Austrian composer and conductor. He composed nine large-scale symphonies incorporating folk music and pastoral imagery, with many using voices, including Symphony No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ (1884–86). He revised it in 1893–96, but left a tenth unfinished. He also composed orchestral lieder (songs) including Das Lied von der Erde/The Song of the Earth (1909) and Kindertotenlieder/Dead Children's Songs (1901–04).
The second movement of his Resurrection symphony, based on a ländler (folk dance in three time), is reinterpreted in stream-of-consciousness mode by Luciano Berio in Sinfonia (1968), into which Berio inserts a history of musical references from J S Bach to Stockhausen. The Adagietto slow movement from Symphony No 5 provided a perfect foil for Luchino Visconti's film Death in Venice (1971).
Mahler was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), the son of a distillery manager. He showed great talent as a pianist in his childhood. In 1875 he entered the Vienna Conservatory. His piano professor, Julius Epstein, advised him to study composition and conducting. After leaving the conservatory in 1878 he wrote the first version of his cantata Das klagende Lied (1878–80). His conducting career began in the summer of 1880 in Hall, Upper Austria. Posts followed at theatres in Ljubljana in 1881 and Olmütz in 1882. While in Kassel, 1883–85, he wrote the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and began the thematically related first symphony. In 1885 he was conductor at the Prague Opera, where he gave performances of the operas by Mozart and Wagner, which were to form the basis of his repertory; his conducting was already noted for its precision of ensemble and the individuality and flexibility of tempi. At Leipzig, 1886–88, he was second conductor to Arthur Nikisch; his completion of Carl Weber's sketches for Die drei Pintos was premiered in 1888. While at Budapest, 1888–89, he led the unsuccessful first performance of his first symphony.
Mahler was chief conductor of the Hamburg Opera in 1891–97. While there he furthered his reputation for inspiring high standards of theatrical, as well as musical, performance, and in 1892 he took the company to London, for the first Covent Garden performances of Wagner's Ring. In December 1895 he led the first performance in Berlin of his Resurrection symphony (1887–94), achieving his first success as a composer; in the same year his brother committed suicide, one of several family tragedies. In 1897 Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism specifically in order to gain appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera. Over the next ten years he established a magnificent company of singing actors and, most notably, with the help of the stage designer Alfred Roller, mounted influential productions that sought to harmonize all aspects of stage and musical experience. He succeeded Hans Richter as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1898 but, largely as a result of his autocratic methods, he departed in 1901. Various intrigues at the Opera led to his resignation in 1907. During his years in Vienna Mahler wrote his symphonies nos. 4–8 near a villa on the Wörthersee in Carinthia. In the trilogy of purely instrumental symphonies (nos. 5, 6, and 7), nos. 5 and 7 suggest a progression from doubt and darkness to an optimistic conclusion; no. 6 is classically proportioned and ends with three enormous hammer blows. The massive choral 8th symphony, known as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, ends with a Goethe setting in which human suffering is transformed in a universal acclamation.
In 1902 he married Alma Schindler; through her teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, he met the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Their friendship is reflected in the complex polyphony and extreme chromaticism of Mahler's later music and Schoenberg's early work. The Kindertotenlieder/Dead Children's Songs (1901–04 is the first of several works which integrate vocal music of emotional intensity with sympathetic woodwind accompaniments. This style finds its culmination in Das Lied von der Erde, which was begun in the year that saw the death of Mahler's daughter Maria, aged four. On 1 January 1908 he made his debut as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York; due to artistic and personal differences his tenure there and with the New York Philharmonic Society was brief. In 1910 he led the triumphant Munich first performance of his eighth symphony, and the following year returned to Europe for the last time, mortally ill with a bacterial infection of the blood. Mahler's music took many years to gain acceptance (four of the symphonies were not heard in Britain until after 1945) but he is now widely acknowledged as one of the founders of 20th-century music.
WorksSymphonies ten symphonies; all except the last two were premiered by Mahler: no. 1 in D (1883–88, first performance Budapest, 20 November 1889); no. 2 in C minor, Resurrection with soprano, mezzo, and chorus in finale (text by composer and Friedrich Klopstock; 1887–94, first performance Berlin, 13 December 1895); no. 3 in D minor with alto, womens' and boys' voices (texts from Friedrich Nietzsche and Des Knaben Wunderhorn; 1893–96, first performance Krefeld, 9 June 1902); no. 4 in G with soprano in the finale (1899–1901, first performance Munich, 25 November 1901); no. 5 in C sharp minor (1901–02, first performance Cologne, 18 October 1904); no. 6 in A minor (1903–06, first performance Essen, 27 April 1906); no. 7 in E minor (1904–06, first performance Prague, 19 September 1908); no. 8 in E flat ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, with soloists, adults' and boys' choruses (text 9th-century hymn Veni creator spiritus in first movement and from Goethe's Faust part II in second; 1906, first performance Munich, 12 September 1910); no. 9 in D (1908–09, first performance Vienna, 26 June 1912, conductor Walter); no. 10 in F sharp minor was incomplete at Mahler's death: performing version by Deryck Cooke given in London, 13 August 1964.
Other Cantata Das klagende Lied (1878–80); song-cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884), Kindertotenlieder/Dead Children's Songs (1901–04), three books of early songs, five songs to words by Rückert, many other songs, including settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das Lied von der Erde, symphony for mezzo and tenor solo and orchestra (1907–09).
Mahler, Gustav Fifth Symphony
Mahler, Gustav Second Symphony