Donald Mitchell (1925-2017).

  • Profession: Writer
  • Relation to Mahler: Writer extended essays on about Gustav Mahler. Analyses of Mahler’s work. Attended Mahler Festival 1995 Amsterdam.
  • Correspondence with Mahler: No
  • Born: 06-02-1925 London
  • Died: 28-09-2017 Aged 92.
  • Buried: 00-00-0000 

Donald Charles Peter Mitchell CBE was a British writer on music, particularly known for his books on Gustav Mahler and Benjamin Britten and for the book The Language of Modern Music, published in 1963.

Mitchell was born in London, and educated at Brightlands Preparatory School and Dulwich College, London. In 1943 he registered as a conscientious objector and his war-time service was spent in the Non-Combatant Corps. After the war, he taught at Oakfield Preparatory School, London and in 1947 founded and edited the journal Music Survey; several issues appeared before he was joined in 1949 by Hans Keller and the journal was re-launched in the Music Survey’s so-called ‘New Series’ (1949-1952), whose uncompromising critical standards and pugnaciously pro-Britten and pro-Schoenberg stance brought it renown and notoriety in equal measure.

Mitchell studied at Durham University 1949-1950. In the 1950s he was a regular contributor to the journals Musical Times and Musical Opinion. In 1958 he became editor of Music Books at Faber and Faber and in the same year was appointed Editor of Boosey & Hawkes’s music journal Tempo, until 1962. From 1963 to 1964 he was a special music adviser at Boosey & Hawkes with particular responsibility for contemporary music and the acquisition of contemporary composers.

He was responsible for Peter Maxwell Davies and Nicholas Maw joining the publisher’s list. In 1965, with the encouragement of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) he founded the music-publishing firm of Faber Music, and was its first Managing Director (vice-chairman, 1976, chairman, 1977, president, 1988-1995).

In 1972 he became the first Professor of Music at Sussex University (until 1976). Following the death of Benjamin Britten, Mitchell became a senior trustee of the Britten-Pears Foundation; in 1986 he became the Foundation’s director and chairman of the Britten Estate Ltd. From 1989 to 1992 he was chairman of the Performing Right Society. He was appointed a CBE in the 2000 New Year Honours, and died on 28 September 2017.

Mitchell’s two major written projects have been:

  1. a four-volume exploration of the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) (Faber) and
  2. as Editor-in-Chief of six volume edition of the letters of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) (Faber and Boydell Press). Although Mitchell did not work on the fifth and final volumes he appears extensively in them as a Britten correspondent.

By his own admission, Mitchell’s work on Mahler has not been principally as a work of biography (he cites Henry-Louis de La Grange’s four-volume work as the standard), but rather a series of extended essays, often personal in nature. Across the four volumes Mitchell also presents analyses of Mahler’s work, grouped loosely into early works (vol. 1), Wunderhorn works (vol. 2) and later works (vols. 3 and 4).


During the 50s, while regularly contributing to the musical press, Mitchell researched the first of his groundbreaking volumes of Mahler studies, Gustav Mahler: The Early Years (1958). This was succeeded by Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years (1975), and Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death (1985), an exhaustive study of Das Lied von der Erde. Mitchell’s other writings on the composer included The Mahler Companion (1999), with Andrew Nicholson and the collection Discovering Mahler: Writings on Mahler 1955-2005 (2007), selected and edited by Gastón Fournier-Facio and Richard Alston.

In 1995, he was co-artistic director of the Mahler festival, held in Amsterdam on the 75th anniversary of Willem Mengelberg’s celebrated 1920 Mahler cycle, and into well his 80s he was lecturer and broadcasting regularly on Mahler’s music. See Mahler Festival 1995 Amsterdam.

Mitchell had a passion for the culture of Thailand and was an assiduous promoter of Thai classical music. He encouraged several Thai musicians, notably Somsak Ketukaenchan, an outstanding player of the pi-nai (Thai oboe).

For a time, he was close to the conductor Simon Rattle and collaborated with him and the director Barrie Gavin on several TV documentaries in the 80s. He also worked with the conductor Kent Nagano as music adviser on Channel 4’s film of Britten’s “television opera” Owen Wingrave (2001) and with Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Chailly on major Mahler projects in London and Amsterdam.

At a rehearsal in 2004 for Riccardo Chailly (1953)‘s Chailly’s performance as the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO)‘s music director – a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 – the conductor brought Mitchell forward to the podium to acknowledge to the orchestra what a mentor he had been to him. The ovation from the players touched Mitchell deeply.


  • Gustav Mahler: The Early Years. Rockliff, 1958 (revised as Gustav Mahler, Vol 1: The Early Years with Paul Banks and David Matthews, Faber 1978)
  • The Language of Modern Music (Faber & Faber, 1963, revised 1966, 1969) ISBN 0-571-04934-6
  • Gustav Mahler, Vol. 2: The Wunderhorn Years: Chronicles and Commentaries. (Faber 1975)
  • Gustav Mahler, Vol. 3: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death: Interpretations and Annotations. (Faber 1985)
  • Discovering Mahler. Writings on Gustav Mahler 1955-2005. (Boydell Press 2007) ISBN 978-1-84383-345-1
  • The Mahler Companion. (Oxford, 1999) (online at Google Books)

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