Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World

Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World

by Norman Lebrecht

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Although Gustav Mahler was a famous conductor in Vienna and New York, the music that he wrote was condemned during his lifetime and for many years after his death in 1911. “Pages of dreary emptiness,” sniffed a leading American conductor. Yet today, almost one hundred years later, Mahler has displaced Beethoven as a box-office draw and exerts a unique


Although Gustav Mahler was a famous conductor in Vienna and New York, the music that he wrote was condemned during his lifetime and for many years after his death in 1911. “Pages of dreary emptiness,” sniffed a leading American conductor. Yet today, almost one hundred years later, Mahler has displaced Beethoven as a box-office draw and exerts a unique influence on both popular music and film scores.
Mahler’s coming-of-age began with such 1960s phenomena as Leonard Bernstein’s boxed set of his symphonies and Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice, which used Mahler’s music in its sound track. But that was just the first in a series of waves that established Mahler not just as a great composer but also as an oracle with a personal message for every listener. There are now almost two thousand recordings of his music, which has become an irresistible launchpad for young maestros such as Gustavo Dudamel.
Why Mahler? Why does his music affect us in the way it does?
Norman Lebrecht, one of the world’s most widely read cultural commentators, has been wrestling obsessively with Mahler for half his life. Pacing out his every footstep from birthplace to grave, scrutinizing his manuscripts, talking to those who knew him, Lebrecht constructs a compelling new portrait of Mahler as a man who lived determinedly outside his own times. Mahler was—along with Picasso, Einstein, Freud, Kafka, and Joyce—a maker of our modern world.
“Mahler dealt with issues I could recognize,” writes Lebrecht, “with racism, workplace  chaos, social conflict, relationship breakdown, alienation, depression, and the limitations of medical knowledge.” Why Mahler? is a book that shows how music can change our lives.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Since the early 1970s, culture commentator Lebrecht (Who Killed Classical Music?) has pursued all things Gustav Mahler: his music, his genius, his problems (from depression to racism). More comprehensive than his 1987 work, Mahler Remembered, this second look at the Austrian composer and conductor adds memoir and meditation to musical analysis for a compelling, opinionated, sometimes overwrought narrative. Noting Mahler's wide-ranging influence today (examples include Leonard Bernstein, a Harry Potter movie, and even Pink Floyd), Lebrecht finds in Mahler "a maker of music that interacts with what musicians and listeners are feeling in a fast-changing often threatening world." Throughout, Lebrecht interrupts the text with personal commentary, while being careful to connect the dots linking events in Mahler's life to his musical oeuvre and its realization. In chapters entitled "Whose Mahler?" and "How to Mahler" Lebrecht not only tells readers what to listen to, but why. Occasionally, such fervent admiration leads to fevered prose, as when Lebrecht writes that "the music pulses from him like blood from a severed artery." With more to appreciate than abhor, Lebrecht's affectionate study, like its subject, is laborious but engaging. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“A brisk, engaging journey through the life of a fascinating and enormously influential artist.”
Kansas City Star

“Very enjoyable to read, gossipy as well as learned, and it makes the man come to life.”
The Economist

“Lebrecht’s book brings Mahler scholarship into to the present by including interviews with conductors, visits to sites with Mahler connections and an excellent annotated discography.”
The Star-Ledger
“Readers of Why Mahler? will be grateful to Lebrecht for his enthusiasm and for his highly personal cultural history.”
The Wall Street Journal
“As a short introduction to the meaning of Mahler, this sympathetic biography will do very well.”
The Times (London)
“We could not put the book down. Mahler is boss.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Library Journal
Lebrecht (Mahler Remembered; The Life and Death of Classical Music) presents a highly personal view of Gustav Mahler and the reasons behind the increasing popularity of his music. Using Mahler's biography, which occupies the majority of the book and features historical background, Lebrecht weaves a fascinating study that includes wide-ranging references to literature, politics, art, sociology, and popular music. Lebrecht's primary thesis is that Mahler's music, more than that of any other composer, invites highly personal and extremely varied interpretations—a point emphasized by including descriptions of numerous recordings by famous musicians over the last 80 years. The book is skillfully written and clearly—even passionately—reasoned. VERDICT This is music history, criticism, and biography at its best. A treasure trove for Mahler fans, this is also likely to convert even the most obstinate detractor. Highly recommended for all music lovers.—Timothy J. McGee, Trent Univ., Peterborough, Ont.
Kirkus Reviews

Music critic Lebrecht (The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made, 2007, etc.) pens an extended love letter to the composer whose majestic symphonies and brooding vocal works have become almost sacrosanct in the contemporary concert hall.

This book will appeal to Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) enthusiasts who share the author's tendency toward unabashed hyperbole—read no further than the subtitle. Lebrecht's penchant for exaggerating the role played by the classical music tradition in Western culture permeates this latest work, as it has throughout much of his previous writing. Yet the author's premise is worthy of consideration: How do we account for the rise in Mahler's popularity since Leonard Bernstein almost singlehandedly initiated a Mahler Renaissance in the 1960s? Though Lebrecht doesn't provide a definitive answer, he does offer an ample introduction to the composer. As part biography, part gonzo journalism and part confessional, the book seems unnecessarily confusing. The most compelling sections, which chronologically trace Mahler's biography, are tainted by Lebrecht's decision to write in the present tense. Likewise, many of the sections within the biographical portion of the book jump to tenuously related anecdotes from the present just as the narrative settles into a more comfortable rhythm. Lebrecht writes with appealing detail, however, filling in the crevices of his subject's life with adages and impressions about Mahler conveyed through the letters and reminiscences of those who knew him. Consequently, the author richly animates Mahler as the moody, self-obsessive and tragic figure he seems to have been. The book also includes interviews with surviving family members and accounts of the author's pilgrimages to important Mahler sites.

Lebrecht takes on a fascinating topic, but his attempt results in a disorienting formal hodgepodge.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

The Vienna of Freud, Mahler, Mach, Wittgenstein, Schnitzler, Herzl, Trotsky, and the young Hitler forged the world we know today. It was a meeting point of individualism and collectivism, egotism and idealism, the erotic and the ascetic, the elevated and the debased. At its center whirled Gustav Mahler . . . The man and his music are central to our understanding of the course of civilization and the nature of human relationships.
Art that is both high and low, original and derived, breathtaking and banal, Mahler’s music resists textbook analysis. It is an open-ended mind game of intellectual and ironic discourse, a voyage of discovery that combines self-revelation, consolation, and renewal . . . Each symphony is a search engine for inner truths. To know Mahler is ultimately to know ourselves.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Norman Lebrecht has written several best-selling works of nonfiction, including The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music? He is also the award-winning author of the novels The Song of Names and The Game of Opposites. He writes regularly for Bloomberg.com and The Wall Street Journal, and he presents The Lebrecht Interview series on BBC Radio 3 and The Record Doctor on WNYC. He lives in London.

From the Hardcover edition.

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