Sunday, 9 January 2011

WHY MAHLER? by Norman Lebrecht / Review

By Norman Lebrecht
Pantheon Books / Hardcover
326 pages / $44.99 / Books Kinokuniya
This review was published in The Sunday Times on 2 January 2011.

From the man who wrote Who Killed Classical Music? (also titled When The Music Stops), a diatribe about the worldwide decline of Western classical music, the mere fact that this volume was even published spells a reversal of fortunes.

It was almost a hundred years ago when Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911, left) died from a rheumatic heart condition. Then one of the world’s leading orchestral conductors, he had a penchant for composing complex and interminably long symphonies, which only he would conduct.

“My time will come,” he boldly prophesied. From a curious footnote in music history, Mahler has now become the most performed of symphonic composers since Beethoven. What led to this Mahleria, or Mahler fever?

Lebrecht’s (left) book traces Mahler’s life from his native Bohemia, through journeyman years as conductor in provincial centres to the great musical capitals cities and inexorably rising ambitions. It reads like part-biography and part personal quest to explain this phenomenon.

Mahler’s symphonies have a central place in the account, and the Freudian in Lebrecht attempts to explain his compositional decisions based on traumatic childhood experiences, love life, ambivalence to religion (Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism for purely social reasons) and the prevalent anti-Semitism he faced.

The basis behind his famous quote of being “Thrice homeless… a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the world,” is often brought up. Some of the views are totally plausible, while others, such as Mahler being an animal rights advocate on account of his Fourth Symphony, is tenuous at best.

The final third is devoted to an overview of Mahler recordings, revealing a particular sympathy to Klaus Tennstedt (left), the late Eastern German conductor whose frail physical and mental health and vulnerabilities seemed to mirror Mahler’s own. His thoroughness also has space for a mention of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s recording of The Song Of The Earth.

Recommended for Mahlerites and newcomers alike.

If you like this, read:
By Norman Lebrecht
Faber & Faber
Available at
the composer as viewed in the eyes of his contemporaries.

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