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When composer Gustav Mahler discussed his complex, groundbreaking symphonies, he famously remarked that each of them should encompass "an entire world," which they do. He wrote 10 full-length symphonies - if you count his massive song-cycle "The Song of the Earth" - and began work on yet another, left unfinished when he died in 1911 at age 50.

Musicians, composers, critics and audiences have grappled with the legacy of Mahler’s symphonies for more than a century - in fact, entire books have been written on their genesis, structure and musical innovations.

Is the music world ready for another book about these titanic works? Williamsburg resident David Hurwitz certainly thinks so.

Hurwitz - who at age 43 has already had quite a career in classical music criticism, including an earlier book, "Beethoven or Bust: A Practical Guide to Learning About and Listening to Great Music" (Anchor/Doubleday, 1992), and a Web site,, the No. 1 classical-music internet site - has written "The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual," which discusses the symphonies chronologically, with many examples of uniquely Mahlerian features snaking their way through all his works.

Even though whole volumes could be written about each symphony, Hurwitz doesn’t feel that he’s shortchanging Mahler - or the reader - in any way.

"They’re not really analyses. They’re descriptions, which is different," the author told GO Brooklyn. "Yes, these symphonies are complex - a lot of work and art has gone into each of them, but they’re not difficult to understand, they didn’t become popular because they were different or alienating to people.

"I’m giving people a sense of how [the symphonies are] working and what Mahler tried to do in each work," Hurwitz said. "That’s why I called the book an ’owner’s manual.’ I fought hard for that title. I wanted it to be useful on its own terms. There aren’t really that many practical guides to Mahler’s music because most of [the Mahler books] are technical or biographical."

Hurwitz’s qualifications to write about Mahler are impeccable.

"I’ve been listening to [Mahler’s music] since I was 12, and I’ve performed all of his symphonies except for the Eighth," said Hurwitz, a percussionist. "So I know it intimately. And some of the chapters are adapted from liner notes I’ve written for recordings."

Mahler’s reputation is based on these 10 compositions - he also wrote lieder and reorchestrated a few operas - and the relatively compressed time period in which he composed them probably led to how they sound, said Hurwitz.

"His active life as a composer only lasted 20 years and he had very little time to write these works," said the author, referring to his busy life as a conductor (including two years with the New York Philharmonic), which forced Mahler to do most of his composing during the summer months.

"These works are all related musically, and each builds on the others," he continues. "The fascinating thing was that his interests were eclectic - military marches, cheap tavern music, Jewish music were all grist for his mill - but his personality was so strong that the works share a lot of things, like musical gestures that appear in all of them. So once you fill out the elements of his musical language, you know all you need to: you’re always on familiar ground."

That familiar ground is what Hurwitz explores in his "Owner’s Manual." After all, even though the symphonies themselves seem daunting - the shortest are the first, fourth and fifth, each just under an hour, while the seventh and eighth usually surpass 90 minutes in performance - they are, as Hurwitz notes, extremely popular.

"They’re the ultimate works of orchestration for a symphony orchestra, so logistically, they’re easy for most orchestras to play," he said. "Audiences of the past 50 years think they’re terrific. They’re the most popular symphonies after Mozart’s, Beethoven’s or Brahms.’ Small community orchestras have been playing them for years, which is amazing, considering the amount of commitment."

The book’s accompanying CD has excerpts from four symphonies that the reader will find useful.

"Mahler’s use of form isn’t as well known as it should be," Hurwitz said. "His style evolved from one work to the next, and I wanted to show that through his music."

Hurwitz thought about including an entire symphony on the disc, then decided movements from different symphonies would make his point more clearly.

"[It’s like] sampling chapters [from one author], which would work better than reading one novella in an anthology," he said.

Will music lovers understand Mahler’s music better after reading the book?

"I’d like readers to come away with this thought: there’s too much talking and not enough listening," said Hurwitz, who has two books on Mozart and one on Czech composer Antonin Dvorak being published this year from Amadeus Press, publisher of his Mahler book.

"That’s especially true with Mahler: there’s too much dwelling on the biographical aspect of his music and not enough on the music itself, which requires that people should sit down and listen to it," said Hurwitz. "My book relies on descriptions with purely musical criteria because, ultimately, listeners will listen to it that way. It is what you hear."


"The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual" (Amadeus Press, $19.95) by David Hurwitz is available at local bookstores, through Music Dispatch (800) 637-2582 or via the Web sites or

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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Reasonable discourse

pmathis from farfaraway says:
I always wondered what qualifies this self-important "music critic" to debase a lot of musicians in his reviews. Now, I know.

"Hurwitz’s qualifications to write about Mahler are impeccable. I’ve been listening to [Mahler’s music] since I was 12, "

That made me laugh. Now I can start to write books on Music as well......

"...and I’ve performed all of his symphonies except for the Eighth," said Hurwitz, a percussionist. "

Now there might be a reason why the orchestra is never mentioned and his record listining is mentioned first.
Feb. 17, 2013, 4:47 am

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