A Fierce Enthusiasm

Gustav Mahler’s music is a source of personal and cultural self-definition for modern audiences

As it happens, 2010 and 2011 mark back-to-back anniversaries for Gustav Mahler—the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1860 and the centenary of his death in 1911. The result will inevitably be yet more appearances of Mahler’s works on concert programs. But even without an anniversary to celebrate, Mahler’s music dominates the symphonic repertoire all over the world. Indeed, we have been experiencing Mahler mania for almost four decades now.

In “Why Mahler?” Norman Lebrecht wonders just how Mahler came to be so popular, capturing both the imagination of music aficionados and the affection of the general public. The answer, he believes, lies in the capacity of Mahler’s music to communicate the contradictions and challenges of life in the modern world. Just how Mahler’s music accomplishes this feat is another question that Mr. Lebrecht’s book explores, along with the details of Mahler’s life and the author’s own deep, personal engagement with the composer’s music.

During his lifetime, few predicted that Mahler would ever approach anything like popularity or critical esteem. When he died, opinion about the value of his music was sharply divided. There were those—including the Viennese composer Alban Berg and his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg—who believed that he had charted a path to the future and that his music would eventually be recognized as transcendently great. But many critics and musicians in Europe and America— including the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini—thought Mahler’s music bombastic and little more than self-indulgent rubbish.

Portrait of the composer as a middle-aged man: Emil Orlik’s 1902 etching of Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s symphonies and other major works, including such vocal and orchestral pieces as “Das Lied von der Erde” and the “Kindertotenlieder,” never disappeared from the repertory, but the programming of his music increased after World War II, most notably during the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein became Mahler’s great champion, conducting his music everywhere, as well as recording it and arguing for it.

As Mr. Lebrecht notes, Bernstein found in Mahler a conductor-composer very much like himself—a mirror. Mahler’s music reflected back to Bernstein the image of a tortured soul: the Jew as artist, isolated in the world, struggling with matters of identity and meaning. The Mahler revival that Bernstein led soon enough became the Mahler madness we know today. More than any other composer in the canon, Mahler draws in the nonspecialist. What Mr. Lebrecht is seeking to understand, then, with his title’s question, is why some music (e.g., Mahler’s) reaches a wide public and becomes a key for a whole society to come to terms with life and culture.


Mahler and Beyond

Those who want to learn more about Mahler’s life have many biographies to choose from, but the four-volume work by Henry-Louis de La Grange, published in English by Oxford University Press (1974-2008), is the preeminent study. It chronicles Mahler’s life practically day by day with a remarkable array of detail, much of it fascinating and delightfully arcane. Readers can explore the testimonies of those who knew the composer by reading Norman Lebrecht’s “Mahler Remembered” (1987), a collection of reminiscences. Alma Mahler’s memoir, “Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters” (1946), is filled with self-serving half-truths and lies yet it is charming and there is much in it that merits close scrutiny. And Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s “Recollections” (1980) is among the most revealing, sympathetic and reliable accounts.

To learn about Mahler’s music, Donald Mitchell’s fine books, including “The Mahler Companion” (1999), which he edited with Andrew Nicholson, merit close reading. Mr. Mitchell has long been among the most sophisticated analysts of Mahler’s life and music. His account of Mahler’s first symphonies and song cycles, “The Wunderhorn Years,” is particularly to be recommended. The most challenging interpretation of the music remains Theodor W. Adorno’s monograph, “Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy” (1992). Adorno stressed the idea that Mahler’s music was unsentimental: a reaction against Romanticism and a harbinger of Modernism. In Mahler’s music one encounters a persistent fragmentation of the smooth and continuous surface of symphonic sound. He employed extremes in sonority and revels in distortions and interruptions, often through the ironic use of recognizable fragments from the everyday world. For Adorno, Mahler’s music was an exercise in the use of art as an instrument of ethics.

Those interested in listening to Mahler’s music should take comfort in the fact that any recording available from iTunes or on CD will suffice. Mahler transcends the limitations and conceits of all interpreters. His output was not massive, so there isn’t that much to choose from, and his works are all easy to find. But no recording can do justice to Mahler’s sound world. Readers are therefore encouraged to attend any performance anywhere that they may be able to get to.

A general reader who wants to discover classical music can find a neverending supply of books in print. Among many that are worth recommending, the distinguished musicologist Joseph Kerman’s textbook “Listen” (1972) stands out. For the general reader, Aaron Copland’s wonderful “What to Listen for in Music” (1939, revised many times until 1988) is a terrific place to start. In the same genre but a somewhat different vein is Roger Sessions’s little book “The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener” (1950). For those interested in 20th-century music, Alex Ross’s recent “The Rest Is Noise” (2007) and Kyle Gann’s “American Music in the Twentieth Century” (1997) are rewarding to read. When it comes to individual composers, I highly recommend, only partly out of self-interest, the series of Bard Music Festival books published by the Princeton University Press, of which there are 21 individual volumes of documents and essays that focus on composers ranging from Haydn and Beethoven to Shostakovich and Berg.

—Leon Botstein


Musicians are often dismayed to discover that otherwise curious and well-educated citizens—who enjoy visiting museums, reading books and going to the theater—respond to most classical music with polite detachment, saying that they wished they “knew something about music” but confessing that they don’t. This lament evokes the memory of a distant past.

In the late 18th century, the age of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, music was indeed an art form cultivated by connoisseurs and limited to an audience that knew something about it. At the same time it was an art form that blurred the lines between amateur and professional—and between composer and performer. Most of Beethoven’s patrons were amateur performers and composers, as were two monarchs of his time, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria. Music aficionados were almost always amateur musicians themselves—and that fact defined the way they listened.

But from the mid-19th century on, the audience for music expanded dramatically—first through the proliferation of the piano in middle-class households, then through the player piano (reproducing performances mechanically), and ultimately through radio and the gramophone. In our own day this broadening of the listening audience has increased still further, thanks to the CD player, the computer and the iPod. No one seems to feel that, in order to listen, one must become literate in music in the old sense—learning to play it and write it. By the mid-20th century, in fact, all you had to do was to push a few buttons and let the sound envelop you.

The first composer to write for a non-connoisseur audience was Richard Wagner, who used repetition and a wide palette of sound to illustrate events and ideas, pioneering a way of writing music that—in its attempt to present characters, emotions and ideas (such as fate)—was akin to the prose of the novels of George Eliot and Tolstoy. To frame his own achievement, Wagner (whom Mahler revered) sought to redefine the music of the past, especially Beethoven’s. In Wagner’s view, one didn’t need to know anything about Beethoven’s music to grasp its “plot” and emotional effect. The symphonies were dramas in music—what we might call film scores without a film.

Beethoven’s life and work became in the late 19th and early 20th centuries what Mahler has become in our own time: a touchstone, a source of personal and cultural self-definition. Like Beethoven, Mahler has bypassed the supposed difficulty of understanding music, not to mention the supposed need for the listener to tutor himself before he can grasp music’s meaning.

Mahler is thus today the object of an obsessive attachment for many, many people, not least for Mr. Lebrecht, a longtime music critic and the author of “The Life and Death of Classical Music” (2007), among other books. Near the end of “Why Mahler?” he confesses: “Everyone needs a personal benchmark. Mahler is mine.” He then elaborates on the “sheaf of truths and ideals” that Mahler’s music has taught him, including: “that every child stands a chance; that love can wait; that the difference between ordinary and excellent is the last degree of effort; that the best is never good enough; that striving is all.”

And some people think that classical music is irrelevant! The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made similar claims, saying that Mahler “expresses the thought that one may simply overcome primitive shame and stand forth in one’s own being.” So too did Lewis Thomas, the writer-physician, in “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” (1983), where he confessed that he had come to hear “the end of humanity” in Mahler’s last completed symphonic work.

The difference is that Mr. Lebrecht knows not only Mahler’s music but a great deal about the composer himself, having published a fine, annotated compilation of reminiscences and documents, “Mahler Remembered” (1987). In “Why Mahler?” readers will find a compelling biographical sketch of Mahler’s life, from his seminal student years in Vienna through his burgeoning career as a conductor and, finally, his ever more consuming ambitions as a composer. Mr. Lebrecht stresses Mahler’s psychological struggles—he was notably given to fits of despair and arrogant impatience—and his Jewishness, an identity that brought him ambivalent memories, notoriety and opposition, especially during his years as director of the Vienna Opera (1897–1907), when racialist political anti-Semitism was ubiquitous.

Resurrected: Leonard Bernstein leading the Boston Symphony in Mahler’s Second Symphony at Tanglewood on July 9, 1970.

Mr. Lebrecht’s “search for Mahler” includes a perceptive but devastating portrait of Mahler’s widow, the notorious Alma, known for her many husbands (including the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel) and many infidelities. It includes as well an account of the author’s conversations with the composer’s surviving daughter, the sculptor Anna. Along the way we meet performers and friends of Mr. Lebrecht’s, including Gilbert Kaplan, an avid Mahler enthusiast, amateur conductor and the founder of Institutional Investor magazine. Mr. Kaplan has put extensive resources into Mahler advocacy, helping to underwrite the publishing of books on the composer and facsimiles of his scores.

Mr. Lebrecht’s mix of scholarship, biographical narrative, music criticism and memoir makes “Why Mahler?” an unusual sort of tribute. Certainly the integration of Mr. Lebrecht’s personal experiences points toward the challenge of writing about classical music for the general reader these days. The fear that the audience for serious music is dwindling can sometimes invite an overemphasis on the top-hits fragment of our musical heritage, including Mahler’s. The performing repertoire is getting smaller and smaller, to the point where we may need reminding that there is more to music than Mozart, Beethoven and, yes, Mahler.

Here I wish that Mr. Lebrecht had done more. In nearly 300 pages, he gives short shrift to other composers, offering fairly brief sketches (and lukewarm characterizations) of figures who were influenced by Mahler or inspired by him or who were important to Mahler’s artistic development. It is certainly true that Mahler’s “time has come,” and “Why Mahler?” is grounded in that inescapable fact. But one can’t help feeling, at the end of Mr. Lebrecht’s investigations, that it may be time to move on—time to turn to other music of the present and the past. We do a disservice to Mahler by putting him on a pedestal, not least by overplaying him (something that happened to Beethoven during the 19th century). Excessive repetition of even the greatest music can be a form of homicide.

One striking—and troubling—aspect of Mr. Lebrecht’s chronicle is the importance he gives to recordings, an importance that inevitably raises the question of whether recorded performances have influenced our attitude to Mahler’s music and that of many other composers. Although Mr. Lebrecht recommends hearing Mahler in live performance, one senses that his passion for Mahler is linked to his experience of listening to the composer’s music with headphones or in front of loudspeakers.

The world in which Mr. Lebrecht came of age was dominated by the belief that recordings can be a fair, even superior, representation of a musical work, offering up a model or correct version of a piece of music by avoiding the unpredictable character of live performance.

Mr. Lebrecht demurs now and then, but it is clear that his allegiance is to recording as the authentic source of musical knowledge. Throughout the book he characterizes dozens of recordings of Mahler’s works, often with slash-and-burn criticism (“every sound” in Pierre Boulez’s performance of the Sixth Symphony is “strung out like entrails on a mortician’s table”) and sometimes with bouts of adulation that suggest the ideal of a definitive or “best” account.

But a recording cannot adequately deliver the full content and emotional impact of any piece of music. Indeed, a recording is to a live musical performance what a small reproduction in an art-history textbook is to a painting. This is particularly true for Mahler’s music, whose vast sonorities and scale defy all the efforts of modern technology.

Contrary to Mr. Lebrecht’s implicit assumptions, classical music works best as a unique event in real time and space—an acoustic encounter between performers and listeners. Each performance is different, and each, in its different way, yields ultimately to the many-sided power of the score. That is how we think of Shakespeare and Ibsen—whose work comes alive differently at each moment onstage—so why not Beethoven and Mahler? The great thing about music is that the value of a live experience rests as much on listeners as it does on performers. Music performed is an unstable art, and we should be glad that the texts that inspire it remain intact to see another day.

When Mr. Lebrecht is at his most fiercely judgmental he can write as if music was a fixed thing—a matter of true and false, right and wrong. But it is not. Readers of “Why Mahler?” will know far less than he does about both the past and the present of music and will be grateful to Mr. Lebrecht for his enthusiasm and for his highly personal cultural history, but they may want to investigate Mahler’s music for themselves—preferably in a concert hall and not through headphones.

Mr. Botstein is the president of Bard College, the musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the editor of the Musical Quarterly.


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