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Famous Like Me > Composer > M > Gustav Mahler

Profile of Gustav Mahler on Famous Like Me

Name: Gustav Mahler  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 7th July 1860
Place of Birth: Kalischt, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary [now Kaliste u Humpolce, Czech Republic]
Profession: Composer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia
Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and conductor.

Mahler was best known in his time as one of the leading conductors of his day, but has come to be acknowledged as an important post-romantic composer, particularly for his 9 major symphonies (he left only a short score for large parts of the 10th; it has been orchestrated numerous times since his death), his song cycles, especially Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), and his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a synthesis of symphony and song cycle.

Composing in accordance with the idea that "a symphony should be like the whole world", he brought the symphony to a new level of development, both in length (at approximately 95 minutes, his third symphony is the longest in the general symphonic repertoire) and in cosmic and metaphysical scope, incorporating into some of his symphonies texts expressing Nietzsche's and Goethe's philosophy and Medieval religious symbolism and spirituality. His works are now part of the basic repertoire of major symphony orchestras worldwide.


Gustav Mahler was born into a Jewish family in Kalischt, Bohemia. His parents moved to Jihlava, Moravia, Austro-Hungarian Empire 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.

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. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed."

In 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (1879–1964), with whom he had two daughters, Anna (1904–1988), who later became a sculptor, and Maria Anna, (1902–1907) 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 at the age of 50, 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.

From a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony

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 Richard Strauss, the early symphonies of Havergal Brian, and the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Kurt Weill, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, as well as Benjamin Britten, in quite different ways.

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 tensions 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 (prominently among them the composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg), 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, Sir John Barbirolli, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink, Jascha Horenstein, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Simon Rattle, Markus Stenz, Michael Tilson Thomas and Benjamin Zander; Mahler's music continues to attract interest today.



  • Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan" (1884–1888)
  • Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection" (1888–1894)
  • Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895–1896)
  • Symphony No. 4 in G major, "Ode to Heavenly Joy" (1899–1901)
  • Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, "The Giant" (1901–1902)
    • Note: While the symphony begins in the advertised c-sharp minor, it should be noted that the composer himself wrote, in a letter to his publisher: "it is difficult to speak of a key for the whole symphony, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted."
  • Symphony No. 6 in A minor, "Tragic" (1903–1904)
  • Symphony No. 7 in E minor, "Song of the Night" (1904–1905)
  • Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, "Symphony of a Thousand" (1906)
    • Note: The subtitles for the seventh and eight symphonies were not by Mahler. The composer, in fact, strongly objected to the subtitle for the eighth symphony.
  • Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909–1910)
  • Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp minor (1910–1911), incomplete
    • Various completions by:
      • Adagio and Purgatorio prepared for performance by Ernst Krenek (1924)
      • Deryck Cooke, assisted by Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews (1960, 1964, 1976, 1989)
      • Joseph Wheeler (1948–1965)
      • Clinton Carpenter (1966)
      • Remo Mazzetti, Jr. (1989)
      • Rudolf Barshai (2000)
      • The duo of Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzucca (2002)
    • Note: several prominent Mahler conductors have, for various reasons, refused to perform the completed tenth symphony, most notably Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein. As well, Cooke was always careful to describe his editions as "performing version(s) of the sketches" rather than any kind of "completion".

Vocal works

  • Das klagende Lied, (1880)
  • Drei Lieder, three songs for tenor and piano, (1880)
  • Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, fourteen songs with piano accompaniment, (1880–1890)
  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment, (1883–1885)
  • Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), for voice and orchestra, (1888–1896, two others 1899 and 1901)
  • Rückert Lieder, for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment, (1901–1902)
  • Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), for voice and orchestra, (1901–1904)
  • Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), song cycle-symphony (1907–1909)
    • Note: this work can be classified as both a symphony and a song cycle. Mahler avoided numbering it as a symphony due to his superstitious fear of the curse of the ninth.

External Links

  • Gustav Mahler Profile on BBC
  • Gustav Mahler Profile on the Classical Composers Database
  • The Gustav Mahler Society (UK)
  • The Gustav Mahler Society of New York
  • The International Gustav Mahler Society
  • The Mahler Archives
  • Médiathèque Musicale Mahler

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Gustav Mahler