An agent for change

GUSTAV Mahler has had many champions since his death in 1911, from conductors Bruno Walter through Leonard Bernstein right up to today and the likes of Claudio Abbado.

We are not short of recordings (and what glee Norman Lebrecht takes in playing god in reviewing a whole plethora of them) nor are we short of knights for the Mahler cause in the brilliantly illuminating work of Donald Mitchell and the encyclopaedic and forensic work of Henry-Louis de La Grange.

Lebrecht is something of an English institution in the field of music commentary. He has his own BBC radio show, as well as a weekly syndicated newspaper column. Mahler Remembered (Faber), Lebrecht’s 2001 anthology of reminiscences by people who knew Mahler, is a very fine reference work.

For Why Mahler?, Lebrecht returns as Mahler crusader in a book that is part essay, part biography, part record review and finally Mahler for the masses. Did Mahler change the world? Hardly. Yes, he revolutionised the Vienna Court Opera (Mahler’s tenure there is still regarded as the golden age) and he is one of the most performed symphonic composers in the world, but popularity rarely equals musical worth and a Viennese opera tradition and wide music programming hardly constitutes a global revolution.

Lebrecht sets out his stall: this is his personal voyage into Mahler and we are quickly told that this is a 21st century view of Mahler. That is an interesting perspective. Mahler in his Eighth Symphony wanted to contain the universe. What would he think of us sitting in our homes listening in a confined space to his “planets and suns revolving”? And what would he think of a USB stick that can contain all of his music, or the fact that we can listen to him on a phone anywhere?

Sadly, Lebrecht never ventures into actual 21st century perspectives and such a claim is rather typical of how this writer more often proselytises and indulges in hyperbole. Worse, as he sets out to trace Mahler’s influence on the 20th century the exaggerations come thick and fast: “The man and his music are central to our understanding of the course of civilisation and the nature of human relationships”.

Mahler, a neurotic genius, lived an absorbing life at a time when empires crumbled and world war loomed. Lebrecht’s story sets out to examine all aspects of Mahler’s life. The pace is swift, the tone often hectoring, and the sweep superficially impressive as we are taken back to the social environment of Mahler’s grand parents in Moravia and on up through his aggressive father Bernhard Mahler’s relationship with his mother, Marie Hermann, during the time of Jewish enlightenment and growing anti-Semitism.

After musical studies he pursued a successful career as a concert and opera conductor, including posts at Kassel, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg, Leipzig and Vienna. Mahler wrote, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”

The rising menace of anti-Semitism makes its mark and is thoroughly dealt with here – and for me these are the best pages in the book.

Alas, Lebrecht’s persistent insertions of himself into the text become irksome and he is not, for all his passion, one of those wonderfully intrusive biographers. Boswell, for instance, continually poking his presence into the camera shots of Johnson’s conversation, or Peter Ackroyd, inventing dialogues between himself and the long-dead Dickens.

In fact, the literary flair that won Lebrecht a Whitbread prize for his debut novel, The Song of Names, is missing. More often, the prose shows evidence of Lebrecht’s parallel career as a columnist and after a while you may be wondering if it is actually Norman Lebrecht and not Gustav Mahler who is “changing the world”. James Joyce’s pejorative term “biografiend” often comes to mind.

Back then Vienna was the musical capital of the world but Mahler only secured the Court Opera post by converting to Catholicism. Though Mahler saw his life’s work as a composer, the musical public saw him as a superb conductor who also wrote symphonies of gargantuan scope. Consequently, not one Mahler symphony premiere occurred in Vienna during his lifetime. The enormous contrasts in sounds and moods in his works; the astonishing juxtapositions of tragedy and self-mocking irony baffled the public.

In 1902 he married budding song composer Alma Schindler, and they had two daughters together, Anna and Maria. Though he forbade Alma to compose, their marriage initially seemed to be happy, and some love themes in his works depict his wife. His letters to her document the professional life of a great musician and the strains that began to surface in their marriage after the death of Maria, aged four, from scarlet fever.

For years the self-serving Alma was seen as the sphinx in Mahler studies. The contradictory Lebrecht introduces Alma’s motives as “noble, up to a point”.

Soon enough however we are reading of her “distortions of the truth” as “part memory lapse, part malice” – which is accurate, so where does nobility begin and end?

Paradoxically, just like Alma, Lebrecht’s marshalling of the facts is selective, characteristically self-assured, and often riddled with bias: Mahler, it seems, can do no wrong.

Late in life, New York beckoned. Mahler’s annual salary in Vienna for around 10 months’ work amounted in Austrian currency to the equivalent of about $4,000.

When he was invited to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall at a salary, for three months’ work, of $30,000 – an astronomical sum at that time – he agreed. Once again Lebrecht, in his haste to whitewash his hero stumbles. He invokes present day fees for conductors like James Levine and Lorin Maazel, and misses the significant historical precedent set by Mahler.

For all the money, the Mahlers were unhappy in America and he was succumbing to heart disease. Difficulties in his marriage led Mahler to seek out Freud in Leiden, Holland.

This astonishing moment where modern music and modern psychology literally met in a four hour “walking” conversation-come-cure is analysed by Lebrecht but to no conclusive ends.

Mahler died aged 51 in Vienna at 11pm on May 18, 1911. Richard Strauss’s dramatic Elektra was playing that evening, so Lebrecht weaves in a suitably ominous end. The fact that the music was over before Mahler passed into eternity is overlooked of course.

Mahler is dead, but the book isn’t as Lebrecht delves into the immediate aftermath and then judges many Mahler recordings – beginners may find this useful, but aficionados will probably wince.

With omnipotence in the ascendant, Lebrecht completely loses the run of himself in Finding the Key to a Private Space, where the parents of newborns are urged to hear the Fourth Symphony; or the man or woman who lands the job of their dreams is urged to listen to the inner movements of the Seventh Symphony.

Summing up, though the book does give us a large and deep picture of Mahler’s personality, this is not Mahler for the 21st century, but rather a deeply confused polemic.

* Bernard Clarke presents Nova on Sunday evenings at 9 o’clock on Lyric FM

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