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On the verge of a breakdown, Gustav Mahler (top) consulted Sigmund Freud (bottom) about his volatile relationship with his wife Alma (middle)

Mahler isn't everybody's cup of Kaffee mit Schlagobers. Today, when he beats Beethoven himself at the box office, nobody polarises opinion as much as Mahler. Even Wagner is by comparison an acquired taste, requiring a suspension of disbelief in order not to laugh. Mahler, though, demands all or nothing from the audience as a composer, just as he did from his musicians as a conductor. Some find Mahler excessive, immature, adolescent. Like most things Viennese, his music is full of sensuality and sentimentality, even to the point of vulgarity. The erotic and the neurotic are as inseparable in Mahler as they are in Freud. For some, these leviathans of fin de siècle Vienna (though in fact both were provincials from Bohemia) are as dead as the lost world from which they emerged, that amalgam of Jewish culture and Catholic morality that Hitler hated and eventually destroyed. For me, though, and for countless others, Mahler is still our contemporary. There is simply nothing else quite like Mahler's attempt to "encompass everything" in symphonic form, to explore the outermost limits of existence, its depths of despair and its sublime heights of rapture.

I was an adolescent when I first heard Mahler. At my grammar school, there were a couple of highbrow teachers who allowed me to listen to records with them in the lunch break. One day, we listened to Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection. Steeped in late Beethoven as I then was, I found Mahler's emotional exuberance overdone — hysterical, even. Mahler was simply over the top. My attitude softened when I saw Visconti's film Death in Venice, with its sensational Mahler soundtrack, including extracts from the Third Symphony and culminating in the haunting Adagietto from the Fifth. I started listening to recordings with growing awe. But it was only when I heard Mahler live, at the Proms, a year or two later, that I realised that this would be a lifelong passion. And so it has proved. Every time I hear Mahler, he restores my faith in the power of music to redeem us from the banality and irony he expresses so well. 

In Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World (Faber, £17.99), Norman Lebrecht has written a magnificent centenary tribute, worthy of our leading music critic's uncanny empathy with his subject. This, his second book on Mahler, is as much about the author's personal quest as it is about the composer, and it includes an entertainingly idiosyncratic but impressively authoritative discography. 

Lebrecht has overlooked nothing, however trivial, that might serve to illuminate Mahler's life and legacy. With forensic skill, he deconstructs the composer's wife Alma's entertaining but mendacious memoirs, trawls though contemporary newspapers, hacks through the undergrowth of myth. He strikes up friendships with octogenarian refugees who provide a link to Mahler's world: his surviving daughter Anna, who recounted her fondest memory of her father, sitting on his lap while he corrected the score of his Ninth Symphony; his niece Eleanor Rosé, who recalled Mahler with the photographic memory of a child: "He used to dip his spoon in my dessert, to see if it tasted better than his." Or the composer Berthold Goldschmidt, who helped to complete the unfinished Tenth Symphony. Goldschmidt's career was blighted by the Nazis. Exiled to Belsize Park, his compositions ignored by the BBC, he was rediscovered in his nineties by Simon Rattle. "Well, we must show them what a Jew can do," he tells Lebrecht. "What do you mean by that?" "They killed so many of us. The ones who survive must show that it was worth keeping us alive."

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