by Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director, Colorado MahlerFest, April 2020

During the Mahler anniversaries of 2010-11, Norman Lebrecht published a book called Why Mahler? Now, as then, even the most fervent Mahlerian might well ask of any book on this subject, “Why Another Book About Mahler?” Musicologist, author and lapsed cellist, Stephen Johnson, has given us a compelling answer in the form of his latest volume, The Eighth: Mahler and his World in 1910.

I am sure I am not alone among musicians and Mahler aficionados in having an entire large section in my library given over to books about Mahler. Almost all of them fall into one of a handful of utilitarian archetypes of varying scope, ambition and quality. There are, of course, the biographies, ranging from Henry-Louis de La Grange’s magisterial four-volume masterpiece to svelte introductory handbooks. There are overviews of Mahler’s music, whether covering only the symphonies or everything, that range from common touch collections of program notes to the exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, analyses of Donald Mitchell. There are first hand accounts from people who knew Mahler, including Bruno Walter, Ernst Krenek, Alma Mahler and Natalie Bauer-Lechner, and collections of essays of varying levels of quality and cohesion. There are even some very fine book-length studies of individual works, notably Stephen Hefling’s outstanding book about Das Lied von der Erde, and Peter Franklin’s about the Third Symphony. In spite of its title, Johnson’s book is not simply another of these. It is something richer and more wide-ranging. It marks a new and different kind of book about Mahler. Now we know “why.”

Johnson would have done us all a service to write a worthy explanation of, and apologia for, Mahler’s last choral masterpiece, but he’s done much more. This is a book ‘about’ the Eighth, rather than ‘on’ the Eighth, with this work as the focal point, rather than the subject, of this fascinating book.

But why a book about the Eighth? Mahler was himself a composer of contradiction and paradox. Johnson ends his book with a quotation from Beethoven which appears throughout The Eighth like a Leitmotif, “sometimes the opposite is also true.” The Eighth Symphony may well be Mahler’s most-loved work – it’s semi-annual appearances at the BBC Proms are invariably sold out months in advance. And yet, among many Mahler listeners and interpreters, it remains one of the perennial black sheep of his output alongside the hugely misunderstood and under-valued Seventh. Many leading Mahler conductors have either completely or largely avoided conducting it, including Bernard Haitink (who put the work away after a 1988 performance at the Concertgebouw), Iván Fischer and many others. It’s been called a backwards step in Mahler’s development, an incoherent mishmash of different languages that don’t work together, an unstructured non-symphony, and the musical analogue of a Barnum and Bailey Circus. Most often by Mahler’s otherwise most devoted listeners.

Johnson would have done us all a service to write a worthy explanation of, and apologia for, Mahler’s last choral masterpiece, but he’s done much more. This is a book ‘about’ the Eighth, rather than ‘on’ the Eighth, with this work as the focal point, rather than the subject, of this fascinating book. The piece and its premiere serve a center of gravity for an exceptionally engaging and wide-ranging exploration of Mahler’s late music, his fraught relationship with his wife, his engagement with philosophy, his place in one of the richest moments in cultural history, the emergence of psychoanalysis and much more. There are insights to be found here into not only the life and work of Mahler, but those of Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Gál, Stefan Zweig, Arnold Schoenberg, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Klimt and others. Johnson writes perceptively about everything from national identity, to Viennese Heurigen wine bars, to sex.

For those readers already well acquainted with Mahler’s life story, there are many episodes described in the book with which they will already be familiar, such as the extraordinary circumstances of the Eighth’s sensational premiere, Mahler’s encounter with Freud, and the funeral procession of a New York fireman which inspired the harrowing opening of the last movement of the Tenth Symphony. And yet, I would think that for even more the most fanatical Mahlerian, Johnson offers some new insight or some fresh interpretation of even the most well-known events in every chapter.

There are extended descriptions and discussions of not only the Eighth Symphony, but of Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and the Tenth (discussed mostly through the prism of Derryck Cooke’s Performing version). Narrating musical events in prose is, at best, an unsatisfying necessity. Without such descriptions of a work’s unfolding, it’s more or less impossible to highlight the ideas in the music the author wants to discuss, but if words could adequately describe music, we wouldn’t need music. Johnson handles this inherent problem very well – he moves from descriptions of musical events to exploration of musical meaning about as elegantly and efficiently as one can. Mahler fans tend to be incredibly possessive of his music and hugely opinionated about its meaning. Johnson has a disarmingly easygoing way of suggesting new readings of Mahler’s works that I think most will find refreshing rather than confrontational.

Will Johnson’s book on the Eighth serve as an eye opener for those Mahlerian listeners and performers who have always found the work to be a blind spot? Well, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him or her drink. But one hopes the doubters will, if nothing else, follow Johnson’s own example. He most endearingly describes his somewhat negative previous verdict on the Eighth Symphony, as presented in the book Companion to the Symphony (1992) “monumentally wrong.” Sometimes, the opposite is also true.

Conductor Kenneth Woods is the Artistic Director of Colorado MahlerFest and also serves as the Artistic Director and conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and The Elgar Festival.


Book Review: Stephen Johnson, The Eighth: Mahler and his World in 1910