Bereavement, illness, adultery … the trials of Mahler’s late years are part of the story of his Eighth Symphony. This magnificent study explores its greatness

Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna Court Opera

Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna Court Opera, where he was director until 1907. Photograph: DEA/A Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Image

Stephen Johnson ends this thrilling study of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 8, and much else besides, with a quotation attributed to Beethoven, of which Oscar Wilde would have approved: “Sometimes the opposite is also true.”

The legends attaching to Mahler’s life, especially in the final years, are treasured by lovers of Mahler the Titan, and woe betide anyone daring to question them. But Johnson, one of the finest contemporary musicologists, is also a demythologiser of the gentler sort, and all the more persuasive for it.

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