John Kelly

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

Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht is published by Faber & Faber.
Book review published in The Sunday Business Post in 2010.


Where to begin with a colossus like Gustav Mahler? According to Norman Lebrecht the best approach is to address him in the present continuous, as a man of our own time. Mahler, he argues, is a composer for today and his music is perfectly pitched for a world constantly adjusting to high-speed developments, many of which are carriers of threat, confusion and fear.  The music works in such a climate because it can mean several things at once, and yet it cannot equivocate. “It comes at you from afar,” says Lebrecht, “like the light at the end of a tunnel, an irresistible destination.” In short, Lebrecht is saying that Mahler speaks to us like no other composer, and his music is good for what ails you. Name your crisis and he’ll proscribe you a symphony.


Ironically, there were many times when Mahler himself must surely have needed a dose of his own medicine. “I am three times without a homeland, he said, “as a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world – always an intruder, never welcomed.” By the time he got the top conducting  job in Vienna he had converted to Catholicism, but this made little difference to those who couldn’t quite stomach the idea of a Jew messing with the likes of Beethoven. Vienna was, as Lebrecht describes it, “introspective, rascist, regressive and smug” and yet even darker days were coming. Feel the chill when we imagine Mahler conducting Wagner’s Parsifal in 1906 and we spot a teenage Adolf Hitler in the audience.

And then there was Alma. The love story of Mahler and Alma was to become the stuff of movies, novels and feminist theory, the details of which were mostly culled from three books written by Alma herself – none of which, says Lebrecht, can be trusted.  She was, as he puts it, “a fame-seeking fabulist” and quite the operator. Over a meal of lettuce and buttermilk she began an affair with Walter Gropius – the Berlin architect who founded the Bauhaus school – and yet she stayed with Mahler and continued to run his business and his life. In the meantime he poured his heart out to her in his music, much of which, according to her, was composed while sitting on “the earth closet.”

The composer Alban Berg, who treasured a square of Mahler’s toilet paper was a disciple – obviously - as was Schoenberg who called him a martyr and a saint. But in truth Mahler, in his lifetime, was much more revered as a conductor than a composer.  Debussy, after hearing his 2nd Symphony, referred to him as “Mahleur” (misery) and even the famous 5th Symphony was sniped at by Richard Strauss who found it “slightly dimmed by the little Adagietto.” Mahler responded by saying, “I am a man not of his own time. The timely one is Strauss. That is why he can enjoy immortality while he is still alive.”

This is a book which will undoubtedly irritate some. Lebrecht is a Mahler fan and while his proselytising might seem a little unnecessary these days, he’s entitled to make a devotee’s case in what is, after all, a very personal book. That said, the very grand claims he makes for Mahler might equally be made for the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Mingus and Coltrane. They too have created music which might be called “a search engine for inner truth.” And each might equally be described as “a rock of verity in a sea of illusions, an idealist among pragmatists, a doer as well as a dreamer, a redeemer of truth from lies.” But this is a book about Mahler, written with love and enthusiasm by a true believer, so fair enough.

Perhaps Lebrecht has learned something essential from the great man himself and perhaps his book is capable of being several things at once? Wildly provocative and yet sincere.  Measured and yet completely over the top. When any writer is prepared to say (with a straight face) of any composer that “the man and his music are central to our understanding of the course of civilisation and the nature of human relationships” the reader is inclined to rear up like a spooked horse. But after thirty five years of devotion to the music of Gustav Mahler,  Lebrecht must surely believe that such a statement, while being utterly absurd, might, at the same time, be absolutely correct. There’s only one thing for it. Seek out the music. Put it on. And listen without prejudice.


© John Kelly

Your Comment