Death and the Maiden, the sixth book in my Liebermann series (published on 6th January 2011), begins with the suspicious death of a diva. We are in early 20th century Vienna, so the investigation takes us to the opera house where Liebermann encounters its formidable director, Gustav Mahler. Now, I have to admit, I’m a bit obsessed with Mahler. He’s had a walk-on part in previous Liebermann books, but this time, his role is far more significant. Indeed, he supplies a whole sub-plot, which is based on real events: a scurrilous campaign to oust him from the opera house which was orchestrated by a bunch of rabid anti-semites.
So, why Mahler?
If I put myself on the couch, then I suppose my obsession might have something to do with Ken Russell’s eponymous 1974 film, which featured the actress Georgina Hale (who played Mahler’s sexed-up wife, Alma). Georgina Hale (in her youthful, cavorting, stocking and suspendered prime) is someone fondly remembered by men of a certain age. Maybe Mahler’s music and sex got confused in my adolescent unconscious. Since 1974, I’ve certainly found the former almost as necessary as the latter (OK, an exaggeration – but you know what I mean). And I’m not alone (with regard to Mahler, that is – not Georgina Hale). You see, these days, Mahler isn’t just my obsession, but the obsession of a significant proportion of the general population. Over the last 36 years, I’ve watched Mahler rise from relative obscurity to become the most popular of all symphonists. So remarkable is his popularity, that Norman Lebrecht recently wrote a book about it: Why Mahler? How one man and ten symphonies changed the world.
Music is a very personal thing, and it’s always difficult to justify why you think a particular composer is worthy of the title ‘great’. However, with respect to Mahler I think Leonard Bernstein came fairly close to getting it right, while also explaining the recent rise in Mahler’s popularity. According to Bernstein, Mahler was a genuine visionary. He foresaw all the horrors of the 20th century, and it wasn’t until they had come to pass, that the listening public could appreciate what the music actually meant. Only after Auschwitz, Vietnam and the arms race, says Bernstein, ‘can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all. And that in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.’
There is a scene in Death and the Maiden, in which Liebermann gets to play a piano duet with Mahler, and he hears the slow movement of the fifth symphony for the first time. After the last bar, Liebermann is speechless. In my humble opinion, Bernstein wasn’t over doing it when he lavished such extravagant praise on Mahler. There can be few pieces that shower a rain of beauty on the world quite like this sublime Adagietto.
Death and the Maiden is published by Random House