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

cover.gif Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World by Norman Lebrecht.

Why Mahler? I had no idea – but I wanted to find out.

Mahler was born on 7 July 1860 – one of 14 children – 8 of whom died before the age of 2, so Mahler learns about death at a very early age. As a musician he embraces sorrow – for Mahler the way to mend his life is to make art. Mahler’s father owns a bar where by the age of 4 Mahler is playing the piano and by the age of 6 he is composing – a funeral march. His first public recital is at the age of 9. So – the boy is a musician.

Mahler arrives in Vienna a few months before Richard Wagner arrives to mount Tannhauser and Lohengrin – to the “Beatlemania” of that time. Mahler is a conductor – working in Kassel, Leipzig, and Budapest where in 1889 he conducts the Ring Cycle. And later Don Giovanni – imagine going to an opera composed by Mozart and conducted by Mahler! Then on to Convent Garden, and finally (after converting to Christianity) back to the Vienna State Opera. Vienna at the time of Klimt and the Secessionists – during his last season there he conducts 111 performances of 23 operas.

Meanwhile he is also composing – and marries, Alma Schindler, a young beauty, also a composer. A child is born – and dies at the age of 5. Mahler is diagnosed with heart disease but carries on to fulfill a contract at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1908 – while working on the composition of his 9th Symphony – the “fatal number after which Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak all died.”

It is after the 9th, while composing his unfinished 10th symphony that he dies, on 18 May 1911.

During his lifetime Mahler’s audience was substantially Jewish – in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig and Vienna, “the Jewish middleclass formed the core of Mahler’s audience.” Leonard Bernstein says that Mahler had of course conducted all of his own compositions and made copious notes about the performance so that those who followed him knew how he close to conduct it – but his final work is open to interpretation by performers today.

I first heard Mahler’s music performed one summer during the Festival of the Sound and was moved beyond words. Last March during a visit to Amsterdam we attended a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony at the Concertgebouw on a Sunday afternoon, the performance was magnificent, one of those life affirming experiences.

So – Why Mahler? Norman Lebrecht’s book might answer that question for those who understand music and composition, which I do not. Still, I found it enlightening to know more about the life of this composer and the times in which he lived. Asking Why Mahler? is like asking why you love the person you have chosen to spend your life with – there is an attraction that grows into a relationship, and I think that happens with music – you hear a piece and it moves you, you listen to more and you begin to understand that there is something that fills you with both wonder and contentment – isn’t that enough?

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