By Todd Ferguson

 Wife: “Can we please listen to something else?!”

   Me: “I thought you didn’t care.”


And with that the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth—one of the most achingly desperate representations of human frailty and mortality in music—is abruptly replaced by the thyroid-thumping throb of Lady Gaga.

   Wife (singing): “‘Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah-ah! Roma-roma-maaa!’”

   Me: “I got it.”

   Wife: Gaga just made Mahler her BITCH!!”

It’s too early for this. I leave the room, put on my sneakers, and head out for a morning run.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Mahler recently because 2011 marks the centennial of his death. Last year marked the sesquicentennial of the composer’s birth, thereby unleashing two-plus years of geeked-out Mahler hysteria. Orchestras around the world have dedicated multiple concerts to perform Mahler’s works. Special edition box-sets have been issued. Coins have been minted. And many articles, books, and DVDs issued. Along with my fellow deranged Mahlerians, I’ve been blissfully immersed in at all.

Of all that I’ve read about Mahler and his music recently one biographical quirk has been a source of continuing fascination: his estranged brother, Alois, who moved to Chicago sometime in the early 1900s. Essentially disowned by Gustav and his other siblings, Alois moved to the U.S. to begin life anew (he also changed his name to Hans). While little is known about Alois’ American life (he died in 1931), his final address in Chicago, 3931 North Hoyne, is a mere 5 blocks from my house.

Now, on my early morning runs, I will occasionally run past Alois’ old house, in an odd sort of homage to his famous brother and imagine who Alois was and what, if anything, he thought of his brother’s music. Did Alois attend the debut of his Gustav’s music (Fifth Symphony) in Chicago in 1907, or the performance of the Eighth in 1917? Did Alois mourn Gustav’s death in 1911?

Alois’ old house has also become a touchstone of sorts for my own reflections on Gustav’s life, family, and music: How does Mahler’s music reflect his relationships with others? Is Theodor Adorno right that Mahler’s music traces “the history of a breaking heart”?

I believe my polite historical stalking symbolizes a search for a deeper, nuanced, more personal connection with Mahler’s music—a subterranean attempt at exposing the unexposed, of yearning to identify the invisible and forgotten next to the canonized and memorialized, and thereby striving to humanize one man’s music.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself as I run past a stranger’s house at 6:00AM.

(Photo: Corbis)