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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 November 2012
This is a review of the 1776-page 2008 edition of a work that was originally published in 1973. It is the fourth and last volume in the series, covering the last years of Mahler's life.

In his introduction, de la Grange writes that it has been "enriched with a vast amount of new material ... Dealing with it all has consumed much more time than was required for the previous volumes." Some of this new material includes the crucial letters between Alma and her lover, Walter Gropius, covering Mahler's final months. (De la Grange interviewed Gropius in the 1950s and knew Alma personally.) He remarks, "Surprising as it may seem, Mahler is in fact the main subject of Alma's messages, and they present a picture of her relationship with him that is startlingly different from the one to be found in previously known sources."

The author is consistently critical of Alma's `evidence', criticising her "treating the facts with an offhandedness that is disconcerting, particularly when documents exist (and she knew they existed) which contradict her." Moreover, "Alma has shown herself to have been a less than reliable witness: her memory was more than once at fault, her judgement was frequently obscured by her emotions, and when she wrote about events she rarely resisted the temptation to over-dramatize them." Yet de la Grange himself wilfully accepts some evidence by her when it suits his purpose or when it flatters Mahler.

Indeed, the author's own objectivity is often called into question. He has lived and breathed Mahler for decades, and his four-volume set of his life can fairly be claimed to be definitive in terms of the details of events in the composer's life; it is unlikely that - in the round - Mahler's life will ever be more fully treated. But it is noticeable that criticism of the man by de la Grange is rare, such that anyone else who criticised him must be wrong. For instance, de la Grange virulently denounces Krehbiel, calling the anti-Mahler critic "so vain, so pompous, and so self-righteous a man".

But by far the major concern of de la Grange in this volume is "to emphasise that Mahler's desire to live life to the full was undiminished. Contrary to what is too often claimed and written, he had certainly not succumbed to an obsessive anguish at the thought of an imminent end." He goes on to state how, "still today, despite all the scientific and medical knowledge we have about Mahler's health and his last illness, numerous and erudite musicologists, commentators, and critics still write that `Das Lied von der Erde' and the ninth Symphony were the swansongs of a man who was worn out, at the end of his tether, and full of forebodings about impending death." The authors intent is to show how this was not true and supplies copious evidence in support.

Each chapter covers a chronological period, and if the first of 111 pages seems long for two months of Mahler's life, then the reader will learn how de la Grange's work expands beyond the strict confines of events to place everything within context. Thus, in this opening chapter it is over forty pages before Mahler himself appears, cruising into New York on the `Kaiserin Auguste Victoria'. But first we have an appraisal of musical life in New York City with further consideration given to introducing the reader to the city's leading critics. The review of Mahler's opening production of `Tristan and Isolde' itself covers twenty pages.

De la Grange notes how "Mahler, who had been so relieved to leave a city of intrigues [Vienna] for a New World that he hoped would be free of them, had clearly been mistaken." And yet, "the open-mindedness and generosity of the American people struck him as rare and precious qualities when compared with the Viennese spirit of malice and intrigue." But in New York, "as had been the case in Vienna, there was nothing Mahler found more difficult to put up with than indifference."

By no means is Mahler's life back in Europe between New York seasons forgotten, and the author continues to comment on Vienna's political, social, and artistic developments. De la Grange also includes a fresh look too at Mahler's youth and influences - it is to be hoped that a revised edition of the first volume in this series will be published - as well as comments on Oskar Fried's "spiritual portrait" of the composer. Mahler's relationship with Bruno Walter is reviewed, and many pages are devoted to his meetings with Freud and with Thomas Mann. (In addition, much speculative Freudian analysis appears.)

As in previous volumes, copious footnotes provide mini-biographies of virtually everyone mentioned in the narrative. De la Grange spends much space and time giving reviews of reviews of Mahler's various performances. He complains how tedious some of these are and the reader may, like me, avoid his or her own tedium by skipping over the generous space given over to them, although comments from within the orchestra remain valuable and noteworthy. The author provides a potted history of the New York Philharmonic during the first seventy years of its existence;

As Mahler's end approaches, the narrative becomes almost a day-by-day account. This is certainly helpful when it comes to placing the composition and meaning of the Tenth Symphony in context. At the very end we have an hour-by-hour account. The man died just before midnight on a hot sultry day; as with Beethoven, "just when the storm was at its height, Mahler was released from his torment ... Half an hour later the storm was over."

There are thirty-three appendices, some of which - such as the commentaries on `Das Lied von der Erde' and the last symphonies - are monographs in their own right. Space precludes my summarising the appendices here. In a work of this size, errors are bound to occur. For example, Bruckner did not die after his Ninth Symphony (p.219); the Eddystone is not a port (p.551); Carl Moll was not Alma's husband (p.1745). I was also a little perturbed to find William Ritter described as "a sexual deviant". But how can one not be impressed by the breadth of scholarship and the depth of detail presented in these pages?
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on 28 June 2008
1758 pages, covering three and a half years! This monster tome, three inches thick and five pounds in weight, tells you everything you could possibly want to know (and a lot you probably don't need to) about the final months of Mahler's life.

Does the subject deserve such in-depth treatment? Of course he does - and la Grange is the man to do it. This will be THE essential work of reference for every Mahler scholar in the future.

Whether it's the ideal work for the average music lover (whoever that may be...). I doubt; there are far shorter and more readable treatments elsewhere. Also the sections of musical analysis manage to be both over-elaborate and simplistic at the same time. La Grange is a compiler and a quantifier, not an interpreter, so his analyses are not really analyses at all, but lists of things that happen. So go elsewhere to find out how the music works (for all his near-unreadability at times, Adorno is peerless in getting under the skin of this profound and complex music).

Every tiny documentary scrap of Mahler's life is gathered into La Grange's study, from the fullest possible documentary account of the Munich premiere of the 8th Symphony in 1910, to details of Mahler's diet (he seemed to live mainly on butter - and died of heart disease). And sometimes the sheer wealth of information is overwhelming: from the moment Mahler decides to consult Sigmund Freud (p.883) it takes ten pages and forty-six footnotes to get to the meeting itself. In between, there is a biography of Freud, a history of the Dutch town of Leiden where they met and a full account of the 'interminable train journey' Mahler undertook to get there (we eventually know how he must have felt). The detail is incredibly rich, but finding out what you want to find out is sometimes incredibly frustrating.

There is also a sheer physical problem in reading the book. It is enormous: impossible to prop up, makes your legs go to sleep if you rest it in your lap for a long time and is so thick that it is sometimes hard to read the text close to the spine. It would have been kinder to have published it as two volumes, perhaps in a slip-case. If it ever comes out in paperback the spine won't last five minutes.

All this seems rather negative - the propective buyer needs to be aware of these drawbacks before shelling out all that money - but this does not detract from the staggering scholarly achievement. The sheer single-minded dedication of the author to his huge task is simply mind-boggling and it is hard to think of a comparable achievement in the history of musical biography. I don't think even Wagner has received this kind of treatment.

If you're new to Mahler and want to get a clear idea of his life and music, this may not be the volume for you. If you are a Mahler obsessive, you probably haven't even bothered to read this review; you already know you need this book. It's a masterpiece. Despite the problems, a rating of less than five stars would be an impertinence.
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