Mahler: a Life

Image of Mahler: a Life
Release Date: 
May 30, 2011
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by: 

Écoutez et répétez. Listen and repeat. In any beginning French class, this phrase will undoubtedly be uttered at some point, signifying that the teacher is attempting to get her class to repeat what she says in French in order to practice pronunciation. Maybe this book would have been more interesting had it been written in French—or more appropriately, German, for that matter.

Iconic über-composers à la Beethoven, Mozart, and yes, Mahler, have been studied extensively for almost a century and a half. Biographers have covered the basics of their lives several times over. At this point in time, in order to add something new to the historical cannon about any significantly famous musician or composer, a unique angle must be developed. Or if the scholar is incredibly lucky, he (or she) will unearth some sort of previously unheard of material or piece of music that warrants further study and potential publication. Otherwise, a simple rehashing of commonly known facts occurs.

If Jonathan Carr’s book had been the first one written about Mahler, it would have been more worthwhile. But with the exception of minor details here and there, nothing significantly new was added to the legend that was Gustav Mahler. Mr. Carr decided to take a straightforward approach, covering Mahler’s life from beginning to end. He does not try to tell a story, but simply recites whatever chronologically presented facts he deems necessary. That is what Wikipedia is for, right?

The author also chose to use a more academic style of writing (he is a British journalist, after all). Anyone not seriously interesting in reading about Mahler may have trouble remaining engaged with such literary prose. Because there is very little emotion in author Carr’s writing, it seems as if there was no emotion in Mahler’s life, thus making it challenging for any reader to connect with the book. Such a flat representation of Mahler rings untrue to anyone who has heard his music.

Is this book “bad”? No. It is a perfectly serviceable account of one of the great musicians in our western world. As an entry point into the history of Gustav Mahler, Mr. Carr’s book provides an accurate and adequate rendering of events. Could it, and should it, have been more emotional and engaging? Absolutely. Books should captivate and pull the readers into them, even if they are more academic in nature. Mahler lived a dynamic life during an ever-changing period of history, and it is disappointing that material with such a potential for intrigue could come across as just another entry in the Écoutez et Répétez school of thought.