richard Strauss something heavy and cumbersome so that he fractures his wrist while trying to move it? Never ever have I harboured the slightest jealousy of the admittedly affluent Strauss, indeed I treasure him as an ally in the war against conventional, Brahmsian – no, let me just say conventional music. I believe I owe Brahms a favour in helping me secure my position at the Vienna Opera, and given that he’s dead – although what great composer truly dies? – I would not wish to upset his dear and powerful friends. Why I mentioned powerful, I cannot imagine. Anyway, to return to Strauss. Should you go to the bother of breaking Strauss’s wrist, please make it a compound fracture. I ask this out of love. Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier... so much successful opera composition is bad for him. He’ll end up as an opera- writing machine like Rossini, and we all know what happened there. Ground to a halt at 36. Just as well, I say. The fact that I haven’t written an opera – yet – is so irrelevant I don’t know why I’m mentioning it. Anyway, I wouldn’t want Strauss incapacitated in any grievous, let’s say mortal, way.
Let me just say that some of his sails need to be beneficially furled. So, a very heavy mirror (little joke) might be an idea? Or perhaps you could, I wouldn’t say plague... perhaps you could test him with a klezmer band playing outside of his window while he is writing a particularly affecting love duet? The more I think about it, the more I truly see it as a gift. So much has come so easily to Herr Strauss. Perhaps if he had been born in a pigsty at the back end of Moravia he wouldn’t be so... ungrateful?... no, complacent... about his affluent beginnings. So, a few thoughts there. Please don’t let me be prescriptive. After all, you are Santa Claus. Everything lies in your gift, and all that. Well, yours and God’s. Are you related, by the way? It might be good to know. Don’t want to offend... anybody.
Finally, dear, possibly divine, Santa I would like... how shall I put it... something that would temper the vehemence and curiosity of my beloved wife, Alma. She has been forbidden by me to compose, which is only right, notwithstanding the Schumanns and other scurrilous precedents, and when I am alone in my composing hut with only an apple and my genius for company, I do wonder what she might be up to. I once had occasion while composing ‘The Symphony of an Awful Lot of People’ to return to our main summer villa on the Wörthersee. I had run out of paper after hours of frantic creation, and who should I see leaving the said villa but Gustav Klimt, Freud, Walter Gropius, Emperor Franz Joseph, four cab drivers, a circus strongman and, quite inexplicably, an ostrich.
Now, I am not a jealous man as you’ve already gathered, but if I were I might be compelled to construe such an eventuality as being, how does Toscanini put it, ‘a bit iffy’. Or something like that. Italian is the language of layabouts. So, just given the
tiniest possibility that my wife might be entertaining a few men – and an ostrich – with a cup of drinking chocolate or some other harmless pastime, I would be very grateful if, during the summer months, you could give her the bodily dimensions of say Marie Wittich, whose voice both Strauss and I adore, but who is built like a dreadnought. Six chins would be splendid. And bringing up the rear – let me be delicate, after all – do think in terms of your own, much celebrated and beloved girth. When we return to Vienna there would be – permit a pun – a fat chance of her transgressing there, right under my nose!
I do so love you, Santa. I am but a child in this world.
Editor’s note: This letter to Father Christmas was discovered in an archive of Mahler’s papers by John Sessions, the well known actor and comedian. Mr Sessions edited it, translated it and, in fact, completely invented it before passing it over the BBC Music Magazine for exclusive publication.
Read more about Mahler and his works here