Gustav Mahler
by Jens Malte Fischer
translated by Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press
758 pages, photos; $50.00

In Gustav Mahler’s own mind, his life and his music were “inexhaustibly” bound up together. By filtering his biography of Mahler through the direct relationship between the two, Jens Malte Fischer is able to shed light on what makes Mahler’s music so utterly his own. “Using a vocabulary that seems familiar and sometimes even intimately colloquial,” he writes, “Mahler expresses all that is unheard of and uncanny, all that is unsettling and upsetting. What was alien sounds familiar, and what is familiar now seems alien.”

Mahler’s life was as complex as his music, mostly because, as Fischer shows, he was such an intense, complicated and brilliant character. Admiring though he is, Fischer doesn’t shrink from describing how condescendingly insensitive Mahler could be with colleagues, friends and, especially, his much younger wife Alma. But Fischer, like most Mahler biographers, is equally tough on Alma. Even from her own diaries she emerges as narcissistic, humourless and willful. But, as she wrote, Mahler “lived a life of torment and inflicted torments a thousand times worse on me.” She even gave up her own dreams of being a composer at his insistence, though Fischer seems unnecessarily harsh when he disparages her talent on the evidence of her surviving compositions.

In 1910, just months before he died, Mahler finally realized how unhappy Alma was. When he discovered she was having an affair with Walter Gropius, he contacted Sigmund Freud for help. No notes from the session, which took place as they wandered the picturesque streets of Leiden, Holland, have survived. But among Freud’s writings Fischer found interesting references to a patient who could only be Mahler. Fischer even managed to track down the bill Freud sent to Alma after Mahler’s death.

As a theatre historian, Fischer is able to offer fascinating perspectives on various aspects of Mahler’s work, such as the detailed and often idiosyncratic performance instructions Mahler wrote in his scores (which Fischer compares to playwrights’ stage directions). He is especially good at describing the literary, artistic, political and religious currents of his day, above all the prevailing climate of anti-Semitism that drove Mahler, who was Jewish, to convert to Catholicism. But there are occasional lapses in musical judgment. Explaining Mahler’s famous remark, “My time will come,” he inexplicably downplays the popularity of the works of Mahler’s supposed rival, Richard Strauss.

The translation by noted scholar Stewart Spencer flows well, especially when dealing with such vivid descriptions of Mahler’s works as, “His First Symphony is a tempestuous, urgent, rebellious work, the composer’s first contribution to the medium and without doubt the boldest symphonic visiting card in the whole history of western music.”

Concert Notes: The University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra under David Briskin performs Mahler’s First Symphony on Thursday, February 2, at 7:30pm in the MacMillan Theatre.

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