With social distancing measures set to continue for the foreseeable future, it seems it will be a while until Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 – nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand for its vast forces – will be performed again. Stephen Johnson’s new book, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910, thus fills something of a chasm at the moment. The list of attendees of the world premiere – celebrities, royalty, intellectuals and artists, not to mention the cloud of pollution that lingered about the usually car-free Munich – reads even more thrillingly in the current climate.

Indeed one of the things this book illuminates brilliantly was the influence of Gustav Mahler’s PR man, Emil Gutmann, whose impressive puppetry leading up to the premiere of the Eighth almost threatened to out-do the performance itself. Gutmann successfully managed to summon critics from all over Europe and America to Munich (a snub to Paris and Vienna). He twisted the arms of editors to preview the festival, and plastered the city with posters, and leaked scores to music-lovers. Gutmann had given himself the job of filling the 3,200-capacity Musik-Festhalle twice over; such tactics were necessary.

Johnson does well to dispel some of the tall tales that surround these now legendary cultural moments (like the “riot” that greeted the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913, which has been famously overblown). But while he does well to question received wisdom in parts, in others he does not. There is a mistrust of Mahler’s wife, Alma (“always worth asking if there is any hidden agenda behind what she says”, “But was this the blow of fate Alma leads us to believe?”) which is never sufficiently explained. Johnson even goes as far as to apportion blame to Alma for Gustav’s eventual death: “Mahler’s determination to plunge himself into a hugely demanding work schedule no doubt contributed to his decline, but even that could be seen as symptomatic of a desire to escape the inner torment cause by Alma’s affair with Gropius.” It appears this prevailing mistrust is inherited from previous commentators. Late in the book, Johnson cites her “guilty emotional confusion”, but little other evidence is provided.

Alma did indeed deceive Mahler, embarking on an affair with the architect Walter Gropius (whom she later married and had a daughter with), but not before Gustav effectively abandoned her himself. She became a “work widow”, sidelined while Gustav tended to his work as conductor and composer. Ahead of their marriage, he forced Alma to give up her own career as a composer.

Johnson’s retelling of the relationship between Gustav, Alma and Walter Gropius is done thrillingly, and at times heart-wrenchingly. And generally-speaking, the book is well-structured. It has an almost symphonic pacing to it. The bustle and excitement of the first performance sets the scene, before an insightful summary on the background of the symphonic form that Mahler chose as the form of his magnum opus, as well as a taut and very readable analysis of the music and text itself.

A lengthy chapter on “Questions of Identity” is a real highlight, grappling with Mahler’s complicated identity as “the Austrian, the German, the Outsider, and the Jew”, compellingly relating each to the composition of the symphony itself. Mahler was very aware of his Jewishness in an increasingly anti-semitic society. Johnson tells of him tragically asking Alma to “police his gestures, in case anyone thought he was being too Jewish”, and offers a moving aside to Arnold Schoenberg’s own struggles with anti-semitism.

As part of this fascinating discourse, Johnson also restores much-needed weight to discussion of universality and power in regard to musical works. Today such terms are bandied around by writers, artists, and orchestra marketing departments freely. “Nowadays Mahler’s assertion to Sibelius that ‘the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything’ is usually quoted without consideration of how it might have sounded then, in 1910. By that time the German word Welt (‘world’) had acquired a new, more ominous significance…This was the Age of Empire, when the major world powers competed with each other to occupy as much of the world as possible, and to access its economic resources.”

Unfortunately, it’s after this impressive chapter that the structure becomes somewhat scatty. A section dedicated to Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, while interesting in itself, seems more focused on its completion by various scholars, a process which took place long after Mahler’s death in 1911. It’s full of conjecture that adds little to the striking portrait already painted by Johnson.

He goes on to talk about Mahler’s famous meeting with Freud: “Mahler, he [Freud] said, was looking for his mother, his Ewig-Weibliche [eternal feminine], in every woman.His mother had been fragile, worn down by the cares of tending to a large family, and by the deaths of several children. Unconsciously, Freud had apparently told him, Mahler wanted his wife to be the same.”

Johnson then goes on: “Imagine for a moment though, if by means of some kind of historical time-shift, Mahler had been able to consult Jung instead of Freud.” A nice idea, but his brief look at Jung’s challenges to Freud’s theories are not translated in any meaningful way back to Mahler’s emotional state.

Regardless of the psychoanalysis, the image of Gustav Mahler that emerges from this book is of a man that spent his whole life as an outsider who longed to fit in, to be loved, and often contradicted himself to achieve these ends. He was sometimes pathetically needy: “Mahler demanded, like a child terrified of the dark, that the door connecting them be left open.” He bombarded Alma with expensive gifts and filled hotel suites with roses, dedicating the Eighth symphony to her (having never dedicated any of his previous works).

Did he ever attain what he sought? Perhaps for one moment, that moment being the first performance of the Eighth itself. “Thunderous waves of applause swept from the hall to the platform” and the press raved: “Mahler stood revealed simply as a ‘magus’, a kind of black magician. How different it all was from the dubious, cultish mass devotion manifested at Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival – this was truly visionary.” Gustav won back Alma after her dalliance with Gropius (“There are few aphrodisiacs more powerful than public success”), and they paraded back to the hotel victorious, where “the adulation pressed on them like flood waters.”

But even then Mahler had bowed to contradiction. Was it really the work it was slated to be by Gutmann’s sensationalist marketing campaign? As Johnson points out, Mahler had never chosen or even endorsed the nicknames his earlier symphonies had picked up (“Titan”, “Resurrection”, “Tragic”), and while he recoiled slightly at the campaign (“The whole thing, he moaned, was turning into ‘a catastrophic Barnum and Bailey show’”) he made no effort to quell the hype around the “Thousand”.

Ultimately any greatness was short-lived; Mahler died less than a year later aged fifty.

These contradictions within Mahler that Johnson paints so vividly and humanely do not detract from the colossus that is the Eighth, however. As Johnson rightly points out by way of Nietszche, “One must have chaos inside oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Johnson’s book does great service to both the “chaos” and the “star”.