A bestseller when first published in Germany in 2003, Jens Malte Fischer’s biography of Gustav Mahler has been lauded by scholars as a landmark work. This month, marking the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death, Fischer’s biography of the great composer will be published in English for the first time. Here the author discusses his first encounter with Mahler’s music, as well as the often forgotten fact that whilst his compositions often attracted controversy, his conducting was greeted with pure delight.
Article by Jens Malte Fischer
My very first encounter with Mahler’s music was around the year 1960 as a schoolboy. It is impossible today to imagine that than, especially in Germany, there were nearly no recordings of Mahler’s music available (the Nazi ban on him was still in force until the end of the 1950s). Thankfully, my piano teacher gave me a tape with the Bruno Walter recording of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, taken from a radio transmission. Walter and other emigrées like Otto Klemperer, Maurice Abravanel and Jascha Horenstein were already performing Mahler’s music in the United States and Great Britain. In New York there was also the young Leonard Bernstein, who in 1960 took over the flame of these conductors’ love for Mahler and began the first complete Mahler cycle by a single conductor to be recorded on long playing records.
Listening to these recordings I was suddenly struck by this music, which at the time was totally unknown to me. Of course, the name of the composer was familiar to me, but I had no more information about him. Ever since then, Mahler has been the composer of my life. I also love Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Janacek, Berg and many others, but Mahler is something special.
In the late 1990s I had the impression that there was a lack of Mahler biographies available that touched on the cultural, political, literary and musical world surrounding this very unique composer. A true biography of the composer needed to be broadly written, but also readable for a normal music lover and Mahler ‘addict’.
The extreme highs and lows of Mahler’s life were not easy to describe for an author like myself, writing about his hero. The composer’s life had signs of tragedy, well known today to readers, but sometimes this tragic account is too one-sided and some people forget that Mahler also had periods of pure delight in his life, specifically in his role as perhaps the most famous and acclaimed opera conductor both in Vienna or in New York. Let us not forget that it was Mahler’s role as composer that attracted controversy, not his role as a conductor and opera performer at the Vienna Court Opera, for which he was revered.
Also, it is one thing to write the biography of – for example – a dictator; it is another to describe the life of a beloved genius. This task must be undertaken not only with endless love (and one must be wary of being blinded by this love), but also with a critical eye on the weak sides of this often difficult and hard to tolerate character.
“My time will come” said Mahler once (comparing himself with his more-appreciated colleague Richard Strauss). As a composer Mahler was the object of heavy critical attacks and antisemetic aggression from music critics, the public, and sometimes even the musicians with whom he worked. Soon after his death, and a short period of interest in the early 1920s, Mahler was nearly forgotten. This came before the antisemitic ban in Germany after 1933 and Austria after 1938. There is particularly prophetic quotation from Mahler:
“It would be wonderful if I would have the opportunity to give the first performances of my works 50 years after my death.”
In a sense this is exactly what has happened: Mahler died in 1911 and it wasn’t until around 1960 that what we now call the “Mahler renaissance” began. The term ’renaissance’ here is not entirely correct, because his music was not fully established before 1960 and had to be established for the first time after this period. This process is still not finished in 2011, exactly hundred years after his death, when he is now without a doubt the most interpreted symphonic composer since Beethoven.
More about the book
In this acclaimed biography, Fischer draws on important primary resources – some unavailable to previous biographers – and sets in narrative context the extensive correspondence between Mahler and his wife, Alma; Alma Mahler’s diaries; and, the memoirs of Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player and close friend of Mahler, whose private journals provide insight into the composer’s personal and professional lives and his creative process. Fischer explores Mahler’s early life, his relationship to literature, his achievements as a conductor in Vienna and New York, his unhappy marriage, and his work with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in his later years. He also illustrates why Mahler is a prime example of artistic idealism worn down by Austrian anti-Semitism and American commercialism. Gustav Mahler is the best-sourced and most balanced biography available about the composer, a nuanced and intriguing portrait of his dramatic life set against the backdrop of early 20th century America and fin de siecle Europe.
About the author
Jens Malte Fischer is professor of the history of theatre at the University of Munich. He writes regularly for leading German newspapers and periodicals and is the author of several books, including a documentary study of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Gustav Mahler is translated by Stewart Spencer, an acclaimed translator whose work includes biographies of Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, and W.A. Mozart, all published by Yale University Press.