Magazine article The Spectator

Fate, Death and Alma

Magazine article The Spectator

Fate, Death and Alma

Article excerpt


by Norman Lebrecht

Faber, £17.99, pp. 362,

ISBN 9780571260782

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 premiere. 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 Tprobably 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.

Not, however, Norman Lebrecht, whose fascination with Mahler extends to knowing that the American chanteuse Beyonce Knowles is his eighth cousin four times removed. …

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