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2 July 2010

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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).

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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.