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

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Reading.
Tags: , , ,

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.