Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World Norman Lebrecht

Faber, pp.362, 17.99

Gustav Mahler is the most subjective, the most autobiographical, of composers. Other composers, particularly in the previous century, have asked their audiences to show an occasional interest in their private lives, sometimes in rather coded ways. There are the allusions, which of course never were completely private, of Schumann’s piano cycles, Carnaval and Davidsbundlertanze; there are the heartbreaking bits of autobiography in the late Beethoven string quartets; there are significant mottos about private acts of adoration even in Brahms’s third symphony; and, much later, a hidden love affair to be decoded in the Berg Lyric Suite.

But these were occasional diversions, for the most part, and music continued to be as impersonal, public and abstract an art as it ever was. Only a fool would seek to discern an autobiographical statement in, say, the Surprise symphony, the Moments Musicaux, or the Poet and Peasant overture. Mahler is unusual in asking his audience to accompany him on an intimate journey, and sometimes a determined effort is needed to shut out the well-known fragments of autobiography now fossilised in his works. The Kindertotenlieder is forever tied to his daughter who died after its première. The second subject of the sixth symphony is about his famously awful wife, Alma. The bass drum in the unfinished tenth symphony is about a dead New York fireman, apparently. And so it goes on, the listener quite often wondering whether music is ever really ‘about’ anything at all, despite Mahler’s best efforts.

One subjectivity deserves another. Like many people, I came to Mahler when I was 14 or so. Simon Rattle was busy hawking the Deryck Cooke completion of the tenth symphony round the country with his Birmingham orchestra. It was pubescent love at first hearing. How sad! How beautiful! And it was all about Alma and a poor dead New York fireman, too. Quickly, I saved up my pocket money and got a colossal box-set of all the symphonies. I suspect I bought it because it was cheap, but luckily it was the sublime Kubelik recording with the wonderful Bavarian radio orchestra and a quite different sound from the Berlin or London orchestras I was used to. I still remember the shock of the Bavarian chorus in the second symphony, confidently belting out Bereite disch in their southern pronunciation. Anyway, I made myself very unpopular with family and neighbours, playing the eighth symphony at top volume all hours of the day and night.

And then it just stopped, I don’t know why. One day I was utterly bored of the whole overheated world. I still liked the musical expertise — the clarity of the counterpoint which makes the first movements of the fourth and the eighth such a joy to follow with a score. I liked the beautiful buoyancy of the orchestral sound still. But as for the rest: not only was I not interested in Mahler’s life, I started to think that the way he put together a symphony, asking us to regard a theme or even an instrument as a character in a stage drama, was probably just a bit stupid. The day I grew out of Mahler was the day I started to like Sibelius — the man who once reproached Mahler for saying something as foolish and meaningless as ‘the symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.’ I imagine a lot of people grow out of him in time.

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Not, however, Norman Lebrecht, whose fascination with Mahler extends to knowing that the American chanteuse Beyonce Knowles is his eighth cousin four times removed. His book is stuffed with autobiographical interpretations, some of which nobody has ever thought of before. Frankly, I don’t believe that the opening theme of the third symphony is ‘an implied protest against racial discrimination’. It is totally unlikely that the final word of Das Lied von der Erde, ‘ewig’ would automatically have Jewish associations to a German audience. This sort of interpretation risks dissolving what are highly inventive and skilful musical works into nothing more than illustrations to a tragic narrative. Kingsley Amis unfairly remarked that he suspected Mahler of writing the programme notes first and the symphony afterwards; the commentator on Mahler should confront that damaging accusation. He has to remind us that the magnificent first movement of the ninth symphony, say, is not about approaching death, or disillusionment, but primarily ‘about’ D major.

Lebrecht is not really the man for that job. He has a sometimes alarmingly creative way of describing music:

By stretching the textures, [the conductor, Klaus] Tennstedt brings out inner details like fingerprints in a crime investigation, underpinned by a growling bass line of suspicion.

And he seems to think that a good story — whether about Mahler himself or the eccentric millionaire Gilbert Kaplan — is always better than musical considerations. One worries when he complains about writing which ‘rattles on about tonics and dominants’ — the equivalent of a book about painting sneering at other critics rattling on about blues and greens, or oils and pastels. He quotes Neville Cardus’s remark that the fourth symphony is the first which ‘can be appreciated in a completely musical way’, and then observes that ‘to do so, however, would be like eating lettuce salad without a dressing: tasteless and unmemorable’. I wonder about a writer who finds the vivid parade of pure musical fantasy in the fourth symphony ‘tasteless and unmemorable’ without additional guff about fate, death, Alma and heaven, or whatever.

Mahler was, obviously, a superb conductor, a great man of the theatre at the Vienna opera house, a composer of huge natural gifts, even at his most overblown, and somebody who was, despite publicly paraded neuroses, primarily concerned with his art. The details of performance, bureaucracy, infighting and musical invention are much more interesting, even in the case of Mahler, than all the ‘doomed composer’ and ‘theme of fate’ stuff. The standard approach to Mahler often ends in ascribing curious, idealistic motives to his move to New York, whereas the real reason was that he was tired of Vienna and the Americans had offered him a lot of money.

I would, in short, much rather hear about the celebrated Vienna Tristan und Isolde, where Mahler joined with the great stage designer Alfred Roller and changed musical theatre forever, than speculations about whether the famous Adagietto is about love or about death. What difference would it make, really? Above all, it is clear that when Mahler got on to talking about music, he was incisive, clear-minded and even quite funny. I had heard the story before of his visit to Niagara Falls, but it bears repetition. He stood there for a moment before turning to his hosts and remarking ‘Endlich: fortissimo’. That is the Mahler who never quite gets into this awestruck account. A little bit more of that, and I might even start listening to the symphonies again.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Classical music, Hungary, Non-fiction