An Agitator, An Irritant, a D-Major Angel

Visiting author/historian illuminates fabled composer

Joseph Horowitz comes to Brevard with a new book and several festival events.

Gustav Mahler was no saint. 

Likened to a lion tamer and tsar by those who knew him best, the Bohemia-born composer (1860-1911) expected perfection from his musicians, becoming so enraged by the slightest mistake that his screams could allegedly be heard from three blocks away. 

But what Mahler lacked in niceties, he made up for in raw genius, composing brilliant symphonies that would link the Romanticism of the 19th century with the modernism of the 20th.

“Gustav Mahler is a unique figure in classical music in the decades before World War I,” cultural historian and concert producer Joseph Horowitz confirms. “He equally yearns for the past and foretells the future.”   

A New York City native and author of no less than a dozen books on classical music, Horowitz is an expert in the distinctive sound of fin-de-siècle Manhattan, specifically the “fabled personalities” of that time and place. In Horowitz’s latest book, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York (Blackwater Press, 2023), the author explores the titular personality.

More specifically, he tells the story of Mahler and his wife, Alma, during their abbreviated sojourn in New York City from 1907 to 1911. Since Mahler was intensely private, little is known about these years — a period during which he served as director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic before dying of subacute bacterial endocarditis. Alas, few texts offer an intimate view of the composer’s life. 

Until now. 

“It is in fact, to my knowledge, the first book-length treatment of Mahler in New York ever written,” Horowitz reveals in the preface. 

The Marriage is also the author’s first novel. While remaining rooted in facts gleaned from the letters between Gustav and Alma, Alma’s diaries and memoirs, and newspaper clippings, Horowitz gave himself permission to “abridge or conflate” while writing the book. (A composer herself, Alma was 19 years younger than her difficult, by-then-ailing husband, and often felt trapped in her caretaker role.)

 “I have embedded this material in a creative narrative that illuminates it in new ways,” says Horowitz.

This summer, he will also illuminate the impact of American jazz on European composers, producing two concerts at the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival. “Beyond Fusion” features music by Mahler, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk, performed by musicians Horowitz calls “cutting-edge and unclassifiable” — bass trombonist David Taylor, saxophonist/composer Daniel Schnyder, and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen (see related story in this issue).  

According to Horowitz, “Mahler’s movement tracks an unusual trajectory. The bustling perpetual-motion waltz in C minor somehow yields a celestial D-major vision. The bass trombone is an agitator and irritant whose intrusions are magically subdued by D-major angels.”

Also curated by Horowitz, “Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G” shows the jazz influence on three major European composers: Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel. This orchestral program, complete with multimedia visuals, will “explore the jazz craze after World War I in Berlin and Paris as compared to the ‘jazz threat’ in the U.S.,” Horowitz explains. 

Though both his book and concerts take certain modern liberties, this improvisation is a “unique tool for the cultural historian,” the author notes.

Highland Books (36 West Main St., Brevard, will host an author event on Monday, July 3, at 6pm. The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York can be ordered at “Beyond Fusion” and “Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G” happen at Brevard Music Center (349 Andante Lane) on July 5 and 7, respectively. Both performances begin at 7:30pm. $24-$67. Horowitz ( also offers a free concert/workshop at 10:30am on July 6. See for event information. 

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