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Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 12, 2010

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From Booklist

Lebrecht, host of a BBC interview series on the arts, has a keen interest in Gustav Mahler dating back at least to his Mahler Remembered (1988), a collection of remembrances of Mahler by his contemporaries. Here Lebrecht leads readers through the composer’s turbulent personal life, the anti-Semitic European political milieu in which he moved, and the music of his time, concluding with an examination of Mahler’s 10 symphonies (one unfinished) and songs. So, why Mahler? Because he was at the center of seismic shifts in art, psychology, philosophy, politics, and music that still shape today’s world, Lebrecht argues. The author discusses recordings of each symphony and set of songs, and he offers a thoughtful coda to help new listeners find an entry to those points “where the Mahler fortress becomes a private refuge.” --Alan Moores


“Very enjoyable to read, gossipy as well as learned, and it makes the man come to life.”
—The Economist

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; F First Edition edition (October 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375423818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375423819
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #825,205 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 87 people found the following review helpful By MartinP on November 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I've read many books on Mahler, and this is by a wide margin the most ridiculous and superfluous of them all. Did Mahler and his symphonies 'change the world'? Of course they didn't, and the closest Lebrecht comes to substantiating this silly claim is the observation that the Gorbatchovs were moved by a performance of the Fifth. The subtitle of this book gives a good idea of the overblown hyperbole with which it is filled. Lebrecht comes up with the weirdest notions about the symphonies in order to make them look relevant to our time: the First is about child death, he says, the Fourth about racism, the Sixth about war, the Seventh about impending ecological disaster. He offers only the skimpiest of underpinnings for these far flung ideas, if any at all. He also seems to forget that Mahler's symphonies don't need any such help.

It gets worse in the biographical section of the book, where the facts are decidedly subordinate to Lebrechts Big Idea about Mahler, i.e., that the composer was influenced to a very great extent by his jewish background. Let me quote one striking example of Lebrecht's method - and absurdity. It is a description of Mahler's and Alma's wedding. The groom, says Lebrecht (misreading Alma), when trying to kneel tripped over his prayer stool and fell flat on his face instead. The priest mocked him for it, gratified to see this little heathen duly floored. Why did Mahler really fall, wonders Lebrecht? He thinks he found the answer on a visit to the wedding location, the Karlskirche in Vienna. Over the high altar is the Hebrew tetragrammaton that symbolizes God. Mahler must have seen it, guesses Lebrecht. It confronted him with his ancestral heritage and the fact that a Jew like he had no business being in a church.
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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful By R. Mathes on October 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I adore Mahler Remembered Norman Lebrecht's book on Mahler from 20 years ago. I have also loved a lot of his writing, though his writing about being offended by Messiaen's music because of its devout Catholic nature, he being a descendent of Jews killed in the Holocaust gives you a sense of how opinionated and intense he can be. I understand on the one hand obviously but Messiaen also was imprisoned in the war. I wonder----How does he feel about the Mass In B Minor?? or, perhaps.....well, nothing good there lies. Anyway.....this book is indeed a bundle of little pick up sticks at times. A lot of emotion and visceral utterances about Norman's beloved Mahler. His thoughts on Le Grange's books and his defense of Alma's words turns back Mahler scholarship about 50 years. It's all opinion after a while and his opinions about the recordings are almost preposterous. He dismisses Bernstein's recordings with the exception of one, a highly overrated first Resurrection from the early 60's and his picks are often mercurial and peculiar at best. At least he recognizes the brilliance of the Lucerne Abbado series but Tennstedt, while wonderful, was not the be all and end all that Norman makes him out to be. A curio sadly. In his book "Who Killed Classical Music" he also loses the forest for the trees and spends so much time starting fires that by the time you get through the book your fingers are burned, there is no book left and you wonder what his thesis was to begin with. Rob
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75 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Linganth on November 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
From the very opening title, Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed our World, I was afraid that this going to be a horrid affair. Mr. Lebrecht's overly worshipful title seems intent upon making Mr. Mahler more important than he actually was. Yet, I am a great fan of Mr. Gustav Mahler and thought a more modern biography might contain some useful insights into what some of the latest Mahlerian scholarship has to offer, so be advised I did have some preconceived bias from the beginning. I was also however completely open to being entirely mistaken. I was, sadly, not at all. To call this book a piece of crap is, frankly, an insult to excrement, because at least excrement has some value as any gardner can attest. If you know anything about Mahler's life, then the book is completely worthless, for it is mainly basic details of Mahler's life coupled with an unfathomable moral pretentiousness that is not only off-putting, but is often completely non-sensical. Mr. Lebrecht contends that Mahler's 3rd Symphony is a reflection upon environmental degradation he was witnessing in turn of the twentieth century Europe. And, after all, what else is the 4th but a eloquent and timely treatment of racial inequality. Beyond Mr. Lebrecht's fawning over supposed themes in Mahler's symphonies (themes which I must point out are never burdened by any kind of academic scholarship at all), the work also contains Mr. Lebrecht's opinions upon the state of Mahler discography. Reading his selection of the greatest Mahler recordings I was very struck out how often Mr. Lebrecht seems determined to worship some of the most mediocre recordings upon the most spurious of reasons. He seems quite fond of Mr.Read more ›
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87 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Paul Gelman on October 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
First,a confession. When I was fifteen or sixteen,I purchased my first record of Mahler. This was his Fifth Symphony.I admit that after some minutes I gave it up. Perhaps my teen years were not suitable for this kind of music or vice-versa.
After many years,in my forties,I tried my luck again. This time I listened to the First and Fifth Symphonies and felt there was something unique with Mahler's music. To such an extent that after some weeks,Mahler has become an obssesion with me and had from then on ranked as the second most favourite composer,the first one still being Beethoven.
I have also bought and read almost all the major works published on Mahler both in English and German.
Now we come the Norman Lebrech's new book,"WHY MAHLER"?
First,this book is a mishmash of journalistic writing, personal reflections,academic quotations,narcissism and other different styles of pulp-fiction styles-all these written in the present tense.
To be honest,I know of no composer or any other artist of Mahler's magnitute who had managed to change the world. The world,volens nolens, is not ruled or governed by artists,thus the pompous sub-title is definitely redundant.
Now,pay attention to the following ideas written in this farcical book;"the Third movement of the First Symphony is the way the world's protests and indifference against infant mortality
rates of 56% !"
The opening of the Third is an implied protest against racial discrimination. Next:the Sixth is Mahler's foretelling of WW1 and WW2 plus the Holocaust. Do you want to know why? Because the German conductor Klaus Tennstedt said so once.
Next,there is a connection between Mahler's hemorrhoids to Lebrecht's gall bladder operation.
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