How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World
by Norman Lebrecht
$27.95 List Price
Beethoven was the model for the misunderstood, born-too-soon creative genius—at least as far as composers are concerned—and Gustav Mahler was his most apt pupil. In the decades just before and after 1900, while building a reputation throughout Europe and New York as one of the world's great conductors, he also turned out a series of large, hyperexpressive, and tonally ambiguous symphonies that many listeners greeted with incomprehension or outright hostility. Mahler, though often aggrieved, was confident that classical audiences would come around to him, as they had to Beethoven. Referring to his friend and more popular rival Richard Strauss, he remarked, "My time will come when his is past."
He was only half right. Strauss's star never faded, but Mahler's move to center stage over the past half century or so has been a remarkable case of artistic—well, revival is too weak a word. His symphonies (between nine and eleven of them, depending on how you count) and songs have become central musical texts, repertoire staples for every orchestra, conductor, and singer in the world. His music floods the CD market and suffuses our concert halls.
How did this happen—or, as the title of Norman Lebrecht's new book would have it, Why Mahler? What do these pieces, with their unusual combination of sardonic wit and heart-on-sleeve expressivity, say to twenty-first-century listeners? Is the growing acceptance of Mahler's work simply due to the passage of time, a vindication of the modernist credo that posterity always gets it right? Or did something change in the collective psyche of