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Mahler, Gustav

Category: Musician or composer

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. 

He held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). [He only overcame the bar that existed against the appointment of a Jew to this post by conversion to Roman Catholicism in February 1897].

His innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner and Mozart. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his music only gained popularity after his death and a long period of relative neglect, which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was re-discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners. Mahler's œuvre is relatively small; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor, but he devoted as much time as he could to his compositions, faithfully reserving his summer months for intense periods of creative concentration, supplemented as time permitted during his active concert seasons with the tasks of editing and orchestrating his expansive works.


Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler's works are designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists. Most of his twelve symphonic scores are very large-scale works, often employing vocal soloists and choruses in addition to augmented orchestral forces.

These works were often controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 3, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910.

Where did Mahler gain his inspiration?

Inherited genes and home schooling - Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. When he was four years old, he discovered his grandparents' piano and took to it immediately. He gave his first public performance at the town theatre when he was ten years old. Academically he was, however, not regarded as very bright. His school reports portrayed him as absent-minded and unreliable in academic work, and even a change of school to the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, did not help.

Gustav Mahler 1865

Mahler's father was supportive of his son's ambitions for a music career, and agreed that the boy should try for a place at the Vienna Conservatory. The young Mahler was auditioned and accepted. The Conservatory was renowned for strict discipline and whilst one of his friends was expelled, Mahler, while sometimes rebellious, avoided the same fate only by writing a penitent letter to its head. Mahler left the Conservatory in 1878 with a diploma but without the prestigious silver medal given for outstanding achievement.

Despite his apparent lack of interest in the school curriculum, however, Mahler showed no such lack of interest once he left and pursued his own studies of both literature and philosophy including Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Fechner and Hermann Lotze. Mahler's head was "not only full of the sound of Bohemian bands, trumpet calls and marches, Bruckner chorales and Schubert sonatas. It was also throbbing with the problems of philosophy and metaphysics."

Migraine – Mahler not only suffered from migraines but he frequently had other health problems. He had attacks of haemorrhoids [which I will admit are not usually the cause of spiritual experience], but he did have a recurrent septic throat. There also appears to have been a hint of mental illness about the family. Mahler himself has some of the characteristics of a manic depressive, and Mahler's younger brother Otto committed suicide.


Reducing threats and communing with nature - In 1893 Mahler acquired a retreat at Steinbach, on the banks of Lake Attersee in Upper Austria, and established a pattern that persisted for the rest of his life; summers would henceforth be dedicated to composition, at Steinbach or its successor retreats. Mahler produced a stream of song settings at Steinbach, and composed his Second and Third Symphonies there. His Fourth Symphony, completed in 1900 was written in Maiernigg on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia, where he later built a villa. In this new venue Mahler, between 1901 and 1904 , wrote ten settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, five of which were collected as Rückert-Lieder.[n 6] The other five formed the song cycle Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"). The trilogy of orchestral symphonies, the Fifth, the Sixth and the Seventh were composed at Maiernigg between 1901 and 1905, and the Eighth Symphony written there in 1906, in eight weeks of furious activity.

In 1908, Mahler established himself in the third and last of his composing studios, in the pine forests close to Toblach in Tyrol. Here, using a text by Hans Bethge based on ancient Chinese poems, he composed Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"). Despite the symphonic nature of the work, Mahler refused to number it, hoping thereby to escape the "curse of the Ninth Symphony" that he believed had affected fellow-composers Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner.

Being constantly criticised - Mahler's life was dogged by criticism, isolation and hostility to him and his work. A German speaking Jew, Mahler was born in the village of Kalischt, Bohemia, in what was then the Austrian Empire, now Kaliště in the Czech Republic. From his background Mahler developed very early on a permanent sense of exile, "always an intruder, never welcomed". He also suffered throughout his life from anti-Semitism. During his ten years in Vienna, for example, Mahler experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press.


Mahler was up against racists who accused him of "fraternising with the anti-dynastic, inferior Czech nation" and the repressive Austro-German government. A proposal to stage Richard Strauss's controversial opera Salome in 1905, for example, was rejected by the Viennese censors.

Mahler was deeply affected by the hostility shown him. He destroyed a symphonic movement after its scornful rejection by the autocratic director of his music school, Joseph Hellmesberger, on the grounds of 'copying errors'.

On the premiere of his First Symphony, in Budapest on 21 November 1889, he was subjected to "audible opposition" after the Finale. Mahler was particularly distressed by the negative comments from his Vienna Conservatory contemporary, Viktor von Herzfeld, who had remarked that Mahler, like many conductors before him, had proved not to be a composer.

Some of the criticism resulted from his obsession for 'perfection' and his unforgiving style of leadership. He was not an easy man to work for or with and was described as “individualistic and increasingly autocratic” as well as having a “dictatorial manner” he also demanded heavy rehearsal schedules. He achieved extraordinary results. When he conducted Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser and Siegfried, for example, the performances were very widely praised. Another triumph was the German premiere of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, in the presence of the composer, who called Mahler's conducting "astounding". But behind the scenes, Mahler was said to "inspire hatred and respect in almost equal measure." in the orchestra and production staff.

With Alma

In spite of numerous theatrical triumphs, Mahler's Vienna years were rarely smooth; his battles with singers and the house administration continued on and off for the whole of his tenure. While Mahler's methods improved standards, his histrionic and dictatorial conducting style was resented by orchestra members and singers alike. The anti-Semitic elements in Viennese society, long opposed to Mahler's appointment, continued to attack him relentlessly, and in 1907 instituted a press campaign designed to drive him out.

Love, unrequited love and making love - To whom did Mahler turn to get some sense of acceptance? Women.

Mahler loved women in all senses of the word. Lots of women. And there does seem to be some indication that the majority of his composing inspiration came from women. An ardent, but ultimately unfulfilled, love affair with soprano Johanna Richter, for example, led Mahler to write a series of love poems which became the text of his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"). In Leipzig, Mahler worked with Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer. His involvement with the Weber family was complicated by a romantic attachment to Carl von Weber's wife Marion which, though intense on both sides, ultimately came to nothing.  The First Symphony, which Mahler finished in 1888, was written at the height of his relationship with Marion von Weber. The intensity of Mahler's feelings are reflected in the music, which originally was written as a five-movement symphonic poem with a descriptive programme. The 20-minute funeral march, or Totenfeier, which later became the first movement of his Second Symphony marked the end of the affair.

When Mahler was forced to take sick leave for several weeks, he was nursed by his sister Justine and “his long-time companion, the viola player Natalie Bauer-Lechner”. Natalie said that living with him was "like being on a boat that is ceaselessly rocked to and fro by the waves".

Alma Schindler, Mahler's wife

In November 1901, Mahler met Alma Schindler, the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll. Alma was not initially keen to meet Mahler, on account of "the scandals about him and every young woman who aspired to sing in opera". The two 'engaged in a lively disagreement about a ballet ', but agreed to meet at the Hofoper the following day. This meeting led to a rapid courtship; Mahler and Alma were married at a private ceremony on 9 March 1902. Alma was by then pregnant with her first child, a daughter Maria Anna, who was born on 3 November 1902. A second daughter, Anna, was born in 1904.

The partnership was not without its problems, but the marriage was nevertheless marked at times by expressions of considerable passion, particularly from Mahler. 

Grief - In the summer of 1907 Mahler, exhausted from the effects of the campaign against him in Vienna, took his family to Maiernigg. Soon after their arrival both daughters fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria. Anna recovered, but after a fortnight's struggle Maria died on 12 July. Immediately following this devastating loss, Mahler learned that his heart was defective, a diagnosis subsequently confirmed by a Vienna specialist, who ordered a curtailment of all forms of vigorous exercise. The extent to which Mahler's condition disabled him is unclear; Alma wrote of it as a virtual death sentence, though Mahler himself, in a letter written to her on 30 August 1907, said that he would be able to live a normal life, apart from avoiding over-fatigue. At the end of the summer the villa at Maiernigg was closed, and never revisited.

Mahler with his daughters

In 1901, Mahler discovered that Alma had begun an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius. Greatly distressed, Mahler sought advice from Sigmund Freud, and appeared to gain some comfort from his meeting with the psychoanalyst. Alma agreed to remain with Mahler, although the relationship with Gropius continued surreptitiously. In a gesture of love, Mahler dedicated his Eighth Symphony to her. And during this period of grief and anguish, in the summer of 1910 Mahler worked on his Tenth Symphony, completing the Adagio and drafting four more movements.

But around Christmas 1910 he began suffering from a sore throat, which persisted. On 21 February 1911, with a temperature of 40 °C (104 °F), Mahler insisted on fulfilling an engagement at Carnegie Hall. This was Mahler's last concert. After weeks confined to bed he was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis, a disease to which sufferers from defective heart valves were particularly prone, and for which the survival rate in pre-antibiotic days was almost zero.

On 8 April the Mahler family and a permanent nurse left New York on board SS Amerika bound for Europe. They reached Paris ten days later, where Mahler entered a clinic at Neuilly, but there was no improvement; on 11 May he was taken by train to the Lŏw sanatorium in Vienna, where he died on 18 May.

On 22 May 1911 Mahler was buried in the Grinzing cemetery, as he had requested. Alma, on doctors' orders, was absent, but among the mourners at a relatively pomp-free funeral were Arnold Schoenberg (whose wreath described Mahler as "the holy Gustav Mahler"), Bruno Walter, Alfred Roller, Gustav Klimt, and representatives from many of the great European opera houses.

Alma Mahler survived her husband by more than 50 years, dying in 1964. She married Walter Gropius in 1915, divorced him five years later, and married the writer Franz Werfel in 1929.

Mahler was undoubtedly inspired by something – input – beyond himself. Whether he actually heard celestial music or not we may never know, but he speaks of his music as though it wasn't his, as though it was composed for him. For example he called the Scherzo in the Third Symphony "the most farcical and at the same time the most tragic piece that ever existed ... It is as though all nature is making faces and sticking out its tongue."


Mahler was also deeply conscious of the concept of 'spiritual ascent'. He used what is called "progressive tonality", which is defined as "the procedure of resolving a symphonic conflict in a different key from that in which it was stated ..........and often used to symbolise gradual ascendancy by progress from one key to another over the whole course of a symphony".

For example, the Second Symphony begins in C minor and ends in E flat.

The movements of the Fifth Symphony progress successively from C-sharp minor to A minor, then D major, F major and finally to D major.

Given his philosophical and metaphysical interests, I think he was trying to represent what he believed and maybe heard in his music. 


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