Gustav Mahler

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Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860May 18, 1911) was an Austrian composer and conductor.

Mahler was best known in his time as one of the leading conductors of his day, but is now remembered as an important post-romantic composer, particularly for his symphonies and his symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which was the peak of his vocal writing. At a length of approximately 95 minutes, his third symphony is one of the longest symphonies ever performed; it is currently the longest of all symphonies in the general symphonic repertoire.



Mahler was born into a Jewish family in Kaliste, Bohemia. His parents moved to Jihlava, Moravia, where Mahler spent his childhood, in the first year of his life. Having noticed the boy's talent at an early age, his parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was six years old. In 1875, Mahler, then fifteen, was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire where he studied piano under Julius Epstein. Three years later, Mahler attended Vienna University, where Anton Bruckner was lecturing. While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with Das Klagende Lied; the opera, which he later turned into a cantata, was entered in a competition, in which he was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 1880, Mahler began his work as a conductor with a job at a summer theatre at Bad Hall; in the years that followed, he took posts at successively larger opera houses: Ljubljana in 1881, Olomouc in 1882, Kassel in 1884, Prague in 1885, Leipzig in 1886 and Budapest in 1888. In 1887, he took over conducting Richard Wagner's Ring cycle from an ill Arthur Nikisch, firmly establishing his reputation among critics and the public alike. The year after he completed Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, the success of which brought Mahler significant fame and income. His first long-term post came at the Hamburg Opera in 1891, where he stayed until 1897. While there, he took summer vacations at Steinbach-am-Attersee in Upper Austria, during which he concentrated on composition, completing his first symphony and most of the song cycle Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), set to a collection of folk poems of the same name.

Mahler conducting
Mahler conducting

In 1897, Mahler, then thirty-seven, was offered and accepted the directorship of the Vienna Opera, the most prestigious musical position in the Austrian Empire. He brought in his ten years there his fiery disposition, noted perfectionism, and inflexible will. While the works of the French composer Jules Massenet were in style when Mahler took over the Opera, by the time his time at the Opera was over, he had taught the public to revere the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. He ran the Opera for nine months of the year, spending the rest composing, mainly at Maiernigg, where he had a small cottage on the Wörthersee. There he composed his fourth through eighth symphonies, the Rückert Lieder based on poems by Friedrich Rückert, the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), and the last lied of the Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", entitled Der Tambourg'sell.

Shortly before his appointment to the Opera, Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism, mainly due to his fears of anti-semitism, which was rampant in the city. Mahler became one of a generation of Jewish intellectuals who had lost their religious identity and taken root in the Austro-German culture they felt they were bound to be a part of. As the composer himself said, "I am thrice homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world."

In 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (18791964), with whom he had two daughters, Anna (19041988), who later became a sculptor, and Maria Anna, (19021907) who died of either scarlet fever or diphtheria at the age of only five.

Mahler's stubborn obstinance in musical matters created several powerful enemies; he was also coming under increasingly virulent anti-semitic attacks, in 1907 becoming almost unbearable. His own music, which he had attempted to introduce while in Vienna, was also not very well received on the whole; while his fourth symphony was well received by some, it was not until the performance of his eighth in 1910 that he had any true public success with his music. (The pieces he wrote after that were not performed during his lifetime.) The death of his younger daughter left him grief-stricken; that same year he discovered he had heart disease (infective endocarditis). His eventual resignation from the Opera, in part forced by a largely anti-semitic press, was hardly unexpected. That year he received an offer to conduct the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He conducted a season there in 1908, only to be set aside in favor of Arturo Toscanini. The next year, he became the conductor of the newly formed New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He hoped to earn enough to be able to retire at the age of fifty to devote his efforts entirely to composing. At this time, he completed his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and his ninth symphony, which would be his last completed work.

In the middle of a long concert season with the Philharmonic, during his last visit to America in February 1911, he fell seriously ill with a streptococcus infection and was taken to Paris, where a new serum had just recently been developed. However, Mahler's health took a turn for the worse, and was taken back to Vienna at his request. He died there from his infection on May 18, 1911, leaving his tenth symphony incomplete. He was buried, at his request, beside his daughter, in the Grinzinger Cemetery outside Vienna.


Mahler was the last in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Franz Schubert to Bruckner and Johannes Brahms; he also incorporated the ideas of Romantic composers like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The major influence on his work, however, was that of Richard Wagner, who was, as Mahler said, after Beethoven, the only composer to truly have "development" (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) in his music.

The spirit of the lied (German for song) constantly rests in his work. He followed Schubert and Schumann in developing the song cycle, but rather than write piano accompaniment, he orchestrated it instead. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is a set of four songs written as a rejected lover wandering alone along the earth; Mahler wrote the text himself, inspired by his unhappy love affair with a singer while conducting at Kassel.

Often, his works involved the spirit of Austrian song and dance. Keenly aware of the colourations of the orchestra, the composer filled his symphonies with flowing melodies and expressive harmonies, achieving bright tonal qualities using the clarity of his melodic lines. Among his other innovations are expressive use of combinations of instruments in both large and small scale, increased use of percussion, as well as combining voice and chorus in the symphony form, and extreme voice leading in his counterpoint. His orchestral style was based on counterpoint; two melodies would each start off the other seemingly simultaneously. Choosing clarity over a mass orgy of sound, he never left the principle of tonality, as composers following him, in particular, those of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, would later do.

Mahler combined the ideas of Romanticism, including the use of program music, and the use of song melodies in symphonic works, with the resources which the development of the symphony orchestra had made possible. The result was to extend, and eventually break, the understanding of symphonic form, as he searched for ways to expand his music. He stated that a symphony should be an "entire world". As a result, he met with difficulties in presenting his works, and would continually revise the details of his orchestration until he was satisfied with the effect.

His symphonies are generally divided into three periods. The first, dominated by his reading of the Wunderhorn poems, and incorporating characteristic melodies from his song settings of them, includes his first four symphonies. His second period, including the next three symphonies, focuses on increasing severity of expression, including the "Tragic" symphony, whose hammer blows shocked Viennese audiences and inspired other composers. His last period is marked by increasing polyphony and includes his eighth, ninth, and unfinished tenth symphonies, as well as Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

Mahler was obsessed by Beethoven's legacy; he declared that all of his symphonies were "ninths", having the same impact and scale as Beethoven's famous "Choral" symphony. (Incidentally, Mahler was a firm believer in the curse of the ninth and was terrified of writing a ninth numbered symphony, so much that he referred to Das Lied von der Erde as a song cycle rather than number it as a symphony; the work can be considered to be both a song cycle and a symphony. However, Mahler still died after writing his ninth numbered symphony, leaving his tenth unfinished to be completed from his sketches and designs in the 1970s.)

Few composers can be said to have freely intermixed their work and their life so completely; in the manuscript of the tenth Symphony, there are notations to his wife Alma (who was, at the time, having an affair with Walter Gropius, her future husband after Mahler's death) as well as other autobiographical references. He was deeply spiritual and described his music in terms of nature very often. This resulted in his music being viewed as extremely emotional for a long time after his death. In addition to restlessly searching for ways of extending symphonic expression, he was also an ardent craftsman, which shows both in his meticulous working methods and careful planning, and in his studies of previous composers.


Mahler's music had a pivotal role in what followed after his life. His compositions had a tremendous impact on Schoenberg, Berg and Webern immediately, as well as conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of who worked with the composer, were helped by him in their careers, and who would eventually take his music to America, where it would influence Hollywood film composition. His music also influenced Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Richard Strauss, as well as the early symphonies of Havergal Brian.

As a conductor, his innovative methods and techniques survive to the present. He was famous for saying that "tradition is sloppiness", and requiring extensive rehearsals of works. This led to tensions between Mahler and his orchestras, even as those tentions produced finer performances than had been previously thought possible.

Mahler's difficulties in getting his works accepted led him to say "my time will come"; that time came in the mid 20th century. Advocated by both those who had known him, and by a generation of conductors including the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, his works won over an audience hungry for the next wave of musical exploration. Soon, complete Mahler symphony cycles were recorded and his works became the defining pieces for many conductors.

In the late twentieth century, new musicological methods led to the extensive editing of his scores, leading to various attempts to complete the tenth symphony and improved version of the others. Well-known interpreters of Mahler's work today include Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink, Jascha Horenstein, Zubin Mehta, Sir Simon Rattle, Markus Stenz, Michael Tilson Thomas and Benjamin Zander; Mahler's music continues to attract interest today.



Vocal works

External Links


  • Machlis, J. and Forney, K. (1999). The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (Chronological Version) (8th ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0393972992.
  • Sadie, S. (Ed.). (1988). The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0333432363.

See Also

da:Gustav Mahler de:Gustav Mahler es:Gustav Mahler fi:Gustav Mahler fr:Gustav Mahler he:גוסטב מאהלר nl:Gustav Mahler ja:グスタフ・マーラー no:Gustav Mahler pl:Gustav Mahler pt:Gustav Mahler zh:古斯塔夫·馬勒 sv:Gustav Mahler


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