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Celebrating, and mourning, Mahler with Norman Lebrecht May 18, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Reading.
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A century ago today, the world lost a great conductor, Gustav Mahler.  Now ensconced with the Met and Philharmonic in New York, having hailed from an illustrious career in Budapest, Hamburg, and Vienna, mentor to Bruno Walter, he was the focus of nascent mass media and other hangers on who chronicled the details of his last months.

It is debatable, however, that the world recognised that it had also lost a great composer.  There certainly was interest in his works, which were frequently performed, but which received mixed reviews.  Apart from patronage by a few dedicated conductors, his music stayed almost silent between the two World Wars.

I first came into contact with Mahler’s works as a teenager more interested in Black Sabbath, Neil Young and Jethro Tull.  Sure, I had marvelled at the pleasant melodies of Mozart’s last symphonies and the
breath-taking grandeur of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, but Mahler?  I went see Helen Watts and Robert Tear in Das Lied von der Erde only because the student ticket was free.

Even as a classical music presenter on the radio, I remained fairly straight-laced in my tastes.  Handel was standard fare, as his Water Music Suite was the station’s opening tune, before the introduction of 24-hour broadcasting.  I stuck to the well-trodden paths of the three B’s and giants of the classical and romantic periods, occasionally dipping my toes into Debussy and Ravel, and only because a schoolmate won a prize playing Jeux d’eau.

Mahler is intimidating.  His major works all last over an hour, some substantially more.  With my short attention span, I wondered how I could garner enough stamina to sit through a performance.  I was thus happy to let my ignorance persist for several decades, until the hype started building up to his double anniversary, beginning with the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2010.

With trepidation, I decided to find out a little more.  Why did I know so little about this composer over whom everybody was hyperventilating?  My guide was Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht, published probably to coincide with Mahler’s anniversaries.

Irrespective of whether Lebrecht’s adulation of Mahler is hyperbolic exuberance or passionate devotion, there is no doubt that he spent a good part of his life researching the man and his music.  His quest began as accidental rebellion against the musical tide of the day: “My musical tastes were turning away from the confrontational sounds of my own generation to challenging complexities of classical music”, he says in the introduction.

The book is neatly divided into four parts.  The first, “Why Mahler”, is subtitled “Some frequently asked questions”.  It outlines Lebrecht’s views on the importance of Mahler not only to the history of music, but also to humanity by referring to the universality of his appeal and the immediacy of the ideas his music communicates.  The questions range from deep philosophical ones such as “Can Mahler change your life” to frivolous ones such as “Did Mahler ski?”  By the way, the answer to the first is a re-sounding yes; and to the latter, probably no.

Lebrecht recounts how Mikhail Gorbachev, then supreme leader of the then Soviet Union, heard Mahler’s fifth symphony for the first time with his wife during one of his last days in office.  The performance under the baton of Claudio Abbado so moved them that Gorbachev had the feeling that Mahler’s music “somehow touched our situation, about the period of perestroika [reconstruction] with all its passions and struggles”.

The second part of the book, in twelve chapters, charts Mahler’s progress from an abandoned Jew born in an area of dubious Czech and German heritage, to a rising star as the conductor of the Vienna Opera and eventually the New York Philharmonic.  It also tells of Mahler’s hapless infatuations with women of all shades, culminating in an aborted attempt at elopement with Marion von Weber, daughter-in-law of Carl Maria and a Jewish mother of three, and his marriage to the mercurial Alma Schindler.

Mahler was the classic alpha male, a punctilious and overbearing martinet with an electric presence who suffered from mild inferiority complex on account of his Jewish origin.  From imploring Hans von Bülow to take him on as a pupil, to coming of age as a fiery conductor, he was an intense and neurotic perfectionist driven to distraction, driving his orchestras up the wall, reducing his opera divas to tears and working himself up to a frenzy in performance.

Yet nobody doubted he felt deeply: “Most people shun sorrow; Mahler embraces it.  Sorrow is his retreat, the place he calls home when he is Lost to the World. Rather than avoid pain, he seeks it as a creative incubus.”

Lebrecht cleverly weaves Mahler’s major compositions into the complex strands of his life.  Its perspective is a cross between paparazzi following a celebrity and radio presenter analysing and assessing his contribution to music.  He maintains a lively pace throughout, and uses language that is descriptive and evocative.

For me, the third part of the book is probably the most useful.  “A Question of Interpretation” gives an account of the conductors who have recorded Mahler’s symphonies, and comments on recordings of each.  Despite his meticulousness as a conductor, Mahler left a lot open to interpretation as a composer: “Where Beethoven and Brahms wrote metronome speeds in their scores, Mahler called the tick-tock device ‘inadequate and practically worthless’ and left the measurement of time to the maestro.”

Part IV, “Finding the Key to a Private Space”, is advice on how to approach Mahler for personal enjoyment: “If you take a new listener to a Mahler concert, talk to them first about one trademark moment – the child’s funeral in the First Symphony, the offstage ensemble in the Second, the introductory ironics in the Third…” 

Why Mahler is significant for its contribution to the body of reference on a very important composer of the last century, and for me it has particular significance as the first book I read entirely electronically.  For Lebrecht, delving into Mahler is a quest to understand and make sense of his personal universe.  It’s self-actualisation, and his book a paean to music as cosmos.  For me, it’s an excellent guide to a composer I now yearn to know more.  Rest in peace, Gustav, and may you live forever.


The Brave New World of Books – a layman’s view April 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Books, Communication, Language, Literature, Marketing, Reading.
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I have always had an interest in books, but should have read more than I have.  My excuse?  That the books that matter are too bulky.  The arrival of e-books has totally destroyed this excuse.  My iPad now carries Oscar Wilde Complete Works Ultimate Collection (140+ works), Works of George Bernard Shaw (30+ works), James Joyce’s Ulysses, War and Peace, and The Works of Mark Twain (24 books in a single file).  It weighs exactly the same as it did without them.  Some of the books were even free to download.

The world of books has gone through wrenching change in the last few years.  Prognosis, diagnosis and predictions aside, we don’t quite know what it will look like when the dust settles.  Yet the new world already looks exciting to some, and frightening to others.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of some of the players in it, the world of books is not that different from other industries.  Some generate the product ideas (the authors), some manufacture the products (publishers and printers), some distribute them (booksellers) and others consume them (readers).  There are the usual intermediaries, such as literary agents and editors who work for publishers.

So what does the new world of books mean to all these players in the industry?


Many published and aspiring authors feel that they are the most oppressed people in the world.  They toil for years to develop their product (the book), only to get serial rejection letters from publishers and biting comments from editors.  With the increasing popularity of e-publishing, authors feel truly liberated.  They don’t have to ask publishers for permission, or beg editors not to change their work.  They can now choose to self-publish anything they want, provided they are prepared to put up with a lot of extra administrative work.

Yet like karaoke, which gives people who can’t sing the illusion that they can, e-publishing gives authors who can’t write or tell a story a similar illusion.  This blog post you are reading could be a case in point.  As the quantity of published material in the market goes up, the general quality comes down.

In other words, authors can now bypass publishers as gatekeepers of “quality”, but there are no more or less “good” authors.  It only means that the work of more bad authors gets out into the market.  Let’s face it, some authors who publish their own works electronically now may not be worthy of publication at all.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some authors also complain they earn less per e-book than they do the physical equivalent.  All we can hope is that a larger number of e-books sell to make up for this shortfall.


The manufacturers of books – the publishers – have never been short of raw materials.  They have always been inundated with more manuscripts than they can handle in several lifetimes.  Their trade is also fraught with sometimes substantial risks.  How many titles have they published which don’t even cover the cost of printing, not to mention the occasional advances and huge marketing and distribution costs?

E-publishing has cut the cost of production for publishers to the bare minimum, although physical production probably accounts for a small part of a publisher’s total cost.  A few printers will go out of business.  The cost of distribution has also come down, as there is no real physical handling of an e-book.  Besides, there are now more cost-effective channels for promotion, such as social networking.

The price of an e-book, however, is sometimes 20% cheaper than its paperback equivalent, and sometimes even more expensive.  As e-publishing guts a publisher’s business of costs, book pricing doesn’t seem to have fallen proportionally.  Publisher profitability should have gone up, and the business should be less risky.  Although publishers are also vulnerable to literary agencies selling rights direct to new-world retailers such as Amazon, as Wylie did last year, this doesn’t seem a widespread threat yet.

As purveyors of quality products the reading public wants to buy, publishers should feel secure in their jobs, as long as they continue to keep close to the taste of readers, insist on quality writing, embrace new media and don’t get too naïve about forking out huge advances for celebrity appeal.

Literary agents

Authors love to hate literary agents.  They need them to get to a decent publisher and a wide market, but simply getting to them is a five-year project itself.  With the right confluence of temperament, a literary agent will remain an author’s best friend.  This sometimes cantankerous and oddball breed will likely continue to thrive, and behave just as obnoxiously to the unfortunate writing low-life that dares cross its path.


By all accounts, booksellers seem to have hurt the most.  In an article in Fortune magazine dated June 21, 2010, Borders CEO Michael Edwards defends the raison d’être of bookstores: “If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer…consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives…The next chapter is up to them.”  For Borders, that next chapter was Chapter 11, in February, 2011.

My personal experience may be a curved mirror of reality, but it should nevertheless make booksellers stand up and take notice.  Browsing in bookstores is no longer a pastime.  The few physical books I have bought in the last year have either been bargain end-of-the-line titles, or ones I need to share with others.  A few months ago, I saw a title in an exhibition which appeared to be on sale, around 20% cheaper than in bookstores.  There and then, I looked online, found and downloaded an electronic copy at almost half the already reduced price at the exhibition.

Predictions about the demise of anything are usually correct in direction but wrong in timing.  Die-hard physical book lovers will be far bigger in number and slower to change their habits than futurists envisage.  Bookstores will die a slow, painful death.  A few may even survive.


For the already overloaded reading public, it’s now harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Who cares?  We have always made bad choices anyway, and can now do so at lower cost.  Nor do we need to find bigger bookshelves to house those unwanted and unread titles.  As a life-long reader, I find the immense convenience of e-books simply irresistible.  Similar sentiments may even drive up general readership, and give the book industry needed impetus for growth.

In conclusion

As a reader not in any way involved in the book industry, I am excited by the changes I have seen, but would like to see more.  I want more titles to be available electronically, and at the same time as the hard copy comes on to the market.  I want pricing to come down further.  I’d hate to get caught in the commercial maelstrom, though.