A New Life Cut Short

The controversial ends of composer Gustav Mahler's life and work makes for a mammoth tome.

Book Digest If you remember (as I do) or are not long removed from your reiterated adolescence—known, in America, as your undergraduate years—you will recall all manner of silly affectations, excessive tastes, and dramatic postures, soon overcome by the rigors and demands of so-called real life. For me, in that period of Sturm und Drang, an attraction to the music of Gustav Mahler (to complement my attention to Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Tim Buckley, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Electric Flag) was seemingly de rigueur for any sophomore immersed in Frantz Fanon, Regis Dubray, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, and Franz Kafka. For those of you whom Mahler has eluded: A Viennese Jew, he was a (middle) European composer who was controversial when he lived and whose music remains so yet. Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange has completed his masterpiece biography with Gustav Mahler. Vol. 4: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911). The new tome, at 1,776 pages (the previous volumes weighed in at a mere 1,000 pages each) covers the last years of his life—three of which were spent in New York City as conductor for the Metropolitan Opera—and his final year, when he apparently returned to Vienna to die.

It should not go unsaid that I am a great fan of the 200-page biographical essay (like the Lipper/Viking “Penguin Lives” series and the HarperCollins “Eminent Lives” series, which James Atlas edits) written by a sympathetic writer (not a biographical scholar) that forgoes what I consider tedious and superfluous details. For example, I loved Larry McMurtry’s book on Crazy Horse. But I digress.

Though I have long ago given up my fascination with most of Mahler’s works, I do find myself frequently listening to his profound and riveting song cycle Das Lied von Der Erde. Tooling down the highways and byways of Boston in my ragtop with Leonard Bernstein’s Israel Philharmonic rendition with the magnificent Christa Ludwig and French horns blaring from my speakers is great good fun.
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