Book Review: Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler?

A new book by music critic Norman Lebrecht explores why the great Viennese composer speaks to just about everyone

“Gustav Mahler,” an original graphite drawing from contemporary photographs | Illustration: Hannah Rabl

Why We Love Mahler

May was Mahler month worldwide, as it marked the 100th anniversary of his death in 1911, the beloved conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and the hero of the Viennese scene. Actually, we have been celebrating Mahler for a while now, as 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of his birth. So here we are, with two anniversaries back to back, blissfully lost in an orgy of Mahler-dom, with concerts nearly every night in Vienna for anyone savvy enough to wrangle tickets.

It didn’t take an anniversary to put Mahler on the programme. Mahler’s music has long since become an established feature of the symphonic repertoire the world over, although particularly in Europe and the United States. “Indeed,” wrote Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra, recently in the Wall Street Journal, “we have been experiencing Mahler mania for almost four decades now.”

As for me, I have been busily attending a string of Mahler concerts in recent weeks, along with a book that has become my constant companion: Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht. It is a moving as well as compelling read, serving as a guide to Mahler’s life, his compositions, and also his career as an outstanding conductor.

How is it Mahler came to be so popular, Lebrecht wonders. How was he able to capture both the imagination of music aficionados and the affection of a contemporary concert-going 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. How Mahler’s music accomplishes this is then the central task of the book, retelling his life in anecdotal biography as a medium for revealing author’s own deep, personal engagement with Mahler’s music.

Lebrecht gives us a touching portrait of Gustav Mahler the man. His book is a psychological profile of sorts, revealing the struggles in his life, of which at least some had to do with Mahler’s identity (his Jewishness).

Lebrecht’s “search for Mahler” leads to new insights into Mahler’s relationship with Alma, his wife and widow, who then became legendary for marrying the famed architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel.

The book also contains the author’s conversations with Mahler’s daughter, the late sculptor Anna Mahler, the only one of his children to survive to adulthood. Through his account of the key incidents of the complser’s personal and musical life, Lebrecht deftly weaves the past and the present seamlessly together.

We are introduced to important contemporary personalities who have made Mahler’s music more relevant in the classical repertoire today than ever before. Included in these is the investor, philanthropist and amateur conductor Gerald Kaplan, famous for his renditions of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, an avid promoter of Mahler’s music who is also a friend of Lebrecht, and thus an insider source for the book.

Lechbrecht also shares with us his vignettes about his own personal experiences with the composer’s music and how it touched him. Author also of Mahler Remembered (1987), his fascination with Mahler is of long standing. Near the end of the book, he explains:

“Everyone needs a personal benchmark. Mahler is mine.” In this music, he feels, he learned “sheafs of truths and ideals… 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.”

As he retells the stations of Mahler’s life and career, he takes us on a ride through the capitals of Europe, combining his own recollections with meticulous research. We learn new aspects of the great composer, the 10 symphonies, and the famous song cycles he composed.

For instance, how heavily influenced Mahler was by Richard Wagner, whom he revered, and who he considered the first composer to write for a general listening audience. “In Wagner’s view,” writes Botstein, “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.”

But like Beethoven, Mahler, says Botstein, has become “a touchstone, a source of personal and cultural self-definition. Like Beethoven, Mahler has bypassed the supposed difficulty of understanding music.”

Lebrecht takes us on a ride through the capitals of Europe, combining his own recollections with meticulous research.  We see his struggles with despair and impatience, and with his Jewishness, an identity that put him in the center of the shifting political winds of fin de siècle Vienna, which made his years as director of the Vienna State Opera (1897–1907) a kind of lighten rod for political storms brewing, when political anti-Semitism was increasingly colored the tone of Viennese city politics.

Mahler’s reputation went into decline after his death, and while not forgotten, he became something of a unconventional taste, neither classic nor modern, nor of course jazz. It was Leonard Bernstein who championed Mahler again in American concert halls, and later back in Vienna, where Bernstein had a fanatic following. Bernstein found a kindred spirit, a mirror, in Mahler, says Lebrecht, a conductor-composer very much like himself, a Jew as artist who was a stranger in his own world, in a constant struggle with the issues of identity and even meaning.

“More than any other composer in the canon, Mahler draws in the non-specialist,” writes Botstein. Why this is so, is the question Lebrecht’s book seeks to answer, why Mahler’s music “reaches a wide public and becomes a key for a whole society to come to terms with life and culture.”

That he largely succeeds is what makes Why Mahler? a unique tribute to the man and his music.

There is however a downbeat or two. Lebrecht’s adoration of Mahler’s music seems to point to recordings rather than live performances. There is little mention in the book (or at least not enough for my tastes) of some of the great live concerts that abound around the world’s concert halls. I for one, have memories of several great live performances, such as the ones I heard with Pierre Boulez conducting the Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago.

Or more recently, Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth, with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas at the Konzerthaus this past month. These live events make Mahler come alive for me.

But Lebrecht does deliver in many other ways, with his musicologist-like knowledge of Mahler. The book is a worthwhile read for those seeking to find the essence of Gustav Mahler, but who do not have the time, energy or perhaps the resources to truly discover him live in the concert hall.


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

Pantheon, 326 pages, $ 27.95
Available at:
Shakespeare and Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5053

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