Magazine article The Spectator

His Time Has Come

Magazine article The Spectator

His Time Has Come

Article excerpt


by Jonathan Carr

Constable, L19.95, pp. 254

There is a monumentalist tendency in modern musicology, and nowhere is it more lavishly indulged than in the pursuit of Gustav Mahler. The major Mahler studies in English (Mitchell), French (La Grange) and German (Floros) run to three huge tomes apiece, with sequels threatened.

Mahler in his Symphony of 1,000 set a wanton example to his own interpreters. The intimacy that he, more than any composer, wrested from symphonic mass gets lost in the excesses of hagiolaters and baton-wielders. Which is why Jonathan Carr's trim, subtle and beautifully balanced account of Mahler's life and works is so refreshing. Mr Carr, the Economist's bureau chief in Bonn and a Mahler addict whose party trick is to identify by ear thirty different recordings of the ninth symphony, covers the vagaries of musical genius as dispassionately as he would a Bundesbank meeting.

Re-using the title of a Radio 4 bio-documentary I presented in 1988, Carr sets out to demythologise Mahler and resolve his many contradictions: saint or sinner? sly or naive? introvert or extrovert? Needless to say, he reaches much the same conclusion as everyone else, that Mahler was a bit of both. However, in the process of rediscovery, he strips away layers of legend and so discredits one key witness that Mahler's story may, in certain intimate respects, never seem the same again.

The tale is simply told. Jewish boy wonder grows up in provincial garrison town, enters Vienna Conservatory at 15, becomes head of the Royal Hungarian Opera at 27 and ten years later hits the top spot in Vienna, running the most important opera house in Europe - well, the most self-important. Mahler's decade (1897-1907) turns Vienna into the fulcrum of world opera, each performance under his aegis amounting to an act of renewal.

Reactionaries are outraged and Mahler eventually caves in, though Carr is not convinced that he was driven out by antiSemitic agitation. He sails for New York to conduct the Metropolitan Orchestra and Philharmonic Orchestra, arousing fresh animus. In summer breaks he composes ten and a half symphonies and several song cycles, generally derided. He declares, `My time will come' and dies of a cardiac infection in May 1911, aged 50. For the next half century he flickers on the repertorial fringe, scorned by Anglo-American critics and suppressed by Hitler. …

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