I just received a review copy of Norman Lebrecht’s new book “Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World” (Pantheon Books, 2010), which prompted some thoughts about the composer whose “Resurrection” Symphony (No. 2) was recently given a rousing performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Art Society.

Lebrecht is the British iconoclast  and music critic whose most famous work to date is “The Death of Classical Music” (“greatly exaggerated”). His pronouncements have to be taken with a grain of salt, but the book is fascinating and should interest anyone who wants to know more about this most-played modern composer. Well, semi-modern; he died in 1911.

Most of the points the author makes about Mahler are either personal or philosophical rather than musical, which is fine, since the composer doesn’t lend himself to the textual analysis that has grown like a fungus on Beethoven, for example. Someone once said that Mahler’s Symphonies were “like bad novels,” but like both good and bad novels, they continue to enthrall generations.

“Changed the world” is a bit strong unless one believes, like Shelley, that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”

Still, there might be something in it. Mahler emerged from that curious black hole known as fin de siecle Vienna, from which also emanated modern physics, painting, music, psychology, architecture, literature and piano rolls. (Actually it was Leipzig, but close enough.) Mahler was one of the composers whose piano playing was recorded on Welte-Mignon piano rolls, which were able to transcribe the very touch of a pianist. The company died soon after the advent of sound recording.

Unlike his friend Schoenberg, Mahler used traditional musical materials, but gave them a new and often ironic twist. “Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)” for example, should be dismal and dirge-like, but it is both joyful and consolatory. Even a funeral march, in a Mahler symphony, can be an occasion for glee. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, which must appeal to 21st-century listeners, as does the composer’s global viewpoint.

In the “Resurrection” Symphony, which marks the composer’s conversion to Catholicism, “The Great Call” is deliberately all-inclusive.

“The glory of God appears. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Behold, there is no judgment, no sinner, no just man, no great and no small; there is no punishment, no reward. An overwhelming love“

Lebrecht has another project, “The Record Doctor,” on WNYC, on which program he prescribes musical remedies for everything from unrequited love to fear of flying.

Not so remarkably, many of his prescriptions are for Mahler — encouragement from the Sixth, dealing with bad news, the Ninth, and “for the worst news of all, the finale of the Tenth.” Why didn’t I think of that?

My own Mahlerian refuge is “Das Lied von der Erde,” when I ask, like the monk at the hotdog vendor: “Make me one with everything.” There is nothing in all of music like the final refrain of “ewig, ewig“

On this 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, one hopes that a Maine orchestra will perform another of the symphonies, or best of all, “Das Lied” Mahler seldom wrote in small forms, except for the songs, but as a hint to Maine’s  chamber music groups, he did leave a piano quartet. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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