Mahler 5 Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race

[Note that this was originally published to my old blog in 2014, but has since been revised and published as part of a Festschrift for David Josephson.]

“I want to see who can make a program for my Fifth!”

Gustav Mahler to Richard Batka, 1905


Procrastinating real work, I decided to write a short creative project, which does in fact come out of my most recent research. I discovered a year ago at AMS that Gustav Mahler was not only a cyclist, but also had a penchant for ill-advised excursions up mountains. On one occassion, he apparently tried to ascend the Loiblpass just south of his summer home in Maiernigg. According to the story recounted by Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he thought he was about to reach the summit when he realized he still had “1000 meters” left to climb. At this point he paid a boy to push his bike up the road while he took a short cut, and almost killed himself trying to claw his way up a drainage gully. I’m currently researching the type of bike he would have used, following up on the story, and putting together his probable route. The next step will be to figure out how and whether this has any impact on his music, but the 5th Symphony, written immediately after the incident just mentioned, seems like fertile ground. I chose a title for such a study: “Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race,” a reference to The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” by Alfred Jarry (1905). J.G. Ballard also wrote a parody of that work, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race.”

And so what follows is my own parody, which will nonetheless reveal certain ways that I think a cycling-related program can be imposed on that symphony. The recordings referenced are: Hermann Scherchen, Philadelphia Orchestra (1964); Bruno Walter, New York Philharmonic (1947), Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (1963); Hans Rosbaud, Cologne Radio Ochestra (1951); and Bruno Maderna, RAI Milano (1973).

Klemperer, slated to race, was scratched.

The announcer, having listed the participants, gave the cue to begin. Scherchen, already on a bad footing, missed his first pedal stroke and almost ended his race at the start. He recovered with a strong second stroke and began his pursuit.

The race began with a “strictly measured” neutral start, but this did not stop the opportunistic competitors from trying to gain an advantage.

Walter took an early lead.

Italian mechanics being notoriously deficient, failed to tune Maderna’s machine prior to the race.

In those days, according to the excellent sports commentator Kalbeck, it was customary for the racers to begin by paying homage to colleagues who had fallen off on the previous day’s racing. For this race, and because of particular carnage in the previous week, organizers took the unorthodox step of beginning the race with a “funeral march.”

The course for the day had a somewhat unusual profile; the climb consisted of a lower peak followed by a quick descent and a false flat, followed by a long climb up to the higher elevation that constituted the day’s finish. In this, the climb was not dissimilar to the popular combination of the Col du Telegraph and the Col du Galibier used frequently in the Tour de France. The course had been designed in 1904 by the famous race organizer, Gustav Mahler.

Indeed, though this exact course has been used many times subsequently, there is always some confusion as to whether the course should be divided into three or five sections, as sectors one and two, and four and five seem to flow naturally into each other. There were however, five clearly marked “time-checks” including the summit finish.

The competitors were more or less riding in a group formation as they reached the first turn. Here things got suddenly faster. One might even say the races began riding wildly, or passionately.

And here, already, came the first attack of the day. Scherchen leapt out of his saddle and began riding so quickly that his wheels had trouble keeping in contact with the ground, and many spectators had the feeling he would simply veer off the road altogether. Rosbaud made a quick chase followed by Maderna and Bernstein. Walter kept his cool and, knowing that others would crack, and gradually brought the breakaway back, and subsequently rode them off his wheel.

Maderna, meanwhile, was somewhat distracted by the group of Mariachi trumpeters that greeted his arrival at the same turn.

At the first time-check, Walter crossed with a substantial lead, followed closely by Rosbaud who recovered well from a slow start, then Bernstein. Maderna just edged out Scherchen to round out the top five.

The section following, which led up to the first major peak of the day, also saw a storm descend on the race. The racers responded with the greatest of vehemence.

The less-experienced riders were surprised upon reaching the second time-check that this was not, in fact, the finish to the day’s racing; many who rode too hard during this section found themselves dispirited when when the road turned suddenly downward and they realized they still had over 1000 meters of climbing in front of them.

The standings changed little between the first and second time checks. Walter, continuing his blistering pace added over a minute to his lead. meanwhile a flat tire all but ended Bernstein’s day, and he crossed the line forty seconds behind Scherchen.

The course guide for the day warned riders not to dismiss the section from time check two to three, but many nevertheless considered it a “joke,” or “scherzo” as the Italian riders were fond of saying.

Walter’s seemingly unassailable dominance persuaded a dispirited Scherchen to dismount his bicycle. He handed the machine to a spectator and took an ill-advised shortcut by foot, missing over half of the race course in this section. The other competitors immediately lodged a formal complaint.

The spectator, meanwhile caught a lift from a race official and met Scherchen near the third time check with bike in hand. Scherchen emerged from the side of the road, having almost fallen to his death scrambling up a smooth water drainage gully. Some have speculated that Scherchen’s motivations were not as nefarious as they may have seemed, and that he fancied himself more of a race organizer than a bicycle racer.

At the third time check, Scherchen now had a commanding, though contested, lead. Having lost almost ten minutes, Walter now trailed Scherchen by six and a half minutes. Walter, who had been well in front when Scherchen made his short-cut, only found out about the deception as he crossed the line. His pride, however, prevented him from relying on official sanction, and resolved to win the race in spite of the loss of time. He set off in pursuit of Scherchen, the others now well behind.

The next section, by far the most beautiful aesthetically, nevertheless contained potential pitfalls for the competitors. Its terrain is a long “false-flat” where a fit rider can push a large gear, but a tired rider can easily come to grief. A famous sports commentator, and partisan of the so-called Frankfurt school of bicycle racing, found this entire section too “pretty,” and was heard muttering something about its “ingratiating sound.”

And here, Walter’s persistence paid off: Scherchen, clearly winded from his cross-country excursion took nearly twice as long to arrive at the fourth time check. Indeed, it is said that no other professional cyclist has ever taken longer to travel that section of road, even Scherchen on his previous attempt at the same course with a rickety state-issued Viennese bicycle.

At the fourth and final time check before the finishing climb, Walter was now again in the lead. A very tired-looking Scherchen crossed the line a minute later, followed by Rosbaud four minutes after that. Bernstein though not quick, managed to pass a faltering Maderna just before the line.

Walter set off in search of glory, his victory now all but assured. While he was not the fastest on the day through this section, Walter climbed well. Bernstein, surprisingly, was about 10 seconds faster than Walter, and over a minute faster than Rosbaud. Rosbaud, however, still had enough of a buffer that his podium place was never in danger. Maderna, no longer caring about overall victory, stopped to admire the stunning vistas and finished last of the favorites.

Walter, near the summit, slowed to wave at his ecstatic fans. Meanwhile, Scherchen made an amazing recovery–amazing enough that he has always been suspected of pharmaceutical enhancement. As Walter went under the one-kilometer-to-go banner, a sprinting Scherchen flew past on his way to victory. Walter slammed his fists on his handlebars in disgust as he crossed the line.

The results are contested.


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