Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: Why Mahler?

Recently I came to realize that while I know quite a bit about musical trends and movements from a historical perspective, my knowledge of the biographies of many of the major composers is less than complete.  As part of my personal goals, I am beginning to add biographies to my reading list.  The first biography that I completed was Norman Lebrecht’s fascinating book Why Mahler?  How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.

Lebrecht paints a stunning portrait of a musical genius who feels as though he belongs nowhere.  He is not accepted by his Viennese home, finds no relief in Judaism, and is never comfortable in the United States.  Additionally, his works are often overlooked and considered inferior by many of the critics of the day. 

Lebrecht is also careful to present the love between Gustav and Alma with honesty and clarity.  Alma’s penchant for exaggeration – or blatantly lying – to present her life in a favorable light is addressed on numerous accounts.  Their mythological love is handled with dignity and simple honesty.

One of my favorite scenes comes at the end of the biography.  Returning to Europe on board the SS Amerika, Alma is putting the couple’s daughter Anna to bed.  Mahler knows that he is going to die soon, so “he gives final orders to Anna Moll [a family friend].   He wants to be buried beside his daughter Maria in the Grinzing cemetery, without fuss, and just ‘Mahler’ on his headstone.  ‘Anyone who comes to look for me will know who I was and the rest don’t need to know.’” (Lebrecht, 194)  This Devil-may-care attitude is indicative of Mahler’s life and career.  Such a fitting end for an interesting and passionate man.

Why Mahler? is written in three major parts.  Section I deals with some frequently asked questions about the man and his music before launching into a thorough biography in Section II.  The final section examines issues of interpretation and will be a valuable resource to any student of Mahler’s orchestral works. 

Lebrecht explains the need for this final section by telling us about Mahler’s views as a composer and conductor.
Mahler was, on the one hand, a precisionist who tried to leave nothing to chance and, on the other, a dreamer in pursuit of an unattainable perfection.  Recognizing these limitations, he licensed conductors to use their discretion when performing his works.  “If after my death something doesn’t sound right,” he told Otto Klemperer, “then change it.  You have not only the right but the duty to do so.” (Lebrecht, 212)

Lebrecht then launches into a detailed analysis of major recordings of each of the orchestral works, citing successes, failures, and missteps by leading conductors.  Lebrecht is quite thorough and provides both historical and contemporary examples.  While this section is not a page-turner like the biography, the extensiveness and breadth of the discussion makes it an enormously valuable resource.

Wonderfully written in a mostly flowing prose style, Why Mahler? is an excellent book to add to any music historian’s and performer’s library.  Whether you are looking for a simple introduction to the life of this composer or intimate details, this book will certainly have what you are looking for.