Mahler the Modern

Mahler

by Henry-Louis de La Grange
Doubleday, 982 pp., $17.50

Mahler

by Kurt Blaukopf
Praeger, 272 pp., $10.00

The two books entitled Mahler, by Henry-Louis de La Grange respectively, represent decades of research. One question, then, in the minds of those who read both, is how it can be possible for so much dedicated scholarship to yield so many conflicting facts. According to Blaukopf, the composer was one of twelve children, five of whom died in infancy, while a sixth committed suicide at the age of twenty-five. But La Grange provides vital statistics for fourteen children, showing that seven of them died in infancy and that the suicide was in his twenty-first year. Blaukopf further states that the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were inspired by “an actress,” although La Grange positively identifies the woman as the singer Johanna Richter. And where Blaukopf accepts a merely approximate dating for Mahler’s discovery of the Knaben Wunderhorn anthology, La Grange verifies both the year, 1887, and the circumstances, the home of Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson, during the period of Mahler’s infatuation with that gentleman’s wife.

But these discrepancies are too numerous to tabulate here. Sufficient to say that La Grange’s sources are more abundant, that he has read deeply in them, that his documentation and detail are encyclopedic, and that, thanks to him, a full image of Mahler’s personality has been drawn for the first time. On the strength of this mammoth volume one—the second is promised in two years, the time most readers will need to finish the first—the completed work is assured a place on the small shelf of permanently valuable biographies of composers.

All the same, it is unfair to compare the two books. Blaukopf’s is a brief survey of the whole life and works; La Grange’s, what we now have of it—and this first installment takes the story only as far as Mahler’s marriage—is a very long one, primarily of the life. An introduction by Karlheinz Stockhausen tells the reader that La Grange “has refrained from interpreting Mahler’s music.” Unless technical analysis is meant, however, this is misleading. La Grange offers valuable musical insights in passing but relegates his programnote musical discussions to an appendix, as if to emphasize that the symphonies and songs should be allowed to play and sing for themselves. As for the book’s length, this is due in part to extensive quotations of correspondence of a nearly extinct species—and a greatly-to-be-regretted one, for biography in the electronic age, compiled from tape-recorded and eyewitnessed “recollections,” will be a lot less literate, whatever else.

Blaukopf, for his part, bravely tries to meet the music head on, and with such novel suggestions as that the architecture of the concert halls of the 1870s and 1880s “demanded” blendings of sound in space on the Mahler scale; that the differences in texture and orchestral style between the first four symphonies and the later ones are attributable in some degree to Mahler’s renunciation of his habit …

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