They say that by their works shall ye know them, but in the case of Gustav Mahler the reverse is true: in order to understand the works, it helps to know something of the man himself. Mahler was a bundle of contradictions. A passionate Wagnerian, despite being born an Austrian Jew; an otherworldly artist who negotiated cast-iron business contracts; a self-effacing maestro who drove players crazy with his fanatical artistic determination. All of these have contributed to the sense of confusion that has swirled around this five-foot three bundle of neuroses ever since his premature demise.

Of course, Mahler would have been the first to direct any would-be biographer to the music itself. “My two symphonies contain the inner aspect of my whole life,” he told the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner in the 1890s. “I have written into them everything that I have experienced and endured – truth and poetry in...

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