The Titan

Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World BY Norman Lebrecht. Pantheon. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.

Beethoven was the model for the misunderstood, born-too-soon creative genius—at least as far as composers are concerned—and Gustav Mahler was his most apt pupil. In the decades just before and after 1900, while building a reputation throughout Europe and New York as one of the world’s great conductors, he also turned out a series of large, hyperexpressive, and tonally ambiguous symphonies that many listeners greeted with incomprehension or outright hostility. Mahler, though often aggrieved, was confident that classical audiences would come around to him, as they had to Beethoven. Referring to his friend and more popular rival Richard Strauss, he remarked, “My time will come when his is past.”

He was only half right. Strauss’s star never faded, but Mahler’s move to center stage over the past half century or so has been a remarkable case of artistic—well, revival is too weak a word. His symphonies (between nine and eleven of them, depending on how you count) and songs have become central musical texts, repertoire staples for every orchestra, conductor, and singer in the world. His music floods the CD market and suffuses our concert halls.

How did this happen—or, as the title of Norman Lebrecht’s new book would have it, Why Mahler? What do these pieces, with their unusual combination of sardonic wit and heart-on-sleeve expressivity, say to twenty-first-century listeners? Is the growing acceptance of Mahler’s work simply due to the passage of time, a vindication of the modernist credo that posterity always gets it right? Or did something change in the collective psyche of audiences to make us receptive to this composer’s conflicted, dual vision?

The book’s grandiose subtitle, How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World, suggests the latter, but Lebrecht—a prominent British music critic and novelist with a taste for polemic—doesn’t argue the case very carefully or convincingly. In both conception and structure, in fact, Why Mahler? is something of a jerry-built affair. Most of it is devoted to a condensed life-and-works package, encased between some impassioned urgings about the profundity of both music and man and followed by a needlessly detailed tour of the current Mahler discography.

Lebrecht asks the right questions in these outer sections, but his answers are too often flimsy and full of vaporous woo-woo (Mahler’s music, he claims, “resists textbook analysis,” which seems to be a license to swoon). He asks that a reader be awed by, or even interested in, the reaction of Mikhail Gorbachev to a performance of the Fifth Symphony. Yet he edges close to the truth of the matter in his insistence on the centrality of Mahler’s Jewishness—both the composer’s own sensibility, steeped in the cultural traditions of Bohemian Jewry, and the spirit of opposition that the appalling anti-Semitism of Viennese society stirred in him. What Mahler brought to the symphonic tradition as a result was a lexicon of irony and plural meaning, an ability to adopt a stance that was simultaneously parodic and exalted, committed and skeptical.

The scherzo of his First Symphony, which begins with a canon based on “Frère Jacques” in a minor key and then segues into a salacious klezmer dance, perplexed contemporary listeners; and the unadorned Gypsy strains in the Fourth Symphony had many high-art European audiences at a loss. More confounding still was Mahler’s juxtaposition of these ostensibly tawdry and vulgar elements with music of the most exquisite refinement and intricacy. How could such contradictory impulses be the product of a single creative imagination?

Yet that duality is the key to both the music and its composer, and listeners’ increasing ability to understand it has been the single most important factor in Mahler’s ascent. Lebrecht quotes Leonard Bernstein, one of the most influential Mahler conductors: “Whatever quality is perceptible and definable in Mahler’s music, the diametrically opposite is equally so.” And another biographer offered this lovely formulation about Mahler the man: He was “at once just as portrayed, and yet quite different.”

Lebrecht touches lightly on all of this without pursuing it systematically; he has the journalist’s preference for bare assertion over analysis or argument. But before the reader has time to register objections, Lebrecht plunges into the main business at hand, which is the biographical treatment—and here the book comes into its own. Mahler’s was a fascinating life, full of a novel’s worth of triumphs and tragedies, and Lebrecht tells it with zestful abandon.

The oldest surviving child of an itinerant liquor salesman–turned–tavern keeper, Gustav, born in 1860, showed his musical talent early—his first recorded public appearance was as a ten-year-old pianist—and by twenty he had embarked on a series of short-lived provincial appointments as an opera conductor. Those in turn led to gigs in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg, and finally Vienna, where from 1897 to 1907 he oversaw a wholesale shakeup of operatic life, while working on his mammoth symphonies every summer.

During this period he met and married Alma Schindler, a budding young composer nearly twenty years his junior and a siren whose erotic charms seem to have captivated every straight male in Vienna. The marriage was beset by Mahler’s all-consuming devotion to his career and by her serial infidelities; when things got really bad, he spent a long afternoon walking the streets of the Dutch town of Leiden in consultation with Freud, who pronounced himself astonished at the swiftness with which Mahler had grasped the principles of psychoanalysis.

Mahler’s last professional appointments were with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic. In those capacities, he exchanged the tyranny of Viennese court officials for that of industrialists’ wives and visited Niagara Falls on tour (“At last a real fortissimo!”). He died of endocarditis at fifty, in 1911, leaving behind the manuscript of his unfinished Tenth Symphony, studded with agonized apostrophes to Alma that (as Lebrecht cannily argues) were surely meant to be read.

Lebrecht cultivates a distinctive prose style to recount this story, writing in the narrative present tense in short sentences and quick, cinematic cuts that yield an impressionistic effect. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Mahler’s relationship with Anna von Mildenburg, a protégée (and briefly, lover) who became a leading Wagnerian soprano:

While Anna sobs, Mahler chews the insides of his cheeks and paces the room. Abruptly he bursts out laughing. “It is good that you cry now,” he comforts her. “One day you’ll be just like all the rest, ruined by theatrical routines.” He takes off his glasses and polishes them. “Accuracy is the soul of artistic success,” he tells Anna. “Never prolong a closing note.” Her training has begun. He sends her to a gymnastics class to lose weight. She sings a phrase twenty times before he is satisfied. In the dressing room he supervises her makeup and is still wiping surplus paint off her face when her stage call comes. For Christmas he gives her Wagner’s writings. Mahler is in love.

There’s something seductive and hypnotic about these cadences, and they enable Lebrecht to swivel in unexpected directions—some welcome, some less so. He includes reminiscences from Mahler’s daughter Anna, a successful sculptor who died in 1988, and drops in a merited plug for Uri Caine, the brilliant jazz pianist whose improvisatory treatments of Mahler’s music are revelatory. Set against that is the occasional irrelevance, as well as Lebrecht’s unseemly fondness for drawing parallels between Mahler and, um, himself.

Still, the biographical section is full of evocative scene setting, both large scale and intimate, and although Lebrecht scorns any close reading of the music as if on principle, he conjures up a keen sense of how it must have struck Mahler’s audiences, and why. If the titular question never gets much of an answer, that may be because it isn’t much of a question. In any event, Lebrecht’s emphasis on the Jewish aspect of his subject’s life and art suggests the only appropriate response, one that would have been recognized as such by Mahler’s forebears (and Lebrecht’s, and mine): “Nu—why not Mahler?”

Joshua Kosman is the classical-music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.