Norman Lebrecht’s ‘Why Mahler?’

Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World, by Norman Lebrecht, Faber, RRP£17.99, 362 pages

This is a book about Norman Lebrecht, masquerading as a book about Gustav Mahler. It reads like a personal testimony – how a Hampstead-based classical music journalist, well-known for his controversial opinions, “got” Mahler in his youth and has spent the intervening years, like a religious convert, turning an act of faith into a way of life.

“To know Mahler,” he says, “is to know ourselves.” As in Lebrecht’s journalism, enthusiasm is the book’s badge of honour, but like many enthusiasms, it turns obsessive and soon wears thin on those who do not share it.

Lebrecht gets one thing right: Mahler speaks to our time. His music can be overwhelming even in bad performances – and with two big Mahler anniversaries now under way (this year’s 150th anniversary of his birth, followed by the centenary of his death next year), there will be plenty of those. But Lebrecht has greater claims to make on Mahler’s behalf, and this is where the idolatry starts to grate.

Why Mahler? is a patchwork of fact, opinion, narcissism and frequently asked questions. Why does Mahler’s music affect us the way it does? Are we hearing what he meant us to hear, or a figment of interpretation?

We know the symphonies deal with essentials of life and death because Mahler told us so. And yes, they allow their interpreters more flexibility in matters of speed, dynamics, mood and phrasing than any other composer.

But far from illuminating the music, Lebrecht misrepresents and oversimplifies it. The third movement of the First Symphony is “a protest against the world’s indifference to infant mortality rates of 56 per cent”. The opening theme of the Third Symphony is “an implied protest against racial discrimination”, while the scherzo of the Fourth is “arguably the first multicultural work in western music”.

Only thanks to Mahler, Lebrecht suggests, was Shostakovich able to “infuse Russia with dissident freedoms”. And it’s Mahler who has “a peculiar capacity for unsettling heads of state” – a claim based on no more than a second-hand anecdote about Mikhail Gorbachev.

These are the fantasies of a fanatic, but the biggest joke is the way Lebrecht passes himself off as a historian. Having inspected Mahler’s bath in Vienna and other sites touched by the composer, he clearly believes he has special insights.

He has “shared many confidences” with Anna Mahler, the composer’s late daughter, to whom he “became close”. He constantly namedrops Mahler interpreters he has met, quoting casual conversations verbatim as if to imply he has been at the centre of the action and shares their authority.

Lebrecht even points out parallels between the composer’s life and his own. Mahler left home at 15, Lebrecht at 16: “Like Mahler, I felt no homesickness.”

He can’t mention Mahler’s surgery for haemorrhoids without relating it to his own gall bladder operation.

Buried within the breathless prose are nuggets that suggest Lebrecht’s heart is in the right place. He is good on Mahler’s romance with Alma, the sexually liberated young woman who became the composer’s wife. He argues effectively that the Resurrection Symphony is “deliberately Christ-less”.

Best of all are his explanations of Mahler’s “tribal” Jewishness, showing how the code-language of Yiddish communication produced music that could sustain two contrary meanings.

Such insights are too infrequent to counterbalance the acres of vapidity, among which is Lebrecht’s final assertion that seeking Mahler “is the start of a quest for the meaning of life and, sometimes, an end”. Yes, Norman – if you say so.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic

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