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Published: 15 August 2013

Mahler and me

Meet Dr Jeremy Barham, a leading expert on the composer Gustav Mahler, the culture of early modernism and the links between music, philosophy, literature and society.

Gustav Mahler isn't to everyone's taste. For every admirer who will jump to the defence of his intense, emotional music there is someone ready to write it off as too long and self-indulgent.

The University of Surrey's Dr Jeremy Barham does not fit neatly into this scheme. Though undoubtedly a Mahler devotee, he doesn't seek to proselytise. "I immediately identified with the sound world of his music," he remembers, "and I'm still trying to find out why, which is the reason I'm still working on his music. I'm trying to understand what it is about his music that immediately attracted me. But it doesn't bother me if people don't like Mahler. It's up to the individual. I'm not into persuading people to like his music, rather I simply strive to increase our understanding of it."

Mahler lived from 1860 to 1911, rising from humble origins in a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire now in the Czech Republic to become one of the foremost conductors of his era. This conducting career included appointments to top orchestras and opera houses in Europe and America while still a young man, but limited the time he could dedicate to composing. Indeed, within his own lifetime he received only moderate recognition for his own music, and a relatively short life robbed him of what might have been productive later years of composing. He left us with just nine symphonies (and an incomplete tenth), a large number of songs and some arrangements or reworkings of other composers' pieces.

Within his own lifetime he received only moderate recognition for his own music

With performance of Mahler's music subsequently banned by the Nazis (he was Jewish, though he converted to Catholicism in order to advance his career at Court), it wasn't until several decades after his death that his compositions began to attract a wide following. The centenary of his birth proved a turning point, and his place among the world's most well-known composers was assured after director Luchino Visconti used part of the Fifth Symphony in the score for the 1971 film Death In Venice.

"He has been resurrected as a composer and never looked back since," argues Dr Barham, Reader in Music in the School of Arts. "Now you hear him all over the world. Every major orchestra programmes his music. Some might even argue that he's overplayed, but I think his reputation now is very well cemented within the repertoire across the globe. He's up there with the greats - Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner... he's on a level with those, there's no doubt about that."

And yet, in the UK the most recognisable piece of his music is a short excerpt from the Seventh Symphony used in motor oil adverts. Why is Mahler's name so famous but his music not?

"The thing about Mahler is that he mostly wrote very long symphonies," explains Dr Barham. "So to listen to Mahler you need a lot of patience, you need a lot of time, and you need to go with the flow. I think he does tend to polarise audiences into those that absolutely adore him, and those who are left cold or don't have the interest or the patience."

It appears this polarising effect was the mark of the man as well as his music. Though highly respected as a conductor, he appears to have kept few friends and cared little for what critics thought of his work. "Even if people censure me, they should do so hat in hand," he once said. He spent countless hours every summer working alone on his compositions, but was grief-stricken when he discovered in 1910 that his (arguably neglected) wife Alma - whose own musical career he had put a stop to - had been having an affair with Walter Gropius, then a young architect and later founder of the Bauhaus School. Mahler died the next year from bacterial endocarditis, leaving his Tenth Symphony an anguished but unfinished expression of his love and pain.

"That is what so many people like about Mahler," says Dr Barham. "It's emotional music that wears its heart on its sleeve. Mahler once said [to his fellow composer Sibelius] that the symphony should be like the world. It should reflect everything. And that's what he does in so many of his symphonies and so much of his music. For some people, that's too much. Some people prefer a bit more restraint. But if you like your music to be very powerful emotionally, Mahler can provide that. One of my aims is to resist some of the myths that have grown up about him. Things like 'all his music is miserable'. That's total nonsense. There is just as much pure joy in his music as there is plumbing the depths of despair."

It's emotional music that wears its heart on its sleeve.

For Dr Barham, Mahler and his music provide an avenue into the philosophy, literature and society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin is said to have thought Mahler a self-indulgent late-Romantic, but Dr Barham disagrees. "It's a period that's often referred to as early Modernism, or Viennese Modernism in music. It was a period in which lots of the traditional ways of doing things were being challenged in many different ways. The beginning of the new century was a turbulent era, politically, and composers were reflecting that turbulence, that sense of instability. You can hear that in their music. For me, Mahler's music, had a kind of resonance with the period. It recognised a world that was beginning to change."

That context is a key focus of Dr Barham's research. As well as musical analysis of Mahler's work, he also looks at the influences upon its creation and how it links with other art forms and cultural activities. The composer was deeply interested in the philosophy and literature of his own time, but it's often difficult to pin down exactly what a piece of music means. As Mahler himself once remarked: "If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music".

"The way he conceived his music was as an expression of deep spiritual and philosophical ideas," comments Dr Barham. "So in order to do it justice I feel I need to understand those ideas together with the music, and how they interconnect. The book I'm working on at the moment specifically explores Mahler's music in relation to the culture of his period. And that culture comprised all sorts of things - it's literature, it's philosophy, it's theatre as well. Looking at the interconnections between his music and the wider world in which he lived is what characterises my work."

When thinking about music, it's always wise to remember that the great symphonies are not just abstract pieces of code to be deciphered. They have deep philosophical, cultural and literary connections, but they are not simply intellectual exercises. "Even though I know this music very well, it can still move me hugely, intrigue me, or make me feel unsettled," confides Dr Barham. "I think all great music should challenge you emotionally and intellectually. For me, Mahler continues to do that in abundance."