Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?

This year, the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth, will see many a celebration of the great compose

A very long Mahler season may be upon us, as rather than waiting for next year -- the centenary of his death -- as I had rather imagined would happen, the celebrations are beginning with the 150th anniversary of his birth on July 7, 1860. There will be performances at the Proms (even more than normal), 27 concerts at London's South Bank over the next year and a new book, Why Mahler?, by Norman Lebrecht, the frequently testy but always terrific critic whose previous work on the composer, Mahler Remembered", has sat on my bookshelves for over 20 years.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" as Maureen Lipman's character Trish says in the film Educating Rita, may be putting it a little strongly, but the reference worked both to underline Trish's Bohemian pretensions and the hysterical drama many associate with the great Gustav. Trish, some may remember, did in fact die -- by her own hand -- and an underlying sense, often a fear, of mortality runs through much of the symphonies as well as the song cycles, most obviously in the case of Kindertotenlieder, "Songs on the death of children". (While I still think it the best of his song cycles, the subject matter has always struck me as a bit morbid. No wonder his wife, Alma, was not best pleased when he carried on working on the cycle after they had children themselves.)

I was made aware of this connection very early on. When I was 15, I used to have weekly lessons in composition and orchestration with Alan Ridout, a professor at the Royal College of Music and a minor English composer who made something of a speciality of writing concertos for instruments that hardly anyone else did, such as the double bass and the tuba. One week I arrived and he asked me what I'd been up to. "I've been listening to a lot of Mahler," I told him. "Ah, I knew a young man who started to listen to Mahler," said Professor Ridout, fixing me with a smile and gaze I always found mildly disconcerting, as his eyes tended to bulge slightly behind his glasses. "He committed suicide shortly afterwards."

Although I remain indebted to Ridout for having introduced me to the music of Krzysztof Penderecki and Philip Glass, our discussion of Mahler, as you might guess, went no further. For him, Mahler's immediate appeal to the adolescent ear and mind was evidence of an immature, unsubtle oeuvre. Of course, the scale and drama of his music is undeniable. "The symphony must be like the world," he once said. "It must embrace everything." The orchestras for which he wrote were under a similar obligation, having to expand to hitherto unknown sizes and including a church organ (in the Eighth Symphony), a whip (in the Fifth) and cow bells and a hammer (in the Sixth).

Criticism of his work was widespread during his lifetime (particularly the claim that he could not write counterpoint), during which he was far more famous as conductor of the Vienna Opera and later of the New York Met and Philharmonic. Precisely how he should be rated is still hotly debated today. Aaron Copland once said that "the difference between Beethoven and Mahler is the difference between seeing a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor act the part of a great man walking down the street." Of one of Mahler's symphonies, however, Alban Berg had earlier said it was "the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral". I'm with Berg on this. The man about whose music one contemporary critic said, "one of us must be crazy -- and it isn't me", may not have been properly appreciated when alive, but Mahler the musical prophet also foretold his own future correctly. "My time will come," he said. It surely has, as the forthcoming celebrations will certainly show.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor to the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories