Gustav Mahler’s travel letters from Norway, 1891

During a short week’s stay in Norway, Gustav Mahler managed to experience not only the Moss air and the forests around Drammen but also the archipelagos of Southern Norway – and to try out his Norwegian.

Written by Fred-Olav Vatne

In the summer of 1891, Gustav Mahler spent part of his summer holiday in Norway.

From Moss, early 1900s.

Mahler’s experiences in Norway have been preserved on a number of postcards and in letters to his family.

The young composer happened to encounter a far more famous artist during his stay.

Gustav Mahler was the most sought-after conductor of his time and, like many great artists, a busy and hard-working man. Throughout most of his career, he had to spend his summer holidays composing his ground-breaking symphonies.

A few years after his visit to Norway, he was a super-celebrity in cultural Europe, but in 1891, he was still unknown enough to travel without attracting attention. And that particular summer he took a real break.

“The day after tomorrow, early, I board ship and depart—for where, I do not even know myself,” he writes in a postcard to Sister Justine, sent from Hamburg on 3 August 1891. The next day he travels north towards Kiel and, from there, via Denmark and Sweden to Norway.

At this time, Gustav Mahler is 31 years old and still a fairly unknown composer. Two years earlier, his Symphony no. 1 was performed in Budapest, where he was working as a conductor, but it was not a success. In the spring of 1891, he moved to Hamburg and took a managerial position at the city’s opera house.

In 1889, he also lost three family members: both parents and his sister Leopoldine. His parents had had 14 children but now only five were still living, and as the eldest, Gustav took responsibility for his siblings, who remained in Vienna while he took work elsewhere.

It was his eight-year-younger sister Justine who had the closest relationship with Gustav. She regularly exchanged letters with her brother and took good care of both letters and postcards. Five hundred letters to her and others in the family have been preserved, including his “travel letters” from Scandinavia.

Gustav Mahler and his sister Justine.

From the Austrian National Library/Unknown photographer

Watch Mahler’s first symphony with the Oslo Philharmonic:

Cheerful sailors on the quay

He does not travel north entirely alone – he takes one of the popular travel books from the German publisher Baedeker along for the journey. The travel guide to Norway and Sweden was first published in 1879, and the fourth edition was published only ten years later – Mahler was probably not the only German-speaking tourist in Norway that summer.

In Denmark, Mahler travels to Copenhagen and Elsinore, where he visits Kronborg Castle, known as Hamlet’s castle in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

In Sweden, he travels to Halmstad and on to Gothenburg, which he enjoys very much. “More than anything I don’t want to leave this place. Indescribable! Marvellous harbour life!” he writes to Justine.

Early in the evening of 10 August, Gustav Mahler arrives in Moss by train from Gothenburg. The eventually infamous “Moss smell” had already begun to seep out of M. Peterson & Søn’s cellulose factory in 1883. Mahler does not mention the factory, and attributes the bad air to fish and ships, but it is conceivable that it was the factory smell that bothered him.

In any case, the air at the quai makes Mahler unwell, and he takes the steamer on to Christiania the same evening. But first he has a lively chat with some sailors on the quay: “We had a marvellous conversation: they showed gallantry by speaking English for my benefit, and I spoke Norwegian (with the help of my Baedeker).

From Moss, early 1900s.

Photo Mittet & Co. AS

Starstruck at the Grand Hotel

Mahler’s first meeting with Christiania is also disappointing. The rain pours down, and on his first day in the city, he considers travelling straight home to Hamburg. He is also dissatisfied with his hotel and relocates to the Grand Hotel, where he contemplates his remaining travel funds and longs for better weather.

And it does get better – the next day, he looks around the city. The summer palace, Oscarshall on Bygdøy (see photo at the top of the article), makes a particularly good impression on Mahler – he compares it to the famous Miramare Castle in northern Italy, which was also built in the 1850s. But he finds the biggest attraction at the hotel:

“Evenings, when I return to the hotel, I sit in the reading room. When I looked up from my newspaper for a moment, in front of me I saw—Ibsen. He is here right now, and is living in the same hotel. You can well imagine that I was not a little moved by this.”

Henrik Ibsen, who was becoming one of the world’s most famous authors, had just moved back to Norway after living abroad for 27 years. For a few seconds, two of the greatest artists of all time are just a few metres apart – without exchanging a word.

Grand Hotel in Christiania, photographed in 1892.

Photo Axel Lindahl

Use two fingers to move the map

Henrik Ibsen in 1893.

Photo Joseph Albert

Mahler soon comes to the conclusion that his stay in Norway had to be shorter than planned. The journey to the Norwegian interior he was dreaming of would cost too much, since he would have to travel by sleeping car, which would be a little too expensive. But he gives up the plan with a heavy heart and, as he writes:

“… I would really borrow from this Norway! In splendidness and individuality of nature, as well as of the inhabitants, the Alps cannot compare (for us southerners). Once one really knows one’s way around, life here is extraordinarily cheap and very comfortable.”

The next day, Mahler embarks on a hike to Frognerseteren, where the restaurant has just opened. He praises the view and finds it extremely gratifying to find his own way around. Along the way, he asks for directions and receives help from a friendly university professor who invites Mahler into his home.

Frognerseteren at the end of the 1800s.

Photo Marthinius Skøien

“The best part of the whole trip”

The letter he sends from Christiania on 13 August will be the last one he sends from Norwegian soil. He sums up the last part of his journey in a letter sent from Friedriechshafen to all his siblings a few days later. Here he describes how he visited Drammen, Larvik and Kristiansand in his final days in Norway:

“The last 3 days were the best of the whole trip. Here are the outward facts. Left Christ. early Thursday morning by rail to Drammen. Its harbour made a better impression on me than that of Ch. itself. The city lies on both sides of a glorious river ...”

In Drammen, it does not take Mahler long to find his way up to Bragernesåsen, where he discovers “a whole world in itself”. From there, he continues inland through the forest to Svarttjern Lake. He makes good use of his time in the city: “After about 5 extremely enjoyable hours, I was still on time to board the boat to take me to Laurwik.”

View towards Drammen from Bragernesåsen. Photo from the 1880s.

Photo Axel Lindahl

He only stays overnight in Larvik (or Laurwik, as he calls it). Then he takes a ship on to Kristiansand: “This journey through the Norwegian ‘skerries’ was the most enjoyable of my whole tour.”

He tells his siblings about the beautiful coastal nature, but the musician Mahler clearly comes through: He uses most space to describe an enjoyable performance by a troupe from the Salvation Army, which had started its first congregation in Norway a few years earlier.

“So, they tuned for about an hour. All the passengers stood attentively in order to hear them—admittedly, some were puking over the side, as the ship rode up and down over high swells. Finally, they began to sing, the women with squeaky voices, and the men with croaky ones.”

Gustav Mahler did not get the best first impression of Norwegian music culture. And he did not return – he spent his many creative summers further south in Europe. From the turn of the century, he spent his holidays in a summer house he bought on Attersee in Austria.

When Mahler’s first symphony was played for the first time in the Norwegian capital 28 years later, the concert was conducted by Georg Schnéevoigt, one of Mahler’s orchestra musicians in Hamburg, who had now become Chief Conductor of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra – today known as the Oslo Philharmonic.


Hans H. Rowe: “Mahler in Norway”, article in concert programme for the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Stephen McClatchie (ed.): The Mahler Family Letters

Henry-Louis De La Grange: Gustav Mahler, the Arduous Road to Vienna, 18601897

Translated from Norwegian by Samtext.