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The Marriage

The Mahlers in New York
(A Novel)

"Gustav Mahler was not really cut out to be music director of an American orchestra, sensitive to the needs of a cultural community, its scribes, audiences, and benefactors. He had bigger things to do."



Gustav and Alma Mahler arrived in New York City in 1907. He had been invited to lead the Metropolitan Opera; his glamorous wife accompanied him to the New World. His embattled American career places their legendary marriage in sharp relief. Nineteen years Gustav's junior, Alma was his constant companion and occasional soul-mate, sometimes his muse, always his caretaker, a woman otherwise restless and unfulfilled. Her husband's life was intensely interior, sporadically alert to others' needs and desires.

Fortified by decades of scholarship, Horowitz's novel is set in a fin-de-siecle world music capital teeming with fabled personalities: Arturo Toscanini, whose Italian juggernaut displaced Mahler at the Met; Olive Fremstad, the Maria Callas of her day; James Gibbons Huneker, described by his protégé H. L. Mencken as a “veritable geyser of unfamiliar names, shocking epigrams in strange tongues, and unearthly philosophies”; the dapper Otto Kahn, an anomalous Jew among the Metropolitan Opera boxholders, who played cards with Enrico Caruso and pursued the company's most fetching sopranos.

As The Marriage illuminates, there are things to be learned about Gustav and Alma that cannot as readily be observed in Vienna or Budapest as in Manhattan. Horowitz writes: “Mahler was a great personality and, when circumstances permitted, a great man. He arrived in America weakened and fatigued. His energy and idealism were aroused by the New World, but fitfully . . . he remained a chronic outsider. Gustav Mahler was not really cut out to be music director of an American orchestra, sensitive to the needs of a cultural community, its scribes, audiences, and benefactors. He had bigger things to do.”

Advance Praise


Horowitz is a master of what I would call “passionate scholarship.” He has a stake in what he writes. There is a lot of very sensitive skin in his game. As a literary writer he is at heart the free-spirited scholar he has been for decades; his prose frames in precise words the psychological ambiguities of personalities no less than the nuances of musical compositions or performances. His deep historical knowledge blends with his narrative imagination to bring to life the sounds, the smells, the physical textures, the very air his characters breathed: Gustav and Alma Mahler are, at the same time, accurate historical portraits and haunting literary presences.

— Antonio Muñoz Molina (winner of the Jerusalem Prize)

Despite his emotions having so often been on show, there has always been something enigmatic and unknowable about Gustav Mahler. But where biographers and other musicologists have struggled, Joseph Horowitz succeeds brilliantly in revealing the inner Mahler in this powerful and moving novel. It is a triumph of historical imagination.

— Richard Aldous, author of Tunes of Glory: The Life of Malcolm Sargent; Eugene Meyer Professor of History and Culture, Bard College

If we want to get closer to the “truth” of Mahler and his music, if we hope to improve our understanding of the person and his creations, we need to acknowledge the role our imagination must play in the learning process. In the case of Mahler, the essential facts have long been known. What we need now are fresh attempts to conceive what further truths they might contain. Joseph Horowitz's brilliant novel reveals much to us about who Mahler was, what he accomplished, and how he related to his world. Readers will be as eager to study it as they would any biography, and they can expect to learn as much.

— Charles Youmans, Author of Mahler and Strauss: In Dialogue (2016); editor of Mahler in Context (2021); Professor of Musicology, Penn State University

Joe Horowitz's The Marriage portrays Mahler with more power and poignancy than anyone else ever has. Set in a spider web of New York City wealth, power, and intrigue, the writing is so profoundly personal, so searingly intimate, that it is sometimes painful to read — to get that close to Mahler and his wife Alma — “the most beautiful woman in Vienna.” I found myself unable to resist reading passages several times. This is a book for people who love Mahler and long to know him intimately (and there are millions) — a truer, more human Mahler than we have ever before encountered. Alma is also fabulously drawn, with all her love and antipathy towards her husband.

— JoAnn Falletta, Music Director, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Persuasive and fair. It is refreshing to see this chapter of Gustav Mahler's biography from an American perspective, written by someone not automatically biased in favor of Europe.

— Karol Berger, Author of Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche; Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Stanford University


Peter Davison (June 2023)

(Extended version here)

We are offered by the author a portrait of Mahler that is real. Here was a man of formerly prodigious energy weakened by illness, wounded by his experiences in Vienna and thus prone to paranoia. We can only imagine what might have ensued if Mahler’s American sojourn had not been cut short by his final illness. However, the most striking insights of The Marriage are about Alma. The book lays bare the paradoxes of Mahler’s character which Alma had patiently to endure. His hypersensitivity and infantile insecurities co-existed with a tyrannical willpower which spared no one – particularly not Alma, least of all himself. In conclusion, I should draw attention to Horowitz’s use of language, which is vivid – occasionally extravagant. Most impressive are his poetical accounts of Mahler’s music which profoundly acknowledge the composer’s genius, signaling that the author has no wish to diminish Mahler’s musical achievements. The Marriage is a brave experiment, following wherever the imagination leads to fill gaps in historical knowledge and to test the validity of long held assumptions.

Clive Paget, Musical America (July 2023)

(Extended version here)

Gustav Mahler is one of history’s most complex and contradictory personalities, a man disarmingly naïve, intellectually profound, blunt to the point of rudeness, dictatorial, preoccupied—and frequently all at the same time. Literary biographers struggle to pin him down . . . , With his unparalleled knowledge of fin-de-siècle classical music in America, Joseph Horowitz [has] brought us closer to Mahler and his wife Alma than any other author I have read. . . . Drawing on firsthand newspaper accounts, Gustav and Alma’s letters, and his own awareness of the seething, Byzantine American music milieu into which Mr. and Mrs. Mahler found themselves precipitated, he conjures a vivid portrait of New York society and life in the teeming city at the turn of the century. An assured portraitist, he brings his cast to life with the vibrant brushstrokes of a John Singer Sargent. . . . Even more compelling is Horowitz’s realization of Alma. History has not been kind to Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, 20 years her husband’s junior, but Horowitz makes her a far more complex and sympathetic figure than the usual trophy hunter on the lookout for the next husband. . . . What emerges is a woman desperate to find herself but tragically shackled to the least likely man to help her do so. At times, your heart breaks for them both. Horowitz surrounds them with a supporting cast of fully three-dimensional characters. . . . The Marriage is for anybody who enjoys a good read, but especially for people wanting to know more about who Mahler really was. . . . In Gustav and Alma Mahler, Horowitz has created two of classical music’s most convincing fictional portraits.

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