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

Pantheon Books  2010

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.

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