The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Mahler is the new Beethoven, critic Norman Lebrecht argues in his excellent new book “Why Mahler?”

October 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Is Mahler the Beethoven for our time?

I think so, and so does the renowned British music critic Norman Lebrecht, as he explains in his outstanding new book “Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World” (Pantheon, 326 pp., $28).

I think of the way the 19th century idolized Beethoven and featured best-selling cycles of his symphonies and concertos, and how Beethoven both inspired and intimidated individual composers. Beethoven set the benchmark.

Then I look around today.

When John DeMain came to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, he promised and delivered a Mahler cycle. Edo de Waart has done the same with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas has used Mahler to elevate the status of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and his own reputation.

Phenom maestro Gustavo Dudamel used Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 to make his impressive debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which also marked his nationwide debut n PBS. Even the veteran composer-conductor Pierre Boulez – who this week conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 for PBS’  “Great Performances” — has completed an important Mahler cycle with the Cleveland Orchestra for the record label Deutsche Grammophon.

Has Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 – “Resurrection” – replaced Beethoven’s Ninth as the apogee or summit of spiritually profound classical music?

Maybe not, but it isn’t far from it.

Has Maher’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” supplanted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”? Again, maybe not quite. But it seems to be creeping up on it as one of those revolutionary works that represents an entire age or spirit or culture.

Mahler (below, 1860-1911) has become, in short, an indispensible and emblematic part of our contemporary culture – especially, I think, for his unresolved harmonies and melodies, for his fragmentary method and for his darkness.

So it is little wonder that Mahler can easily become a kind of hobby or devotion for serious symphony fans, the way Wagner’s “Ring” cycle does for opera fanatics. Mahler’s work has becomes today’s benchmark for sonic profundity.

So yes, especially in a a Mahler Year, why not ask: “WHY Mahler?” And “WHO is Mahler”?

Lebrecht (below) can be kind of crotchety or ornery, curmudgeonly and highly opinionated, a reputation he apparently has among some journalists and musicians. You can see glimpses of that quality, a certain impatience or short temperedness on his part, here.

Yet Lebrecht also has a much more sympathetic side. And you can’t accuse him of not doing his homework, although I am sure that musicologists and specialists can find plenty of bones to pick with his book.

When it comes to Mahler recordings, in a lengthy discography the never fully satisfied Lebrecht comments in impressive detail about many dozens of recordings and interpretations, including how several versions of the same symphony by the same conductor – say, Leonard Bernstein (below) or Klaus Tennstedt – compare.

Similarly, the list of sources he consulted and the index both prove helpful.

Yet this is not a book for academic or professional specialists, though many of them will find it useful.

I find Lebrecht’s writing accessible, enjoyable and much more interesting than what a lot of music historians and music biographers write. He works in print and radio, so he has a journalists’ sense of a sentence and of a paragraph. By that, I mean that the book flows and is an easy read, yet remains precise and informative. Not for nothing has he written 13 books (including “Who Killed Classical Music?” and “The Maestro Myth”) that have been translated into some 17 languages.

Here is a sample (on pages 182-3): “This was a composer who shaped pain with a purpose. In early symphonies he dealt with his trauma of infant mortality, religious intolerance, and social exclusion. In the late symphonies, he dealt with the losses that befall us all. Nothing is held back, nothing redacted. Mahler (below is his grave in Vienna) turned his life inside out so that the rest of us might better understand what happens to us.”

Lebrecht (below) also organizes the book in easy-to-digest parts. You will find a section debunking myths about Mahler. You will find a part explaining the major stages of the Mahler revival, including Leonard Bernstein’s championing Mahler and the role of the movie “Death in Venice.”

Lebrecht proceeds symphony by symphony, explaining each one’s genesis and its meaning both within the Mahler cycle and as an independent work.

He explains the cultural turmoil of Vienna surrounding Mahler (below) at the turn of the 20th century where Freud, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Schnitzler and others ruled the salons. And he traces the heavy toll that anti-Semitism in Europe and America took on Mahler.

Yet all the biographical information seems plentiful and pertinent to the music, never esoteric or gratuitous.

Overall, I find Lebrecht’s judgments measured and sound, despite the hyperbolic claim of changing the world. But it seems hard to argue with his claim that Mahler pioneered ways of composing music so that it can be read with opposing and ironic meanings or in contradictory ways. That makes Mahler postmodern before there was postmodernism. Dead a century, he nonetheless embodies our sensibility in a prophetic way.

Lebrecht also proves, at least to my satisfaction, that the demanding and hard-working Mahler was a great opera and symphony conductor and that the secret to his conducting – and, he believed, to the conducting of others’ – was not to be literal in following the score, but to let the music and mood take you where they will. In a sense, the very modern Mahler trusted the very old sense of inspiration, although he was anything but sloppy or forgiving in his preparation and rehearsals. It is what I call the well-rehearsed surprise and professional performers are masters of it.

The book is loaded with little anecdotes – including Mahler’s bicycle visit to a dying Brahms – that add human interest and sometimes even revelation to the music.

I also give credit to Lebrecht for not underestimating the difficulty of appreciating or even approaching Mahler. He admits the music is polarizing and not for everyone. But he does offer tips about which symphonies or which movements to listen to first if you are not yet among the initiated.

Of course you can read “Why Mahler?” straight through from cover to cover without stopping. I did because I found it hard to put down. But something tells me that the best way is to keep the book nearby and to consult it as you listen to a particular Mahler symphony or movement.

The book has some scholarly qualities to it, but it is clearly more as an instruction manual, a user’s guide, if you will. That is no small public service at a time when coverage of classical music, especially in traditional media seems to be shrinking.

If you want to know more, you might check out these sites:

In the meantime, I suggest that as gift — to either yourself or to another — you find a good Mahler recording and bundle it with this book.

Or maybe instead of a CD, a ticket to one of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” on May 13, 14 and 15.

Do you like Mahler?

Why or why not?

What is your favorite symphony or movement?

Do you have a favorite recording?

And what do you think of Norman Lebrecht?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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