Leo Carey is a Senior Editor at The New Yorker. (December 2015)

The Meaning of Mahler

Contemplating the popularity of Richard Strauss in 1902, Mahler wrote, “My time will come.” Because he was right in the long run the words now sound quietly confident, but at the time his self-belief was compromised by doubt and by frustration with the course his career had taken. His outlook was closer to that of the imagined protagonist of his First Symphony who, he said, “as often as he lifts his head above the billows of life, is again and again dealt a blow by fate and sinks down anew.” Mahler’s anxiety about his reputation and legacy is written into the music, which—in its extremes of emotion, volume, and sheer duration—is determined to assert itself in spite of everything.

The Weird Art of the Ordinary

Peter Stamm with a bust of Gutenberg, Mainz, Germany, 2013
Two thirds of the way through the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm’s most recent novel, events appear to be moving toward an exciting climax. An artist has been commissioned to do a show at a small Alpine cultural center. He is determined not to repeat the work that made his name, …

The Beethoven Mystery Case

Nine hundred and thirty pages into Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, there is an interesting juxtaposition. After the composer died, in March 1827, his funeral was “one of the grandest Vienna ever put on for a commoner.” Schools were closed. Some 10,000 people crowded into the courtyard of the …

Coming Back

Elisabeth de Waal, Paris, 1926
About halfway through The Hare with Amber Eyes—Edmund de Waal’s best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis—we encounter his grandmother Elisabeth, a studious Viennese girl who has just turned seventeen and who, for the first time, is to have …

Love in Venice

Björn Andrésen as Tadzio and Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice (1971)
“This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach,” remembered Thomas Mann’s long-suffering wife near the end of her life. “He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him.” In May 1911, she, her …

The Battle of Britten

Benjamin Britten, right, with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, at the Old Mill, his house in Suffolk, England, circa 1943
Britten’s reputation—the need to decide once and for all whether he is great or overrated—is central to discussion of him, in a way that is not true for more acclaimed contemporaries (like Stravinsky) or lesser ones (like Finzi). A peevish, aggrieved tone persists on either side. Britten’s middle-of-the-road idiom always drew criticism. It was too astringent for listeners brought up on English pastoralism and too conservative for avant-gardists.