Norman Lebrecht – Gustav Mahler’s medical history and its influence on his music

Norman Lebrecht, the prolific cultural commentator and award-winning novelist, has recently published “Why Mahler?”, a new interpretation of the most influential composer of modern times.

On 25th January 2011 he gave a remarkable talk to the Association, illustrated by excerpts from Mahler’s music, about the influence of medicine and illness had on the composer. He showed that Mahler had been deeply distressed by the high infant morbidity and mortality in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and particularly by the death of his beloved younger brother from rheumatic fever. While in Vienna he had bled severely from haemorrhoids. His elder daughter died from diphtheria, which devastated him. Finally he himself developed subacute bacterial endocarditis, diagnosed by the famous New York physician Emmanuel Libman, and returned to Vienna to die.

Before the talk Warren Backman (UCL medical student) gave an account of his elective bursary experience in Israel at Save a Child’s Heart, based at the Wolfson Hospital in Holon. In his vote of thanks Dr Nick Naftalin referred to the fact that some of the childhood problem that disturbed Mahler were still prevalent in the third world, as illustrated by cases which Warren had illustrated in his talk. He expressed the thanks of the meeting to Lebrecht for his educative as well enjoyable presentation.

 

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