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.)