The Full Force of Mahler

By Penrose, James | New Criterion, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Full Force of Mahler


Penrose, James, New Criterion


In just over a quarter century, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) clawed his way out of muddy Austro-Hungarian backwaters like Olmutz and Ljubljana and into the greatest opera houses in the world. His career resembled a series of controlled explosions, each propelling him upwards but exacting such a personal and political toll that he died, worn out, at fifty. "One of the mightiest energies, one of the most inconsiderate despotic natures, one of the most powerful spiritual potencies of public life ... has destroyed [his] unprepossessingly weak shell," wrote one contemporary after Mahler's death.

Mahler lived and worked during a time of extraordinary musical upheaval. While he was on good terms with traditionalists like Johannes Brahms (who declared himself Mahler's "fiercest partisan"), he was also a force for change, encouraging the group of younger composers who would come to be known as the Second Viennese School: Arnold Schonberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg (who so revered Mahler that he kept a piece of toilet paper on which Mahler, otherwise engaged, had sketched a theme). It was also a time when Jews began, against much resistance, to play a much more prominent role in European culture.

During his life, Mahler earned his living and much of his fame from his conducting, but his posthumous reputation rests on his ten (or eleven, depending on one's view of Das Lied von der Erde) symphonies and various song cycles. Interest in his music cooled in the atmosphere of post-Debussy anti-Romanticism, although infrequent performances by performers such as Willem Mengelberg, Leopold Stokowski, and Eugene Ormandy kept his name and works alive. A generation after Mahler's death, Theodor Adorno wrote, "we pass hurriedly by his oeuvre, maintaining that we have long since left it behind us, while in actuality we are only making haste [so as] not to look at it too closely." That studied indifference didn't last: during the 1960s, another time of extraordinary upheaval, audiences began to look anew at Mahler's oeuvre closely indeed, starting with a series of now-iconic performances and recordings by Leonard Bernstein. Later audiences were--and remain--so enraptured with Mahler that, at least in terms of programming and availability of recordings, he now enjoys something of the stature of Beethoven in the nineteenth century.

Mahler has been the subject of a huge number of studies and biographies, including the charming but fundamentally unreliable Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, by his widow, Alma, and the exhaustive (and exhausting) four-volume biography by Henry-Louis de La Grange. Some twenty years ago, the British writer and critic Norman Lebrecht published the bones of a biography in his Mahler Remembered, a collection of contemporary anecdotes about the composer. Mr. Lebrecht's new book, Why Mahler?, however, takes a different approach. (1) Mr. Lebrecht argues that Mahler was not only one of the inventors of modernity, but also an important diagnostician and physician of modernity's ills. "What cannot be disputed," Mr. Lebrecht writes, "is that Mahler is received by many in modern times as a source of spiritual revelation." Why Mahler? weaves episodes from Mr. Lebrecht's own memories and impressions into the events of Mahler's life to show how the music's "spiritual revelation" has affected Mr. Lebrecht and others--and claims that such revelation is available to us as well. "In each and every performance," Mr. Lebrecht tells us, "Mahler changes somebody's life and mind."

From the beginning, Mahler's life was rootless and contradictory. He was born in German-speaking Iglau, a garrison town between Prague and Vienna, surrounded by "a Slavonic sea of Czechs." At home he spoke Yiddish. From the time he was ten, he was scarcely in one location for more than three years. Later in life, Mahler observed that he was "three times without a homeland. A Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. …

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