Norman Lebrecht’s stated goal for Why Mahler?: How One Man And Ten Symphonies Changed Our World, his second contribution to the wide range of writing on Gustav Mahler, is to fill the gap for a case for “Mahler in the modern world,” viewed “from a twenty-first-century perspective.” Lebrecht’s curious volume—part biography, part annotated discography, part whim-fuelled miscellany—never accomplishes that laudable goal. Instead, he settles for head-spinning assertions (that Mahler was an influence on the Grateful Dead and Blue Nile, for instance) that he never backs up, and truly unfortunate new-media metaphors, like claiming Mahler’s symphonies, with their unusually large room for interpretation, give us “Mahler as blogger, as response seeker, the first composer to invite unmoderated feedback.” While that may be intended to seduce newcomers, it’s arguably the worst possible approach, condescending to the reader and reductive of the composer.
Nonetheless, Lebrecht’s volume has distinct strengths. Its brevity (combining biography and recording recommendations in under 300 pages) may make it worth a look for curious beginners. Honoring his repeated dictum that bold, idiosyncratic choices are key for any serious Mahler interpretation, his speedy biography (which clocks in at under 200 pages) is told entirely in the present tense, adding justifiable urgency to his tale of a life cut prematurely short.
Though Lebrecht doesn't skip out on broader historical context, his main task—deftly executed—is to provide thumbnail explanations of how Mahler’s life and worries can literally be heard in his symphonies. The works thrive on juxtapositions of sounds from klezmer, the forest, and apocalyptic visions, among other sources; Lebrecht does a good job of explaining how they got there and what to listen for. Taken on its own, this section would make a fine addition to the Penguin Lives series of short biographies.
Interpolated are stories of people whose lives Mahler literally changed. Some are more effective than others (the last thing anyone needs is yet another tale of Communist dissidents sustained by the purity of music), but even the more interesting anecdotes (a brief sketch of the late painter R.B. Kitaj, who once created a controversial Mahler portrait) don’t contribute to a larger argument. Trying to explain why music often dismissed in its time has become a cornerstone of the modern canon, Lebrecht mistakenly skips over the conductors who eventually fell under his spell, and instead goes straight for disconnected testimonies.
He overvalues the personal in other ways: Alma Mahler’s selective preservation of her husband’s memory in purged letters and embellished memoirs is a well-known problem, but Lebrecht ups the ante by basically calling her everything short of a mendacious slut, which isn’t terribly helpful. And though his discography is often entertaining in its brisk, acerbic summaries (“The first problem is the sleigh bells”), his choices and dismissals are often willfully eccentric. Still, curious readers will find many succinct starting points; experienced listeners may well enjoy battling and arguing the fiercely informed opinions, which is just as Mahler would have wanted it.