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

Nor­man Lebrecht
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Mahler’s life has been detailed in so many oth­er works — includ­ing anoth­er by Lebrecht him­self — that read­ers might won­der, why one more? Jew­ish read­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, might ask why an appar­ent apos­tate should claim their atten­tion at all. Lebrecht’s focus here is to under­stand how Mahler trans­formed his life expe­ri­ences into the music he wrote and con­duct­ed, and why this was so impor­tant for the emer­gence of moder­ni­ty. After a provoca­tive chap­ter or two explain­ing his own fas­ci­na­tion with Mahler, Lebrecht sets out to revis­it Mahler’s life, from his Czech/​Jewish vil­lage roots through to his suc­cess­es in Vien­na and the world stage. Lebrecht’s style is curi­ous­ly inti­mate. He relates quite per­son­al­ly to emo­tion­al moments in Mahler’s life — his grief over his daughter’s death, for exam­ple — putting him­self in Mahler’s shoes as he relives the musician’s strug­gles. He makes us feel Mahler’s migraines, his ambiva­lences in love, his grow­ing sense of his own mor­tal­i­ty. By the time he takes us on the walk­ing cure’ Freud gave Mahler, we no longer feel that skep­ti­cal urge — how could Lebrecht real­ly know what these two said to each oth­er?’ We are riv­et­ed, lis­ten­ing to two great thinkers grap­pling with the Mod­ern. This is a med­i­ta­tive biog­ra­phy, the sort that can only be writ­ten after more imper­son­al, pure­ly fac­tu­al accounts have already been pub­lished. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions