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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Norman Lebrecht—noted music critic, novelist, and author of the classic Mahler Remembered—explains why Gustav Mahler, relatively obscure in his own time, has become the most popular symphonist of ours.
Although he was well regarded as a conductor, when Gustav Mahler died in 1911 his compositions were considered

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Norman Lebrecht—noted music critic, novelist, and author of the classic Mahler Remembered—explains why Gustav Mahler, relatively obscure in his own time, has become the most popular symphonist of ours.
Although he was well regarded as a conductor, when Gustav Mahler died in 1911 his compositions were considered “incomprehensible” and “unlistenable.” In the 1960s, with Leonard Bernstein’s passionate advocacy, Mahler’s star began to rise. And in 2009, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel chose a Mahler symphony for his first concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mahler had famously remarked that his “time will come.” Why Mahler? explores how we have come to find ourselves in Mahler’s time.
Norman Lebrecht approaches the question from an unusual and personal angle, discussing how the composer’s music has affected his own life as well as the cultural life of the twentieth century. He travels to Mahler’s birth- and resting places; speaks with surviving members of his family; and delves into why, for many fans, Mahler is not just a composer but a religion, and why, even for less-ardent listeners, Mahler’s popularity has eclipsed that of Haydn or Beethoven.
Equal parts biography, memoir, and appreciation, this is a book that will allow us a fuller understanding than we have ever had of Gustav Mahler and of his abiding place in our musical sensibilities.

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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.)
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.

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

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.82(w) x 11.80(h) x 1.21(d)

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.

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