(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1897, Gustav Mahler, at the age of thirty-seven, became the director of the Vienna Court Opera, a position of unparalleled prestige in the cultural life of Europe’s musical capital. Mahler, one of the most renowned conductors of the era, was also beginning to be acknowledged as the major symphonic composer of his generation, the inheritor of a tradition that reached back to Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig von Beethoven. That Mahler, a Bohemian Jew from straitened familial circumstances, could rise to such power in a city in which anti-Semitism was the official policy, and that his revolutionary symphonies could establish themselves in the face of sometimes violent opposition is attributable not only to the force of his personality but also to the propitious circumstances of European cultural life at the turn of the century. Across a broad spectrum of contemporary experience—politics, art, religion, technology—there was a sense of imminent and revolutionary change in the air, and Mahler’s thinking and creative activity seemed to be in touch with those vital, heady forces of change.

Mahler’s works have become so firmly entrenched in today’s concert and recorded repertoire, his historical presence so central to current understanding of early modern musical culture, that one forgets how thoroughly his memory and legacy were effaced by the years of National Socialism in Europe and by transformations in musical style and taste in the early postwar years. As recently as the early 1960’s, Mahler’s champions were consigned to the eccentric fringe. Prominent among that small number of enthusiasts was the French music critic Henry-Louis de La Grange, whose interest in the composer, which began in 1953, led him to amass a major archive of Mahler source material, which has been housed in his Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler in Paris. This collection has in turn served as the springboard for a massive multivolume biography of Mahler. The series began with the English-language Mahler (1973), which was subsequently revised and expanded in the French-language Gustav Mahler: Vers la Gloire 1860-1900(1979), and concluded with Gustav Mahler: L’âge d’or de Vienne 1900-1907 (1983) and Gustav Mahler: Le génie foudroyé (1907-1911) (1984). The present volume represents the second volume of a revised and expanded four-volume English-language edition of La Grange’s French-language trilogy.

Thanks to an exhaustive survey of surviving letters, diaries and reminiscences, contemporary reviews and articles, official records and documents, as well as his commanding grasp of current Mahler research, La Grange has assembled a chronicle of Mahler’s life and activity that is without equal in detail and insight. What is more, by tracking down original letters and documents (including the diaries of Alma Mahler and Natalie Bauer-Lechner), La Grange has been able to supplement and correct earlier heavily edited versions.

The stunning mass of information in this biography, which includes many extended quotations and extensive annotation, might easily have become overwhelming were it not for the clarity of La Grange’s organization (only occasionally marred by repetition) and the compelling magnetism of Mahler’s personality. The present volume, which covers the years of Mahler’s return to Vienna as director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 up to 1904, after the birth of his second child by Alma Mahler, begins with a useful chapter devoted to an overview of Viennese musical culture, with a focus on the traditions and politics surrounding the Court Opera. La Grange discusses Vienna’s musical institutions—its major orchestras, choruses, theaters, and concert and educational organizations—and introduces performers, critics, patrons, and cultural bureaucrats active during Mahler’s time.

Vienna in 1897 was the capital of an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to Bohemia and the southern reaches of modern-day Poland to the north and into the Ukraine to the east. This city of two million was a cosmopolitan mixture of races and languages, a cauldron of ideas and impulses, in which the social and intellectual ferment of Central Europe came to a boil. It was a center of liberal ideas and progressive thinking, reinforced by a large and well-educated Jewish population, but also the home of ardent nationalists and virulent anti-Semites, one of whose number, Karl Lueger, was elected mayor in 1897. The reactionary forces in grassroots Austrian politics were, however, offset by the liberal leanings and tolerant attitudes of Emperor Franz Joseph, whose moderating influence allowed many progressive impulses in the arts and humanities to flourish during the last years of the empire. The contradictions inherent in Vienna’s complex social fabric are essential for an understanding of Mahler’s...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)

Gustav Mahler

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

During his life Gustav Mahler engendered ardent adulation as well as ruthless criticism, and this was especially true of what has been the most unsatisfactorily understood period of his career, the “American years,” when his conducting centered on the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic orchestras. By making use of a massive amount of new material, including previously unknown letters and other documents, as well as such untapped secondary sources as the reviews of all of Mahler’s concerts, Henry-Louis de La Grange in Gustav Mahler has deepened knowledge on this important phase of what the author calls in the subtitle A New Life Cut Short, during which Mahler had his greatest triumphs as a conductor and composed some of his most significant works. La Grange also corrects numerous errors, distortions, misinterpretations, and myths that have accumulated about these final years, for example, that the problems Mahler encountered in the United States precipitated his final illness and death.

La Grange discovered his life’s mission in 1945, when he was enraptured by a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 conducted by Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall. For more than fifty years, he has devoted a substantial amount of his time and energy to collecting as much data as possible to illuminate Mahler’s life and accomplishments. The author’s research, which has become more extensive and erudite over the years, has complicated his published books, especially in English. For example, Doubleday brought out an English version of Mahler in the United States in 1973, but in 1979 La Grange published a much expanded and updated French version of the first volume that now covered the years 1860 to 1897 (whereas the American edition had covered 1860 to early 1902, when Mahler became engaged to Alma Schindler). In 1984 La Grange decided that, instead of giving his English readers an abridged second volume of his ever-enlarging Mahler biography, he owed them a complete version. This new English edition, which would be structured in four volumes, began to be published in 1995 by Oxford University Press with the second volume, Gustav Mahler: Vienna, the Years of Challenge (1897-1904). This was followed in 1999 by the third volume, Gustav Mahler: Vienna, Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907). Even though these volumes dealt with shorter periods of time, their lengths became greater, a trend that has continued with the fourth volume. In the second volume, La Grange covered seven years of Mahler’s life in about 125 pages per year; in the third, he needed 250 pages per year; and in the fourth, he used about five hundred pages per year. The English versions were much longer than the French ones because La Grange added new material. This fourth volume does not represent the completion of his Mahler biography, because he has revised, expanded, and updated the French version of the first volume. He has promised that the new English edition of Volume 1will be published within a few years, thus bringing to a conclusion one of the most magnificent biographies of a composer ever written.

As a biographer, La Grange believes in taking a scientific approach, insisting that valid interpretations must be based on well-established facts. Behind his Mahler project is his comprehensively detailed chronology, for which he has gathered relevant information for almost every day of Mahler’s life. Furthermore, realizing that these facts have to be understood in context, in this fourth volume, he provides readers with insightful descriptions of the New York social and musical milieu in the early twentieth century. His capsule histories of the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) and the New York Philharmonic deepen awareness of the complex relationship between Mahler and the city’s moneyed aristocracy and its musical community. As in his earlier positions in Europe, Mahler forged his artistic success in the New World amid fierce rivalries among theaters, orchestras, and music critics. One of the reasons the Met hired Mahler was to help it surpass the successes of Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House. La Grange is particularly interested in such music critics as Richard Aldrich of The New York Times and Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune, and he devotes substantial space to extended excerpts from reviews of these and other critics about Mahler’s work as a conductor and a composer, bringing out their perceptiveness as well as their prejudices, including doses of anti-Europeanism and anti-Semitism. As a conductor, Mahler was caricatured as tyrannical rather than democratic, and as a composer he witnessed his works being criticized as derivative, long-winded, tasteless, and trite.

The first biography of Mahler appeared in his lifetime, and many others have been published...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)