Monday, February 6, 2012

My Review of Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted on Facebook: June 5, 2011

This recently written book is an odd combination of biography, autobiography, and commentary. Lebrecht gives an account of Mahler’s life intermixed with the story of his own travels and concert experiences and with his views of Mahler’s work. In one respect, this makes the book more personal than a true biography – the work could more accurately be entitled “My Mahler”. Unfortunately, Lebrecht has a bit of a tendency to indulge himself through purple prose and by inaccurate license in assigning thoughts to Mahler himself and other persons.

Mahler is indeed a fascinating figure, personally and musically. As a Jew in pre-Nazi Austria, he faced regular prejudice and outright hostility. He also experienced a good share of tragedy, surrounded by death throughout his life, a fact that was to play a major in his music.

Mahler was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) as a double minority – both a Jew and one of a small German speaking community within Bohemia. His father and mother were unhappily married; with his father a notorious philanderer, and his mother a malingerer. Of the couple’s 14 children, only half survived infancy. Mahler’s parents ran a Jewish tavern during his childhood.

Mahler eventually attended a conservatory, and attained a series of posts as a conductor, eventually becoming the musical director of the Vienna Opera. Mahler is considered to be one of the most influential conductors of all time, breathing new life into every post he held. His compositions were less successful. At the time, a mixture of prejudice and lack of sympathy with the music itself led some of his contemporaries to suggest that he stick to conducting. Despite this, he continued to write.

Mahler eventually came to the United States to conduct the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Symphony.

Mahler’s personal life was both tragic and turbulent. In addition to the frequent child deaths in his family, he lost additional siblings in early adulthood. Always emotional, he had a series of love affairs before taking up with his eventual wife Alma. She was substantially younger, came from an anti-Semitic family, and had her own strong willed and difficult personality. One of their children died in infancy of diphtheria, and soon afterward, Mahler himself was diagnosed with heart failure due to recurrent bouts with scarlet fever beginning in childhood. (The same disease killed several of his siblings) Eventually, Mahler himself succumbed at age 50, leaving behind 10 symphonies and a number of song cycles.

Mahler’s music was controversial from the very beginning. Although influenced by Wagner and Bruckner, it is unmistakably unique. Lebrecht identifies the essential quality as the ability to say and mean more than one thing at once. This contains a good deal of truth. Mahler’s emotion is at the surface of his music, but the emotion isn’t clear. In Tchaikovsky, for example, the emotionality is straight forward – sorrow, despair, joy, longing, love, etc. In Mahler, there is often a mixture. Sometimes, this mixture seems absurd, contradictory, or impossible. A seemingly serious passage will be interrupted by the banal or the absurd. The funeral march will give way to a sappy popular tune or a trite melody will be transformed into a soaring theme.

An excellent example is in the 3rd movement of Mahler’s first symphony. Mahler begins with, of all things, Frere Jacques, transposed into a minor key, played by a solo string bass in a high register. This funeral march suddenly gives way to a Klezmer band playing a series of trite Yiddish tunes. Mahler originally described this as the funeral of a hunter with the animals following behind in celebration. Lebrecht suggests an alternate theme – one Mahler wouldn’t say because it would be too difficult for his audience. The use of a child’s tune as a funeral march suggests the brothers and sisters he described as being carried out of his home in tiny coffins as the rowdy band played in the tavern below. Listen and decide for yourself. 

Mahler’s music is certainly haunted from beginning to end by death. This should not be considered a flaw, as death comes to us all, and surrounds us as it did Mahler – our circumstances simply allow us to ignore it better.

Mahler’s music wasn’t embraced during his lifetime, although he had some limited success. After his death and the rise of the Nazis his music was banned in the German speaking countries as “decadent”, a code word for “Jewish”. The music didn’t catch on in the United States until later, but was brought to the consciousness of the public by Leonard Bernstein and others after World War Two. Since that time, Mahler has become one of the most recorded classical composers of all time.

Mahler remains controversial. Many if not most either love or hate his music. Love or hate, he has been influential musically on both 20th century classical music, and in the eventual movie music to come. A quick listen of John Williams reveals his debt to Mahler.

With this in mind, Lebrecht does an excellent job of advocating for Mahler’s music. He clearly considers Mahler to be the best composer of all time, and comes to this conclusion having immersed himself in the music to an astounding degree. It is refreshing as a musician to read from an author who understands and knows the music and who has taken the time to listen to numerous live concerts in addition to multiple recordings. Lebrecht clearly loves the music – if not all of its interpretations. He brings an interesting perspective to its interpretation.

Lebrecht also cuts through the static on the mixed reputation of Mahler’s works. Such luminaries as the philosopher Wittgenstein concluded that the music was “worthless”, although he granted that it took “a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.” Lebrecht questions why, if the music was so bad, it elicited such a violent reaction.

“Bad art does not require intelligent deprecation.”

True words worth borrowing.

Where Lebrecht is weak is in his insistence on making Mahler more than he was: an excellent, moving, and influential composer. Lebrecht falls for the common modern day fallacy that art can cure evil. The theory in this case is (roughly) that if a person (say Hitler), had embraced Mahler’s music, it would have made him emotionally whole and cured his anti-Semitism. This is dubious, if for no other reason, that Hitler liked and admired much that is good and admirable in the various arts. Such good taste did nothing to prevent the murder of 6 million of his fellow humans.

The problem comes with the elevation of a man to the status of a god. By such deification, claims are made about the object of admiration that cannot be true, thus distracting from all the truly good and noble things the man did.

I particularly took issue with Lebrecht’s claim that Mahler is unique in the way musicians respond to his music. Lebrecht correctly notes that professional musicians have to, to a certain degree, isolate their own emotions from the music they are playing. A generally sanguine individual like myself, for example, cannot let my own happiness intrude on the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique – despair must come through whether I can personally feel it or not. Lebrecht goes too far, however, by claiming that, “Mahler, alone among composers, allows [musicians] to emote and still perform.” As an illustration, he mentions a musician who was transported by the music to a previous strong emotional experience. Perhaps there are those rare, jaded musicians that have had this happen only once, with only one composer. There are many more of us who have experienced this on many occasions, with many different pieces. If I may be allowed to generalize from my own experience, I can reliably find myself overwhelmed by emotion while playing at our concerts. Most recently, I found Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, 4th movement, to be a visceral experience – and there are many more moments. I can even come into a passage knowing that it has affected me in the past, and still have involuntary shivers in my spine and physical-emotional reaction that puts me beyond time and space. I suspect all true musicians have felt the same way more than a few times.

By all means, read this book. I would recommend a quick perusal of a less biased biography to fill in the details first before accepting the claims of this book at face value, but this book will raise awareness of Mahler’s excellent music and awaken a desire to hear more of it.

A few notes for listening:

Symphony #4 is probably the easiest introduction to Mahler. Conveniently, the Bakersfield Symphony is performing this on Saturday, February 11, 2012.
Symphony #1, although long, is well worth the effort
I particularly love Symphony #5, for whatever that is worth.
Don’t let this limit you, however – there is great music in all of his symphonies.

If you have Netflix, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts are available for rental. His introduction to Mahler gives an excellent slice of the music.
YouTube also has an excellent selection of great performances.

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