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Reviewed by:
  • Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer
  • Carl Niekerk
Gustav Mahler Jens Malte Fischer. Translated by Stewart Spencer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. 766pp.

The standard in Mahler biography has been set by Henry-Louis de la Grange, whose 3-volume, 3,070-page Gustav Mahler, published by Oxford University Press, with the definite version of one more volume—chronologically the first one of the series—still forthcoming, is without a doubt the most comprehensive and detailed overview of Mahler’s life and work one could wish for. De la Grange’s project is in particular important for assessing the impact of Mahler’s work as a composer and activities as a conductor, and his books painstakingly document the many (antisemitic) incidents to which Mahler was exposed. Because of the sheer amount of documentary evidence one would almost forget that de la Grange also seeks to get a specific image of Mahler across that, in particular in the fourth volume, emphasizes the composer’s mystical and metaphysical leanings.

Jens Malte Fischer in his biography of Mahler of a mere 766 pages (in its English translation) chooses a very different approach. This book, originally published in German in 2003, wants to tell a story with as few footnotes as possible, and it reads both in the original German and in the excellent English translation like a well-written novel. The image of Mahler that emerges from this biography is also very different from that of de la Grange. The protagonist at the center of Fischer’s biography is far more down-to-earth and a profoundly modern thinker and artist. Fischer portrays the conductor/composer as someone who was constantly struggling to navigate the varying demands placed on his time and energy by a great number of people. Like any serious biographer, Fischer is able to be sympathetic and respectful toward the subject of his biography without necessarily idealizing him or overlooking the man’s (many) difficult and dark sides. It does not take everything said about Gustav Mahler by, for instance, Alma Mahler or Bruno Walter, for the truth; in fact, one of the strengths of the book is that it shows how complex Mahler’s relationship to those two individuals was. The image of Alma that emerges from this book is not very [End Page 151] flattering, but has in the meanwhile been confirmed by an excellent biography of Alma by Oliver Hilmes, Witwe im Wahn (an appropriate translation might be Widow with Delusions) (Siedler, 2004), that unfortunately has not yet been translated. Fischer’s study also makes it clear that Mahler was not an easy man to live with and had set patterns for dealing with the women in his life (and was only reluctantly willing to make exceptions for Alma).

This biography certainly presents its readers with an intricate view of Mahler’s psyche, but beyond that it also tells the story of Mahler’s body. The book starts out with a chapter seeking to answer the question ‘What did Mahler look like?’ Mahler was described by contemporaries as small and slim, animated and nervous, and with a twitching leg—by no means neutral categories, as Fischer points out, in a cultural atmosphere obsessed with the physical characteristics of Jews. He was an avid hiker, swimmer, and bicyclist, and bit his fingernails. Mahler’s body was under a lot of strain: which conductor today would agree to conduct Bruckner’s Fifth in the afternoon and Mozart’s Zauberflöte in the evening of the same day? It is no overstatement to say that Mahler was overworked his entire life. Fischer dedicates a chapter to a detailed reconstruction of Mahler’s illnesses—a story, among other things, of dealing with long-lasting bacterial infections before penicillin was discovered. Already at a young age Mahler suffered from hemorrhoids. He was also susceptible to intense migraines. Impressive and insightful is Fischer’s description of Mahler’s annus terribilis—in 1907 his elder daughter, Maria, died and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a heart valve defect of which Alma claimed, as Fischer points out, that it was “congenital”—and of his physical decline in the final year of...


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