Mahler: His Life, Work and World

In search of a biography of Mahler I borrowed Mahler His Life, Work and World by Kurt and Herta Blaukopf from the library: in the event it turned out not to a be a biography at all but a carefully arranged selection of Mahler-related writings. Letters to, from and about Mahler; reviews of his conducting and concerts; newspaper report of his activities; posthumous recollections and so on. It is, just about, possible to piece together a biographical account from this material, but it is heavily weighted towards his professional rather than his private life. In particular such details of his love-life as do emerge tend towards the elliptical; the problems in his marriage only appear in a couple of documents very near the end for instance. In fact this was really the wrong book for my purposes! It would be much more useful for someone who had already read a biography, or at least grasped the main outline of Mahler’s life. Nonetheless it was interesting on two levels.

In the first place I did learn a considerable amount about Mahler. I had no idea for instance that so much of his professional life was given up to conducting opera. This, it seems, was how a conductor made his living in late 19thC Europe. Mahler started off as a devoted Wagnerian and an acclaimed conductor and director of Wagner operas (which were at the time very new and revolutionary). Opera appears to have been the centre of musical culture at the time. He certainly appears to have spent far more time conducting/directing operas than he did conducting concerts. Much of the criticism directed at his conducting was vitriolic. On the other hand he did have a circle of devoted friends and admirers, and the cultural, especially the musical, life of the time was brilliant. Mahler was generous in his appreciation of, for instance, Richard Strauss. I did get the impression, though this may be wrong, that he was much keener on composers in the German/Austrian tradition than say the Italian. He does not, as far as I can tell, for instance appear to have appreciated Puccini, whose operas were also being premiered at the time (Mahler conducted the Viennese premiere of La Boheme and was not an admirer). One of the amusing features of a book like this is to look at what has and has not lasted – and Mahler’s assessments on this score were not always accurate: he was a great admirer of someone called Pfitzner (of whom I have never heard).

I was also unaware, though should not have been, of the amount of vicious anti-Semitism he faced, especially in Vienna. Because of what happened under the Nazis we probably tend to forget just how virulent anti-Semitism was in Germany/Austria in this period (and Mahler converted to Catholicism). It was in part because of this, as well as his ‘new’ ideas and his perfectionism that Mahler found it so hard to become an established conductor – let alone an established composer. One certainly gains the impression from the book of a man utterly, passionately and completely uncompromising as far as music, both his own and others, was concerned.

The second level on which the book intrigues is as to whether a collection of documents of this kind is more objective than a conventional biography? At first glance it might appear that the answer is ‘yes’, because there is no overt biographer’s voice so that the reader is less aware of the particular approach and theoretical position which is being adopted. However, I am not sure this is so, because a very considerable amount of selection and ordering must have gone into the creation of this book. After all this is but a tiny selection of the available material ; no doubt another book along the same lines, but using different material, could have been assembled and one which presented a somewhat different ‘Mahler’. It is good to read the original material, but I think one has to be aware that the objectivity which such a method pretends to may not be quite what it claims. But despite this Mahler His Life Work and World was a fascinating and easy read from which I did learn a considerable amount, even if I probably would have been better off with a conventional biography. The problem is which one? Apparently in 1987 a Mahler bibliography recorded 2536 books and essays! And I would wager this has expanded exponentially since then.

2 thoughts on “Mahler: His Life, Work and World

  1. ellenandjim

    I now know more about Mahler than I ever did before. Jim loves Mahler’s music and has a great deal in MP3s. We listen to them regularly in the evenings.

    I like this kind of biography. I have two for Trollope (collections of writing about him by people who met him interpersed with comments by him set up chronologically). If you have read a conventional biography already and have read books by the subject (or say listened to his music), this kind of book is enrichening. On the other hand, I’ve read three by Mary L (?) on Ruskin, Millais, and Effie set up this way and never read any other book on them, and it’s just the most insightful biography.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. I did find the book helpful and it did give me a basic understanding or framework but I still feel I would need to read a ‘proper’ biography to get a more complete picture of Mahler’s life.

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