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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A new view of Mahler

By Norman Lebrecht / March 5, 2008

One morning in the mid-1970s, I walked into Marylebone Public Library and took out the largest book on the music shelves, a 1,000-page biography of Gustav Mahler that covered the first 40 years of his life. The author, an unknown French baron by name of Henry-Louis de la Grange, promised a sequel. I couldn’t wait.

What gripped me about the book was that almost everything in it was new. In 1974 the world knew little about Mahler beyond the memoirs of his flighty wife, Alma, which were full of self-exculpating lies. Every page of La Grange was packed with astounding revelation, much of it from intimate sources. I learned the footnotes off by heart and started saving up for the final instalment.

It finally arrived last week. The fourth volume of La Grange’s Mahler – it just grew and grew – comes from Oxford University Press with a wrist-injury warning at 1,758 pages, bringing the total span of this biography to 4,637pp. And in case you’re now worried that we got short shrift on volume one, the author is busily expanding it. Everything you ever wanted to know about Mahler is in here, somewhere.

Who needs to know this much about a composer? It’s a question that has tormented readers since 1859. Ever since the Leipzig archaeologist Otto Jahn kicked in with a four-tome life of Mozart (the latest English version runs to 1,500 pages), men of valour have applied themselves to the unabridged study of a composer’s life. Alexander Wheelock Thayer, a Harvard library assistant, wangled himself US diplomatic postings in Vienna and Trieste in order to research the three-volume Life of Beethoven, which began appearing in German in 1866 but not in English until 1921, since when it has been indispensable.

An American soldier in post-War Europe, H C Robbins Landon, spent his weekends visiting palaces and churches where Joseph Haydn had played, before spending the rest of his life writing the five-volume life. Jerrold Northrop Moore, a Yale curator disaffected with academe, took a house in Worcester and applied himself to Elgar (820pp life, and several further studies). A BBC producer, Alan Walker, embarked on Liszt at three volumes and 1,700 pages while the London music critic David Cairns kept keep Berlioz down to two volumes and 1,600 pages.

These efforts, magniloquent as they are, pale beside the dedication of Henry-Louis de La Grange who, two days after arriving in New York in 1945, heard Bruno Walter conduct Mahler’s ninth symphony and discovered his life’s mission. The son of a French flying ace and an American heiress, La Grange had estates in France and Corsica and did not need to earn a living.

A rich man meddling in learned matters is prone to be dismissed as a dilettante, but such was the mass of manuscripts that La Grange acquired and so diligent was his use of them that, as Mahler bounced back in the 1960s with Leonard Bernstein’s recorded cycle and the Death in Venice soundtrack, the baron emerged as the premier authority on a best-selling composer.

What his final volume brings is three key challenges to the popular image of Mahler in his last years, 1907-1911. Alma’s tale has it that her husband, diagnosed with heart disease at the age of 47, lived out his days a weakling, frail, tremulous and impotent. La Grange shows that, working in America, Mahler regained vigour and ambition, stamping his mark on the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, and getting Alma pregnant (she miscarried).

Her account of a 1910 summer love affair with the young architect Walter Gropius, future founder of the Bauhaus movement, portrays Mahler as desperate and broken. The letters that La Grange brings to light paint a more complex picture, with Alma’s love for Gustav actually intensified by her own infidelity. Mahler went to Freud for a four-hour consultation during the crisis and came away feeling much better. Freud said: ‘Had Mahler been properly analysed and cured of his neurosis, his work would perhaps have turned out completely different.’

Mahler’s death at 50, far from being an inevitable consequence of his heart condition, was (according to La Grange) the product of a passing infection which, not many years afterwards, could have been treated with antibiotics. These findings present Mahler and his music in a wholly different light. The ninth and tenth symphonies, written during and after the marriage breach, are not perhaps farewells to life as to love. It is tempting to wonder whether, if Mahler had lived another year or two, his music might have gone down the atonal blind alley of his protégé Arnold Schoenberg. Not the least of La Grange’s finds are papers showing how Mahler kept Schoenberg alive through charitable benefactions.

The trouble with a work on this scale is finding the wood for the trees. Had La Grange neglected to quote full-length reviews of every single Mahler performance – not just of his own music but of every opera he conducted and every other conductor’s take on his symphonies – the books could have been shorter by a third. Had he skimped on providing the antecedents of every individual Mahler ever met, further forests might have been saved. Still, there is a stately pace to his narrative that is Mahlerian and there is a method to his comprehensiveness that becomes gradually compulsive.

This is not the place to dispute errors of fact and judgement. Others will take a different view of Mahler from the one that La Grange submits. But no-one who loves Mahler can deny the debt the world owes to his inexhaustible French biographer, the Boswell of the eighth arrondissement of Paris.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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