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Mahler: A Biography

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The focus is on Mahler’s last decade, his tempestuous marriage to the alluring Alma Schindler, his work as a "summer composer" in isolated huts in the country, his revolutionary achievements as director of the Vienna opera and his final years in America. But it sets the stage by looking into Mahler’s earlier career as a talented, ambitious, and often ruthless conductor. In The focus is on Mahler’s last decade, his tempestuous marriage to the alluring Alma Schindler, his work as a "summer composer" in isolated huts in the country, his revolutionary achievements as director of the Vienna opera and his final years in America. But it sets the stage by looking into Mahler’s earlier career as a talented, ambitious, and often ruthless conductor. In her memoirs Alma drew Mahler as a sickly, cerebral recluse. Arnold Schoenberg called him a "saint." Leonard Bernstein, largely responsible for the Mahler "boom" in the Sixties, found a "secret shame" at the heart of Mahler’s music, "the shame of being a Jew and the shame of being ashamed." Jonathan Carr looks behind these myths, and using letters, diaries, and other material hitherto unavailable in English, he brilliantly challenges some of the most widely held assumptions about Mahler.


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The focus is on Mahler’s last decade, his tempestuous marriage to the alluring Alma Schindler, his work as a "summer composer" in isolated huts in the country, his revolutionary achievements as director of the Vienna opera and his final years in America. But it sets the stage by looking into Mahler’s earlier career as a talented, ambitious, and often ruthless conductor. In The focus is on Mahler’s last decade, his tempestuous marriage to the alluring Alma Schindler, his work as a "summer composer" in isolated huts in the country, his revolutionary achievements as director of the Vienna opera and his final years in America. But it sets the stage by looking into Mahler’s earlier career as a talented, ambitious, and often ruthless conductor. In her memoirs Alma drew Mahler as a sickly, cerebral recluse. Arnold Schoenberg called him a "saint." Leonard Bernstein, largely responsible for the Mahler "boom" in the Sixties, found a "secret shame" at the heart of Mahler’s music, "the shame of being a Jew and the shame of being ashamed." Jonathan Carr looks behind these myths, and using letters, diaries, and other material hitherto unavailable in English, he brilliantly challenges some of the most widely held assumptions about Mahler.

30 review for Mahler: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Quo

    Jonathan Carr's Mahler, A Biography (1998) represents a masterful telling of the life of Gustav Mahler, composer & conductor who attempted to respond to every question & uncertainty with a programmatic musical statement. Many of Mahler's musical statements employ intensely religious themes that are often eclectic in nature, occasionally bordering on the mystical, driven by what the composer termed Urlicht or "primal light". In fact, Mahler commented in reviewing his own very successful but often Jonathan Carr's Mahler, A Biography (1998) represents a masterful telling of the life of Gustav Mahler, composer & conductor who attempted to respond to every question & uncertainty with a programmatic musical statement. Many of Mahler's musical statements employ intensely religious themes that are often eclectic in nature, occasionally bordering on the mystical, driven by what the composer termed Urlicht or "primal light". In fact, Mahler commented in reviewing his own very successful but often tragic life: "What thou has fought for shall lead thee to God." Carr's biography of Mahler is one authored by a journalist-music lover & not a musicologist and so perhaps not geared to please everyone; the author concentrates far more on the life & times of Gustav Mahler than on notation or harmonics or instrumentation. Always, Mahler seemed to embed his own life & struggles for recognition in a way that made his symphonies & other musical compositions a kind of restatement of his worldview, one never to be restricted to a single formula. The composer would hear a military march, a dance, a waltz or some Czech folk melody & via the employment of lendler, these melodies were inserted within the musical fabric of complex symphonies. Mahler is said to have remembered that after a particularly painful clash between his discordant parents, he rushed out of the house & heard a passing barrel organ grinding out a popular tune, Ach, du lieber Augustin. Thus, it seems that the "stark contrast between the tragic & banal became fixed in Mahler's mind for life." Leonard Bernstein, someone who helped to lead the charge for a Mahler revival, called Gustav Mahler "a little German-Czech-Moravian-Jewish boy", having been born in 1860 in the very center of volatile central Europe in a poor Bohemian village that was part of the polyglot Austrian Empire, ruled for centuries from Vienna & the Hapsburg dynasty which in Mahler's time was in decay. Mahler was consistently apolitical but this was a time of growing nationalism, with battles almost on his doorstep & with much of the tension owing to his having been born a Jew. In later life, Mahler claimed to be "thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans & as a Jew throughout the world." Gustav Mahler was an exceedingly driven man and after achieving a considerable measure of success in smaller regional orchestras, he served as the conductor of the illustrious Vienna Philharmonic, also taking trains all about Europe to serve as a guest conductor for orchestral & operatic music. And then, with summer devoted to a less hectic schedule at one of his favorite mountain retreats, relaxation was tempered with the composing of his wondrous symphonies. He did have occasional "writer's block" within then on-going compositional effort but also the "lightening flashes that all creative artists wait for, a point when everything became clear in his mind." And after one such moment in the composition of the Resurrection Symphony, Mahler dashed off a humorous note to a friend: "Beg to report safe delivery of a strong, healthy last movement to my Second, with father & child doing as well as can be expected." A few critics & some fellow composers, Richard Strauss among them, took issue with the programmatic nature of Mahler's compositions, even though often the titles now used to identify his symphonies were frequently not the composer's own. However, Mahler could not resist pointing out that his symphonies had at the very least "extra-musical associations", above all religious & philosophical ones.They could not be pinned down bar by bar but they can be very broadly identified symphony by symphony: worldly triumph in the First, resurrection in the Second, pantheism in the Third, salvation through innocence in the Fourth. Each proposes a new answer to the riddle of life & death but never starts from scratch. Rather, it builds on the experience of its predecessors, musically & philosophically. As the American conductor James Levine puts it, the works "are all inter-related through the use of musical quotes, cross references or ideas hinted at in one symphony only to be fully developed in the next". In other words, Mahler did not so much compose nine & a half separate symphonies (with the last unfinished at his death), or ten & a half if one includes Das Lied von der Erde, as a single, vast, constantly evolving one.Mahler's symphonies have also been described as akin to chapters in an epic novel. Interestingly, The Brothers Karamazov was said to be Gustave Mahler's favorite novel. Throughout the death of his beloved daughter, marital difficulties with his wife Alma, struggles for dominance with Toscanini & women's board members while conducting in New York early in the 20th century & the realization of his own mortality later in his life due to a deteriorating heart condition, Mahler continued to find answers to perplexing questions through music..Strange! When I hear music--even while I am conducting--I hear quite specific answers to all of my questions--and am completely clear & certain. Or rather, I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all.I first heard Mahler, with his uplifting Fifth symphony conducted by Czech-British conductor Walter Susskind, in St. Louis many years ago. It was also the 1st time I heard a political or ethnic comment attributed to a symphony, with a man in the row behind me complaining that Mahler had "pretended not to be Jewish". The fact is that he did at one point convert to Catholicism while living & conducting in Vienna but no single religion could ever completely sustain an internationalist like Gustav Mahler. The composer's grandiose Eighth Symphony begins with the Latin words "Veni, Creator Spiritus", not because Mahler rejected Judaism but because Mahler chose to blend two distinct elements in his "Symphony of a Thousand", the 2nd of which is a Faustian quest. However, even more than the quest Goethe had in mind for Faust, Mahler aims for something universal by uniting two texts written in different languages. I've been fortunate enough to have been present at two performances of the monumental Eighth symphony & find it as glorious to hear as it is structurally grand. I recommend Jonathan Carr's book, Mahler, A Biography to anyone infected by a case of "Mahleria" (Sorry!) or to anyone who would like to learn more about the composer, whose life & music are a continuing source of joy for so many of us. *The book is accompanied by numerous black & white photos of Mahler, his family, scores & even a few cartoon sketches of the composer. **Photo images within review: Gustav Mahler; the book's author, Jonathan Carr

  2. 5 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    This brief biography of my favorite composer accomplishes what its correct subtitle promises, that being summarizing Mahler's life. If you are looking for in-depth analysis of his works themselves then look elsewhere, that is not Carr's purview, at least as narrated here. Here we are presented a very readable account of the events, people, influences, and culture surrounding the many periods of Mahler's development as a conductor and composer. Perhaps the best feature of this book is to dispel so This brief biography of my favorite composer accomplishes what its correct subtitle promises, that being summarizing Mahler's life. If you are looking for in-depth analysis of his works themselves then look elsewhere, that is not Carr's purview, at least as narrated here. Here we are presented a very readable account of the events, people, influences, and culture surrounding the many periods of Mahler's development as a conductor and composer. Perhaps the best feature of this book is to dispel some of the tripe that has been peddled about various anecdotes in Mahler's life and to eradicate the notion that isolated (often incorrectly described) events precipitated massive effects on Mahler's music. As Mahler himself notes about his early work, "The real-life experience was the impulse for the work, not its content," Jonathan Carr deftly follows-up with, "That may seem like splitting hairs. In fact it is a crucial warning against linking the content of Mahler's works too closely with the circumstances of his life at the time he wrote them." I appreciate Carr's direct style and lack of gossip-mongering. Though he is quite harsh about Alma's impact on Mahler's life, he is generally very even-handed and objective with historical information. This is a great introduction to Mahler's life but may not satisfy those looking for more musical analysis.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Neil Purcell

    Carr focuses most of his attention on the later years of the composer's life, and provides lots of insightful commentary on each of Mahler's major works, addressing and debunking more than a few common myths which have arisen over the years around some of these compositions. Many who would read this biography will come to it already knowing and appreciating much of his music, and I am no exception to the rule. If you are not already a fan of his music, this book might not have the same charm for Carr focuses most of his attention on the later years of the composer's life, and provides lots of insightful commentary on each of Mahler's major works, addressing and debunking more than a few common myths which have arisen over the years around some of these compositions. Many who would read this biography will come to it already knowing and appreciating much of his music, and I am no exception to the rule. If you are not already a fan of his music, this book might not have the same charm for you that it held for me. I agree with Carr that too much is made of the connection between the life of the artist and his work - the vain searching in each symphony for evidence of the contemporaneous experiences of the composer can be very misleading. Carr sees a deeper significance and a longer line of thought which was expressed and developed in Mahler's major compositions. This is not to deny that Mahler's like and personal struggles were also reflected in his art, but rather to suggest that the larger themes and ideas - and how Mahler expressed them - were at the heart of his creative project.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    This book is a straightforward biography of Mahler, with little musical analysis. Carr tells the story of the composer's life in an entertaining and even-handed way. He is especially balanced when describing Mahler's personality and the nature and vicissitudes of Mahler's marriage to Alma.While Carr doesn't provide any extensive or technical analysis of Mahler's works, he does provide engaging descriptions and interesting musings on the degree of relationship between the music and the events or This book is a straightforward biography of Mahler, with little musical analysis. Carr tells the story of the composer's life in an entertaining and even-handed way. He is especially balanced when describing Mahler's personality and the nature and vicissitudes of Mahler's marriage to Alma.While Carr doesn't provide any extensive or technical analysis of Mahler's works, he does provide engaging descriptions and interesting musings on the degree of relationship between the music and the events or conditions of Mahler's life. This is a very good introduction to Mahler.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chris Lira

    Having attempted and getting bogged down in Jens Fischer's 700+ page epic bio of Mahler, I wanted something a little more digestible and this book fit the bill perfectly. Just the right amount of narrative and detail to get a good idea about Mahler's life. The music doesn't get as thorough a treatment as in the Fiacher book, but that's OK. Having attempted and getting bogged down in Jens Fischer's 700+ page epic bio of Mahler, I wanted something a little more digestible and this book fit the bill perfectly. Just the right amount of narrative and detail to get a good idea about Mahler's life. The music doesn't get as thorough a treatment as in the Fiacher book, but that's OK.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alan Murchie

    Beautifully written.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I really loved how objective the author was in his analysis of Mahler's life. There were several instances in which he specifically states that there's some argumentation as to what transpired in certain times in the composer's life, and always he would put forth all of the possibilities. Of course, there was his own opinion thrown in there usually, but I feel like most authors would have treated their own views as the definitive word. On the other side, I really enjoyed getting to know more abou I really loved how objective the author was in his analysis of Mahler's life. There were several instances in which he specifically states that there's some argumentation as to what transpired in certain times in the composer's life, and always he would put forth all of the possibilities. Of course, there was his own opinion thrown in there usually, but I feel like most authors would have treated their own views as the definitive word. On the other side, I really enjoyed getting to know more about this guy. I had fallen in love with his works long before I knew anything about his personal life, and came to realize that perhaps the reason why it resonated so much with me was because we have similar personality types. It was kind of fun learning about his career and how he treated composition (creating a world with all available means).

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tom Brannigan

    A great conventional biography of Gustav Mahler. Emphasis is placed on both his musical as well as his personal life. He doesn't attempt to vilify his wife Alma like so many authors seem to relish. She's certainly no saint, but neither is the great Mahler. It was simply gratifying, after listening to the man's music for decades, to appreciate all that he went through to get his creations heard. In some ways I was relieved that he didn't live to see the expulsion of so many of his compatriots.... A great conventional biography of Gustav Mahler. Emphasis is placed on both his musical as well as his personal life. He doesn't attempt to vilify his wife Alma like so many authors seem to relish. She's certainly no saint, but neither is the great Mahler. It was simply gratifying, after listening to the man's music for decades, to appreciate all that he went through to get his creations heard. In some ways I was relieved that he didn't live to see the expulsion of so many of his compatriots.....Schoenberg, Walter, Klemperer, Freud, and so many other.....and with them, the world that Mahler knew as well as foretold!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shiblets

    So far, this book is interesting. And it's funny some of the stories they tell about Mahler! Such as him at the age of three going out side in nothing but a shirt and an accordian! And that when he conducted, he was threatend physically, filed against, AND chalenged to a duel! that's just great xD --Anyway, I doubt i'll ever read every single word in this book, for I'm only doing so for a paper. But it's interesting if you want to get to know the life of the Post-Romantic Compser Gustav Mahler~ So far, this book is interesting. And it's funny some of the stories they tell about Mahler! Such as him at the age of three going out side in nothing but a shirt and an accordian! And that when he conducted, he was threatend physically, filed against, AND chalenged to a duel! that's just great xD --Anyway, I doubt i'll ever read every single word in this book, for I'm only doing so for a paper. But it's interesting if you want to get to know the life of the Post-Romantic Compser Gustav Mahler~

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    An excellent biography of my favorite composer. He led a colorful life. This book can't decide whether to be popular or scholarly, so to some extent it fails at both. There are a too many digressions and obscure details for the casual reader, but not enough analysis or notes to satisfy an academic. Nonetheless if you love Mahler, and want to read about his life, I'm not aware of any book that's better. An excellent biography of my favorite composer. He led a colorful life. This book can't decide whether to be popular or scholarly, so to some extent it fails at both. There are a too many digressions and obscure details for the casual reader, but not enough analysis or notes to satisfy an academic. Nonetheless if you love Mahler, and want to read about his life, I'm not aware of any book that's better.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    This readable biography about Gustav Mahler flashed by. There is some technical material, but primarily, the biography focuses on his life. Mahler's life fits my tortured artistic genius theory- as in, you have to be one in order to produce great work. Knowing the biography will influence my reaction to hearing Mahler's work performed. This readable biography about Gustav Mahler flashed by. There is some technical material, but primarily, the biography focuses on his life. Mahler's life fits my tortured artistic genius theory- as in, you have to be one in order to produce great work. Knowing the biography will influence my reaction to hearing Mahler's work performed.

  12. 5 out of 5

    James

    Well researched and entertaining biography. Mahler comes off as a complicated individual. As usual, his music came first and relationships second. There is a good mix of biographical information and musical analysis. The book includes a decent amount of photographs too.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    As it says on the back, Carr debunks several myths about Gustav Mahler during the course of this very engaging biography. Don't look for any musical analysis here, but if you want a well-told account of the life of the composer who said the symphony "must contain the entire world," look no further. As it says on the back, Carr debunks several myths about Gustav Mahler during the course of this very engaging biography. Don't look for any musical analysis here, but if you want a well-told account of the life of the composer who said the symphony "must contain the entire world," look no further.

  14. 4 out of 5

    James

    From Carr's biography of Mahler, I have learned extraordinary insights into one of my favorite composers. What a spirit! From Carr's biography of Mahler, I have learned extraordinary insights into one of my favorite composers. What a spirit!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ben Rothman

    Debunks some of the misconceptions about Mahler. Unfortunately, that makes him less interesting.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jordi Sánchez

  17. 4 out of 5

    Susan B

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sam Pollock

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mark Spano

  20. 4 out of 5

    Logan

  21. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Guidotti

  22. 5 out of 5

    Caitlyn

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ioannis Touras

  24. 5 out of 5

    Allan Maurer

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

  26. 5 out of 5

    AM

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jake Bradford

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michaela

  29. 5 out of 5

    Michael Slattery

  30. 4 out of 5

    Madeline Maddox

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