Interview: Norman Lebrecht

By Sue Fox, August 4, 2010
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Much of Gustav Mahler’s work was innately Jewish, according to Norman Lebrecht

Much of Gustav Mahler’s work was innately Jewish, according to Norman Lebrecht

‘Mahler helps us make sense of our modern world,” explains Norman Lebrecht. “Uniquely, he is a composer who was derided in his lifetime, ignored for decades afterwards but ultimately displaced Beethoven at the box office.”

At 62, Lebrecht is one of the world’s most prolific and widely read commentators on music and culture. Before immersing himself in the arts, he studied Talmud and rabbinic debate — knowledge which has stood him in very good stead, especially when it comes to Mahler, whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Driven by ambition, the composer had to renounce his Jewishness in order to conduct the Vienna Court Opera where, at the age of 37, he was appointed artistic director. “But,” argues Lebrecht, “to detach Mahler from his Jewishness is absurd. You have to see what’s going on through the prism of his Jewishness. Certain things in Mahler are innately Jewish. His scores, for instance are filled with commentaries.”

If Mahler is now popular with classical music lovers, he is often misunderstood by them. “It’s not that he is writing about death or about love,” says Lebrecht. “With Mahler it’s always both. He invests music with the capability of sustaining more than one meaning — often contradictory.”

Just as the composer famously promised that, “my time will come”, Lebrecht’s golden moment appears to be happening now. A passionate Mahlerian for over half his life, his newly published book, Why Mahler? How One Man And Ten Symphonies Changed the World, has been widely praised, while his BBC Radio 3 documentary In Search of Gustav Mahler, broadcast last month, was described by one critic as radio at its best.

Lebrecht is also quite possibly about to become a Hollywood hot property. Song of Names, his Whitbread Prize-winning first novel is in the early stages of film development, with Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins already signed up to the project. Wisely, Lebrecht is not yet counting his chickens. “Too much can go wrong. People can pull out and lose interest. You can’t stake too much on these things.” So, for the time being, it is music business as usual up in his fifth floor study at his north-west London home.

Lebrecht is known for his strong, frequently provocative, opinions. This is the man who in 1993, at a Mahler Symposium in New York’s Carnegie Hall, announced from the stage to the largely home-grown audience that “America killed Mahler”. There may well be similar fireworks when he curates a series of events at the South Bank Centre for their 2010– 2011 Mahlerfest.

In his latest book, Lebrecht gives a detailed, albeit highly subjective, guide to the vast world of Mahler recordings and in the process poses and then attempts to answer some big questions. Such as, why do so many musicians want to perform Mahler’s work now?

“Because more than any other composer, Gustav Mahler speaks to us in our modern, uncertain and troubled world,” he says. “His music has the most intimate effect. There may be 3,000 people in a concert hall but each one will be sitting totally alone — many feeling deep emotions as they listen to the largest imaginable orchestral forces. Mahler’s music can literally change your life.”

Lebrecht tells a number of moving stories of people who have experienced the transformational power of Mahler’s music and its ability to heal the most wounded souls. One of the most life affirming is that of Gareth Davies, principal flautist of the London Symphony Orchestra. In 2004, two weeks after the birth of his daughter, he was told by the doctor that he had testicular cancer.

“Gareth struggled to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in St Paul’s Cathedral,” recalls Lebrecht. “He called it a dispiriting experience, ‘a black hole where the thrill ought to be when you play great music’.

“He thought about giving up [music] until at the end of the year, he had two rehearsals for Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. He knew very little about the symphony except that it presents a struggle with death. Five years later on an orchestral blog, he described what followed. ‘I could sense something in the music which exactly mirrored my state of mind. Time seemed to stop, a wave swept across me, something I had not felt in a concert for months… The music of Mahler flicked a switch somewhere in my brain’.”

Lebrecht believes what Davies experienced was: “Mahler’s capacity to pierce human defences. Alone among composers, he allows musicians to emote and still perform. Just ask any orchestral musicians why they get excited about playing Mahler. He restores the capacity to feel and liberates the players to act on those feelings.”

Some musicians have argued that unless your heart has been broken, you can’t really understand music at the deepest level. Mahler was one of 14 children and growing up, experienced the death of many of his siblings. At home, the coffin was a familiar piece of furniture. His own beloved daughter, Maria, died when she was five years old. It is fair to say he suffered more than his fair share of the hammer blows of life.

His legacy, argues Lebrecht, “is that because he deals with issues we all understand — conflict, relationship breakdown, alienation, depression and loss. His music plays as the soundtrack to all our lives.”

Does it goes without saying, then, that Lebrecht would have been delighted to meet Mahler? “Of course. If Beethoven comes around, you would dive under your bed and wait for him to go. If Mozart, Bach, Brahms or Bruckner arrived, you couldn’t wait for them to go. What would you have to say to them? But if Mahler came knocking, you’d sit around the table, invite your best friends and have a riveting conversation which would challenge your ideas.

“He might get up and go, because he had a very low boredom threshold and was incredibly impetuous, but, yes, I would have loved to have met Mahler. Those who knew him speak of his energy and how they were magnetised by him. He would have been compelling and terrible and absolutely irresistible.”

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014