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To Live for you! To Die for you! - The Life of Gustav Mahler
by: John Searight
Hardback 428 pages. Published 2009
ISBN-10: 0-9561695-0-3
ISBN-13: 9780956169501
Published in Association with The Gustav Mahler Society of United Kingdom
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Over the years, a number of authoritative books documenting the life and music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) have emerged. Several of these are noteworthy including those by Mahler scholars Kurt Blaukopf, Henri-Louis de la Grange, Constantin Floros and Donald Mitchell. The multi-volume biography by Prof. de la Grange from the Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler (Gustav Mahler Music Library) in Paris has been dubbed the definitive Mahler study. Originally in French and later translated into English, the four volumes, with the latest and final one published by Oxford University Press in the Spring of 2008, have established themselves as indispensable for scholars, musicians and a worldwide network of Mahler fans (or “Mahlerites”). This tetralogy has proven as a whole an insightful and critical perspective on each of the creative periods forming the short but fruitful life of Gustav Mahler. His research has stimulated and opened doors for many subsequent writers further to explore those fascinating elements that meet to make Mahler one of the most fascinating and quintessential musical figures of the 20th century.
 
2010-2011 are two important years for Mahlerites. They are respectively the 150th and 100th anniversaries of the birth and death of the composer. A number of creative outputs in the form of books, documentaries, dramas and/or musical compositions are now underway from across the world to mark these anniversaries.
 
This Spring saw the official release of this important biography written by Mr. John Searight. There may be some out there who are itching to throw in the question: why another biography on Gustav Mahler, and what makes this one stand out?
 
Mr. Searight has co-published this timely biography with the Gustav Mahler Society in the United Kingdom (GMSUK), in part to question the validity of a popular conundrum: “Was Mahler a death-obsessed depressive?” Mr. Searight has behind him a deep interest and depth of knowledge on the life, music and philosophies underpinning Mahler and his influence on the history of music. This biography is more than simply a compelling read and even Mahler converts will be further enriched.
 
This work reflects years of dedicated scholarly research travelling across Europe to acquire first-hand information, culminating in a biography of seventeen chapters. Each chapter provides its readers with a balanced and structured bipartite framework. Firstly the factual evidence of scrupulous research is presented from published books, interviews and letters in a third-person narrative format; secondly, there is a succinct analysis of each of the major symphonic works, interspersed with comments of his own or from musicians of the past or present day. These examples include quotations acquired from such conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas who described, for instance the Sixth Symphony as, “‘wrecks my health’, finding that when he is preparing for a performance he suffers from disturbed sleep, palpitations, poor appetite and a general failure to function properly (p.240).” Footnotes for these quoted examples would have helped readers identify the provenance of these quotations and impressions. Sadly the bibliography at the back of the book does not help in this regard. Otherwise I find this a most creative and stimulating blend of facts and impressions - a major asset.
 
Except in the first and last chapters of this biography Mr. Searight parallels each biographical reflection a concise critique of the major compositions in chronological order, beginning with Das klagende Lied, ending with the unfinished Tenth Symphony. These flank studies of the 9 Symphonies, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesllen, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Ruckert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder. Mr. Searight provides compelling evidence that lifts the harmony of circles and sticks on a music stave into the allusions through which Mahler pours out his soul: memories, perception and understanding - all the innate components defining the human psyche. In the third movement of the Third Symphony (p.110), the illustration of the ‘forest murmurs’ is projected by a distant off-stage post-horn call. The importance of this post-horn entry is here described as ‘the introduction of man into the animal world. The effect is magical; doubtless a nostalgic memory from his childhood and the bugle calls from the barracks (p.111).” These explanations help to guide readers with an understanding of the underlying purposes of Mahler’s orchestration. They serve to prime readers in their appreciation of this music next time it is heard.

Along the way Searight highlights Mahler’s interations with his contemporaries and those to follow, either as a conductor or as a composer. Particular emphasis is given to the relationship between Mahler and his noted protégés, Bruno Walter, and to a lesser degree, Otto Klemperer. He also demonstrates how Mahler’s ingenious musical forms had propagated the creativity of composers of later generations. Readers will uncover, for example, how the application of symphonic principles to a song-cycle as in Das Lied von der Erde was instrumental in composers like Zemlinsky and Shostakovich adapting and expanding their imaginative armoury as testified by their Lyrische Symphonie and the Fourteenth Symphony, respectively (p.329).
 
There’s a vivid description of how the infamous “Deryck Cooke Version” of the unfinished Mahler’s Tenth Symphony came into being. This includes the sequence of events that led to the Tenth’s complete performance at a Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall on 13 August 1964.
 
Where are we after reading this book? Are we convinced that “Mahler was a death-obsessed depressive”? Yes, perhaps. There are numerous references in Mahler’s music that depict sorrow and it can even stimulate pain-stricken emotions. Insights into an unhappy childhood are heard in his earliest major composition Das klagende Lied. Later in Mahler’s personal adult life he was faced with the unexpected premature death of his daughter Maria Anna. This gave rise to his influential song-cycle Kindertotenlieder. Then there are those “The Three Hammer Blows of Fate” in the Sixth Symphony. These are evidence for the thesis. Ultimately however Mr. Searight underscores in this biography that Mahler’s music represents the balance between life and death, hope and despair. At the end, as represented by his final composition (the Ninth Symphony), an underlying optimism is presented to “shoulder the passages of happiness, wit, beauty and elation.” In retrospect, Mr. Searight has already given his readers a hint of his stance in the title he has chosen for this biography. “To Live for You! To Die for You!” is part of an inscription off the manuscript of the unfinished Tenth Symphony, which Mahler dedicated to his Almschi (Alma Mahler). Although life and death are mentioned in this quotation and in many of his compositions, what Mahler’s music enforces is not simply life and death, but the human experience called “love” which is at the core of the human psyche.
 
This is a telling account summarizing the life and achievements of Gustav Mahler in an easy-to-read document. Although there are some minor spelling and grammatical errors this book has proven an indispensable read for 2009 in preparation for the anniversary years to follow.
 
Leonard Bernstein infamously said in a High Fidelity article in April 1967: Mahler’s time has come. I doubt that it can be said better.
 

Patrick P.L. Lam
 

 


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