(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.)