Mahler, Gusav (1860–1911)

Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907

Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907.

Mahler rehearsing the Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand). The huge choir extends all the way around the auditorium.

Mahler rehearsing the Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand). The huge choir extends all the way around the auditorium.

The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in the early 20th century

The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in the early 20th century. Mahler was appointed conductor there in 1908.

Mahler, an Austrian composer of symphonies and song-cycles, was a transitional figure. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud and the painter Gustav Klimt, his massive orchestral works are rooted in the 19th-century Austro-German symphonic tradition and speak in a rich, late-Romantic idiom inflected with folk idioms, yet look forward to 20th-century preoccupations such as neurosis and mysticism.


His most important works are his ten symphonies and his songs with orchestral accompaniment, which influenced them. Four of the symphonies – Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 8 – have substantial vocal and choral parts, which has tended to limit their performance potential, and for almost five decades after Mahler's death his works were largely neglected, admired only by a small band of devotees, until the advocacy of conductors such as Bruno Walter, Georg Solti, and Rafael Kubelik in Europe, Leonard Bernstein in America, and Norman del Mar in Britain, restored them to the repertoire.



Mahler was born in Kaliste, into a Jewish family and, although he later converted to Catholicism, his career was to some extent blighted by the anti-Semitic attitude of the Austrian establishment. He showed musical promise as a child, and studied at the Vienna Conservatory from 1875–1878, where he wrote the cantata Das klagende Lied (The Song of Sorrow). From 1880 onwards he made his living as a conductor at provincial theaters in Upper Austria, Slovenia, Bohemia, and then at Kassel in Germany, where he composed the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and started his First Symphony.


In 1885 Mahler spent a year in Prague, and then moved to Leipzig. There he met the Weber family, who introduced him to the folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn, published in 1805–1908). From 1887 onwards he began to set some of the Wunderhorn poems, which were reworked in his earlier symphonies. Between 1888 and 1891 he worked as conductor of the Royal Opera in Budapest, before moving to the Stadttheater in Hamburg, where he conducted Wagner's Tristan in May 1891. By 1892 he had completed his First Symphony (first performed at Weimar in 1894), and had begun work on a second (the Resurrection). By then he had established a working pattern of conducting during the winter seasons, and retreating to the mountains to compose in the summer. The Third Symphony was finished in this way at Steinbach in the Salzkammergut.



In 1897 Mahler was appointed conductor at the Vienna State Opera (one of his first productions there was Wagner's Ring cycle). He remained at Vienna for ten years, as one of the Opera's most distinguished music directors. In 1901 he found a new lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in Carinthia, where over the next few summers he composed the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, the Rückert-Lieder, the Kindertotenheder (Songs on the Death of Children) and other works. The glorious Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony was an expression of his love for Alma Schindler, stepdaughter of the Viennese artist Carl Moll, whom Mahler married in 1902. Contrary to popular belief, the deeply affecting Kindertotenlieder predated the death from scarlet fever of the couple's elder daughter Maria in 1907, although Alma believed that the cycle had "tempted providence".


Mahler's Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) dates from 1906–1907. It was based on the text of a medieval hymn and the closing scene of Goethe's Faust, Part II. Mahler thought it "the greatest work I have yet composed". At the end of 1907, the victim of a vicious press campaign, he was obliged to resign his Vienna post, and also discovered that he had a potentially fatal heart condition. He was appointed conductor at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, from January 1908, but continued to spend the summers in Europe, where he composed Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), based on Chinese poems about the transience of life. He also completed his Ninth Symphony and began aTenth.


In February 1911 Mahler became seriously ill, and died in Austria, aged 50. Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony were given posthumous performances; the Tenth was completed in the 1960s by the British scholar Deryck Cooke.


Major works

Ten symphonies; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883); Kindertotenlieder (1903); Das Lied von der Erde (1909).