Monday, 3 December 2007

Discovering Mahler

Recently AbeBooks ran a competition based around new music books from Boydell & Brewer. The feature included the following interview with Donald Mitchell which gives some background to his new book, Discovering Mahler. Those of you who are not frequent visitors to the AbeBooks site might have missed it, so here it is again:

Boydell: Why have you called the final book in your four volume series Discovering Mahler?

Donald Mitchell: The essays represent in detail the history of my own personal discovering of Mahler and also the history of the evolution of comprehending Mahler and his music in cultures, and the UK in particular, which had been so long delayed.

B: When the first volume, Gustav Mahler: The Early Years, was published in 1958, Mahler’s music was something of a specialised taste. Fifty years on, it seems every conductor with a recording contract undertakes a complete cycle. Why has Mahler’s music taken so long to assume its place in the core repertoire?

DM: Two factors, I believe, were crucial. The tragic interruption of the Second World War and the fact of an obstructive British musical culture which for decades was antipathetic to the culture that gave birth to Mahler.

B: Mahler supposedly told Bruno Walter, who was admiring the view from the railway station near the composer’s summer home, “Don’t bother with that – it’s all in my music!” Do you find Mahler’s music “pictorial” in this way, or was he pointing to something more elemental in the music?

DM: On this occasion it is probable that it was the view itself, which is not to suggest that Mahler was a ‘descriptive’ composer or uninfluenced by the landscapes, sights and sounds, which were part of his daily experience.

B: In Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death, you demonstrated how the composer’s early sketches shed important light on the reading of works such as Das Lied von der Erde. What approach to the middle and last symphonies have you adopted in Discovering Mahler?

DM: I concentrate on the forms of Mahler’s symphonies, and especially those from his middle and final periods. There is nothing quite comparable elsewhere in the history of the symphony. While I explore each symphony as a discrete work, running through this collection of essays is an implied overview of the oeuvre as a whole, of Mahler’s startling and wide-ranging creative journey.

B: Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony seem close to the ultimate expressions of farewell in any artist’s work. Had Mahler lived, would he have had much more to say?

DM: Absolutely, yes. One need think only of the unfinished Tenth Symphony and what extraordinary creative musical responses for the future it embodied.

B: You revised your earlier volumes when they were published in paperback by Boydell & Brewer. Have you said all that you set out to say on this composer?

DM: I should be very surprised indeed if that proved to be the case. Almost always when I hear a work with which I suppose myself to be entirely familiar I discover something that I had not noticed – not heard – before. Mahler’s works are never-ending in the new challenges they represent. One is always a few steps behind him. I have done my best in the current volume to close, reduce, some of the gaps. But I have no doubt at all that new discoveries will continue to be made in the future by others and myself.

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