Gustav Mahler

Composers take up a great deal more shelf space than authors. The latest edition of Hermann Abert on Mozart runs to 1,500 pages, much the same length as David Cairns on Berlioz, David Brown on Tchaikovsky and Stephen Walsh on Stravinsky. Liszt, in Alan Walker's outstanding monument, is a couple of hundred pages longer. Janácek, in John Tyrrell's comprehensive account, nears 2,000.

In this culture of excess, Gustav Mahler incites exaggeration. A French baron, Henry-Louis de La Grange, has devoted his life to a 4,500-page biography. The major English study, by Donald Mitchell, appeared in four fat volumes. There's an Oxford Companion as thick as your arm. I made a conscious decision when writing Why Mahler? to keep it concise, both with a view to reaching more readers and because of a lurking feeling that Mahler is distorted by inflated verbiage - that beyond these mighty books lurks a small, nervous man, uncomfortable with his published image.

And that is before we cross the threshold of the German literature. Mahler, in German, gets filed on two shelves: pre-1933 and post-1945. The early biographies, by close associates - Richard Specht, Paul Stefan, Bruno Walter - run close to hagiolatry. Before Mahler had been dead a year, Arnold Schoenberg declared him a saint. His enemies, many of them outspokenly anti-Semitic, pronounced him a fraud. Between those polarities, reasoned discussion of the man and his music proved impossible.

After the Hitler period, during which Mahler was erased from the agenda and many of his relatives and friends were murdered, German opinion was re-educated by a handful of musicologists who wrestled themselves into contortions trying to ignore what had gone before. Best among them were Kurt Blaukopf and the Greek-born Constantin Floros, whose outsider perspective was frequently insightful; both, notably, were better received in English translation than in the German.

Far more influential was the Freiburg professor Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (1919-99), who introduced two generations of German readers to Mahler and 20th-century music. There is a small problem with Eggebrecht. Until 1945 he was, all now agree, a dedicated follower of the Führer. Recent research suggests he was much more than that. According to his biographer Boris von Haken, in an article published last year in Die Zeit, Eggebrecht was a member of the Feldengendarmerie division 683, which in December 1941 committed a mass execution of Jews at Simferopol, in the Crimea, murdering more than 14,000 men, women and children over three days. Some of Eggebrecht's devoted pupils, now also leaders in German musicology, have sought to absent him from the unit on the days in question. However, Haken has produced proof that he was present on at least one day of the massacre.

After the Second World War, Eggebrecht falsified his service record and became an academic. He may have taken up Mahler and modernism as cover, or atonement, for his horrendous crimes. Whatever the reason, he treated Mahler's Jewishness as a pathologist treats a corpse. It appears as one of many Mahlerian "vocabularies" - a term he invented to embrace the composer's troubling eclecticism. Eggebrecht's work was never translated into English but it gets honourable mentions at academic conferences and in dissertations.

This rather long preamble to a rather brusque review of Jens Malte Fischer's biography of Mahler (first published in Germany in 2003) is required to give a sense of its importance and impact in the German-speaking world. Fischer's was the first German-language text to treat Mahler's Jewishness as innate, and to consider his music at an angle to German tradition. A professor of the history of theatre at the University of Munich, Fischer has a reputation for being an expert on German anti-Semitism and the German-Jewish cultural symbiosis.

His original subtitle, "der fremde Vertraute" ("the insider stranger"), conveys the idea that Mahler sounds at once alien and familiar to German ears. At first hearing, he might be the nature-loving heir to Brahms and Bruckner, yet he can also be heard subverting them. Take the opening of the Third Symphony. A blare of brass, a well-known melody. It's the big number from Brahms's First Symphony, but played in the minor and with a sour sign-off.

What is Mahler trying to say? He is deconstructing Brahms, that's for sure - not so much the man as the source of that tune. It has been identified as a nationalist student anthem, "Ich hab' mich ergeben/Mit Herz und mit Hand", a provocation of the kind that racists had hurled in Mahler's face at the University of Vienna. Its citation states his exclusion from the German mainstream and his stubborn determination to find a means of expression that allows him both to create and to comment on his situation. Mahler, by introducing irony, freed symphonic music from its narrative straitjacket and brought it into multilinear modernity.

If there were insights of this order in Fischer's book, I would commend it without hesitation. Unfortunately, the text does not justify its reputation in Germany. The research is secondary at best, and the tone collusive and altogether uncritical of past German studies, the odious Eggebrecht prominent among them. "Let us, however, also look at the way in which two adepts of the more recent period deal with this problem, neither of whom can be accused of anti-Semitism," is a fairly typical sampling of the author's style, as translated all too faithfully by Stewart Spencer.

Fischer's Gustav Mahler is a plodding read which, from the second chapter onwards, displays no grasp of the constraints of Jewish life in central Europe. He reports the illegitimate birth of the composer's father but fails to note that only one son in a Jewish family was allowed to marry; he claims that "rabbis were badly trained" to explain the drift away from Judaism but does not mention the advance of Reform; and he presents the trifurcation of Mahler's identity - "I am three times without a homeland" - with the platitude that his "Jewish background was to be a lifelong problem
for him". Truisms of this order stud many of the hundreds of pages.

Mahler's trail from journeyman conductor in the Czech provinces to master of Vienna and New York is described efficiently, without much by way of colour and novelty. No secrets are revealed from his turbulent marriage to Alma, and Fischer's analysis of his symphonies mixes so many irrelevant references that by the time you reach the Ninth you are not surprised to learn that it is "the answer to Lord Chandos's questions", an allusion to a fictional amnesia in an Elizabethan nobleman. Oh, for heaven's sake.

There are better Mahler biographies in German; Blaukopf, in particular, is outstanding on the ambiguities that show the composer's multiple meanings. Mahler and his music positively invite discussion, contradiction, interpretation. Fischer's tome thuds like a coffin lid on a living art, deadening our interest. l

Gustav Mahler
Jens Malte Fischer
Yale University Press, 700pp, £29.99

Norman Lebrecht's most recent book is "Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World" (Faber & Faber, £17.99)
newstatesman.com/writers/norman_lebrecht