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A review of Norman Lebrecht's new book by Philip Kennicott in The New Republic.

But Lebrecht is convinced that Mahler is more than a great artist. His symphonies are also prognostications of war, modern technology, and environmental degradation. “In his Third and Seventh symphonies he hinted at a future ecological disaster; in the Sixth he warned of imminent world war,” Lebrecht writes. “His First Symphony tackled child mortality,” and “his Second denied church dogma on the afterlife.” The Fourth symphony not only “proclaimed racial equality,” it also made “a case for animal rights.”

Mahler is not the only artist who attracts this sort of nonsense, but his partisans seem particularly inclined to it, in part because the composer lived during a period of great intellectual foment. But even if you believe in a very virile form of the zeitgeist—and accept that Mahler was living and creating music in one of the great cauldrons of modernity—it is preposterous to think that he could divine the future. This is an old trope: the suffering artist as Cassandra. For some very passionate Mahler lovers, the idea of Mahler as prophet also seems to compensate for the bigotry and the anti-Semitism which hounded Mahler throughout his career—a revenge of the future on the wrongs of the past.

Mahler does excite strong feelings for and against. What do BTers think?

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Mahler was the most beautiful and the most profound composer of the twentieth century.

Jeffrey Kahane chose Mahler's 5th symphony to end his tenure as the Music Director of the Colorado Symphony. I have never seen as intense a performance of any kind of music as was produced in that performance. He was so exhausted that though he is usually long-winded at post-concert Q&A sessions he could barely talk after this one.

My violinist friend once said, "Mahler wrote great parts for every instrument."

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One of the reasons why Mahler can be so polarizing is the influence he had on Schoenberg and, as a result, Schoenberg's pupils, Berg and Webern. To some Schoenberg was the end of music, and Mahler, as the teacher, was to blame. Those on the other end of Schoenberg's legacy thought he was a coward who would not give up tonality or institutional music.

He also managed to become polarizing in New York in his last decade, as he was pretty much pushed out of heading the Metropolitan Opera in favor of Toscanini and moved to the New York Philharmonic before contracting his final illness.

I disagree with Lebrecht that Mahler was somehow predictive, or any more predictive than many of the artists and writers of turn-of-the-century Vienna, who saw the disintegration of society, neurosis, and anxiety before them. Despite this he was a romantic figure to some. I remember meeting a man in his early 20's during a summer in Europe as a student, and we started to talk about classical music. He told me that he idolized Mahler, and when he found out I was heading to Vienna, he gave me $10 -- not peanuts in 1977 -- and asked me to put flowers on Mahler's grave at Grinzing, which was quite a trek using public transportation, at least then, but his precise directions on how to find the grave were impeccable. The gravestone is quite beautiful.

I wouldn't have wanted to know him, though, given the awful way he treated Alma Mahler, who has had a bad rap, most recently from Tom Lehrer.

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I found this comment of Mahler to Natalie Bauer-Lechner helpful - and not that different from how a good choreographer (or writer) might voice a work. I think it refers to the First symphony with its startling passages for violas:

If I want to produce a soft, subdued sound, I don’t give it to an instrument which produces it easily, but rather to one which can get it only with effort and under pressure - often only by forcing itself and exceeding its natural range. I often make the basses and bassoon squeak on the highest notes, while my flute huffs and puffs down below. There’s a passage like this in the fourth movement - do you remember the entry of the violas? ... I always enjoy this effect; I could never have produced that powerful, forced tone if I had given the passage to the cellos (the most obvious choice here).


You wouldn’t believe how anxiously and carefully I proceed in my compositions. In fact, I have worked out quite a new orchestral technique - the direct result of my long experience. For instance, when musical meaning requires consecutive notes to be played disconnectedly, I don’t leave this up to the common sense of the players. Instead I might divide the passage between the first and second violins, rather than leave it entirely to the firsts or seconds. If I want to have a part retreat into the background, I have it played by only one, two or three desks, as needed. Only when all the stops need to be pulled out is everybody included.


Otto Klemperer:

He always wanted more clarity, more sound, more dynamic contrast. At one point during rehearsal, he turned to us and said, “If, after my death, something doesn’t sound right, change it. You have not only a right but a duty to do so.”

When I lived in New York, I was fortunate to hear Klaus Tennstedt often guest perform with the New York Philharmonic. Mahler become a model for understranding all the discontinuities of New York. Now I listen listen a lot to a recording Bruno Maderna made with the Vienna of the Seventh - which seems to be everybody's least favorite symphony - but Maderna gets all Mahler's little simultaneous flows and counterflows just right.

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Mahler was a very great composer, but Norman "The Sky Is Falling" Lebrecht, who has made a career out of absurd doom-and-gloom predictions about today's classical music scene much like the apocalyptic ones he apparently now also ascribes to Mahler, is probably exactly the wrong writer to shed light on his genius. (Andrew Clark in the Financial Times: "This is a book about Norman Lebrecht, masquerading as a book about Gustav Mahler.") Another one who always gets a lot of largely undeserved publicity is Gilbert Kaplan. Almost every other book I've read has been perceptive and a very worthwhile read--but reason and research don't make headlines! Off the top of my head, I'd recommend for starters Donald Mitchell, Henri-Louis de la Grange, Constantin Floros, The Cambridge Companion to Mahler, Mahler and His World.

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