Gustav Mahler was an Austrian composer and conductor. His compositional output was limited to songs, song cycles including with orchestra (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von der Erde), and symphonies (nine complete and a tenth that was incomplete at his death). However, the symphonies especially, have, since the centenary of his birth, acquired canonic status in the performance repertoire. With their deep psychological narratives, they are highly wrought, expansive works, many of them including voices, that are admired for their intensely cathartic quality. Extensive and ongoing research into his compositions as well as his conducting activities have revealed Mahler to be one of the 20th century’s most significant figures of European art music.
Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, near Iglau, in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). The eldest of six children in a middle-class Jewish family, he was the local piano prodigy by age 10 and in 1875, was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory. While there, composition was his primary subject; he was one of many students inspired by the music of Richard Wagner, and thus supported the burgeoning modernist trend. He later attended courses at Vienna University, where he became acquainted with Anton Bruckner, whose music he later championed as a conductor.
Mahler’s conducting career proceeded through positions in increasingly prestigious theatres in Central Europe. He began at Bad Hall, south of Linz, then moved on to Kassel (1883–5), Prague (1885–6), Leipzig (1886–8), Budapest (1888–91), Hamburg (1891–7), and finally to Vienna’s Hofoper in 1897. His directorship there, which was facilitated by his conversion to Catholicism and lasted until 1907, was distinguished particularly by productions with innovative stage designs by the Secessionist artist Alfred Roller.
Mahler gained a reputation for being a very demanding and exacting conductor. Yet, while his volatile temper got him into trouble with musicians, singers, and the theatre administration many times, the results he got in performance were undeniably powerful, and audiences flocked to see him at the podium. In Hamburg, then later in Vienna, Mahler also conducted orchestral subscription concerts, often with adventurous programming that included idiosyncratic (and frequently controversial) interpretations of oft-performed “classics” by composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann.
In 1902, he married the composer Alma Schindler, with whom he had two daughters (the elder Maria died in 1907 from scarlet fever and diptheria). Meanwhile, he wrote and conducted his own symphonies to increasing critical acclaim, with premieres being highly anticipated events. In 1907, the same year he was diagnosed with a heart defect, Mahler crossed the Atlantic to conduct two seasons at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, followed by two seasons with the New York Philharmonic. In February 1911, he contracted bacterial endocarditis, and following attempts at treatment in Paris, he died in Vienna on May 18, 1911.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley