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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Gustav Mahler

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

This post invokes the name of a composer whose work is the stuff of dreams for some, and of nightmares for others. For me the music of Gustav Mahler has been on the fringe of my practical experiences as a musician; I’ve been chorusmaster and offstage conductor on a couple occasions, but conducting Mahler is outside my realm of competence. Because I've always regarded his music as larger than life I've tended to shy away from getting to know it - or him - very deeply. Over the past ten years or so, though, I’ve written a lot about his life and about the symphonies in particular. It’s been a fascinating journey.

This article will attempt to just share the broad facts of Mahler's life so as to put his extraordinary works into some sort of context. I will only provide links here for the works other than the ten numbered symphonies. There are many recordings of these masterworks available on YouTube and elsewhere and I’m sure you can find them if you want to listen further.


Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia on 7 July 1860, into a German-speaking Jewish community in the town of Kalischt. It's now known as Kaliště in the Czech Republic and it was near the larger city of Iglau (now known as Jihlava). Bernhard Mahler was a tavern proprietor and he and his wife Marie had fourteen children. Gustav was the eldest of the six who survived infancy.

Gustav's musical training as a child was casual and haphazard but he was a proficient pianist by the age of ten, to the extent that many regarded him as a prodigy. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory until 1881, first in piano and then in composition.

Almost none of Mahler's student compositions survive - he destroyed them himself - but the first movement of a piano quartet composed in 1876 is still in existence. It's remarkable for its passionate confidence and its technical skill. It's hard to remember that this is the work of a 16 year old. [listen]

In 1880 Mahler had fist first professional conducting job, conducting operettas at a theatre at a spa south of Linz during the summer holidays. He was also starting to compose and right from the start he was thinking far beyond the scale of his student chamber music exercise. In 1880 he completed a large-scale cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra called Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lamentation). [listen]

Mahler's major sphere of influence and his primary professional involvement throughout his life was as a conductor, and specifically as a conductor of opera. Composition was always a minor part of his life, although "minor" seems such a disrespectful word when used to describe the works he created.

Mahler rapidly worked his way up the conducting hierarchy. In 1881 he started working at a theatre in Laibach (now Ljubljana). Aged still only 21, he conducted about 50 performances of opera and operetta. In 1883, he spent three months in Olmütz (now Olomouc) as theatre Music Director before returning to Vienna to act temporarily in the post of Chorus Master at the Carlstheater.

Already Mahler was developing a reputation as a fierce and fiery conductor and musical administrator. Despite being thus far relegated to second- and third-rank theatres, he was developing skills and learning repertoire rapidly. He broke into the big time after a week's trial at the Royal Theatre in Kassel, as a result of which he was appointed the company's Music Director.

The post at Kassel was an important one for Mahler. It was a major house and gave him his best opportunity yet to increase his professional standing. He did develop a contradictory reputation, though. On the one hand he was demanding and dictatorial in his methods of rehearsing singers and orchestral players in order too gain better standards. Yet at the same time he was himself scathingly disrespectful of those in authority over him. In Kassel he was in constant conflict with the resident Kapellmeister, who had seniority, so tension was never far below the surface.

Mahler had an unhappy love affair with Johanna Richter, one of the company's sopranos, and expressed his feelings in six poems. Four of these he set to music during his Kassel period under the title Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen - Songs of a Wayfarer. [listen]

Mahler was keen to leave Kassel and starting searching for another job. He received an offer of a six-year contract in Leipzig starting 1886, and to fill in the period between leaving Kassel and starting the new job, Mahler worked at the German theatre in Prague in late 1885 and early 1886. Here he was back on native soil and he worked hard to re-establish German-language opera in the wake of the success of the rival Czech National Theatre in Prague.

Mahler took up the Leipzig post in July 1886. Here he was subordinate to the conductor Artur Nikisch and tensions were inevitable. On the plus side, he had a first-rate company at his disposal as well as the services of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra. He had many professional successes in Leipzig but as before, romantic entanglements and clashes with authority led him to leave the company early.

It was in Leipzig that Mahler made his first settings of poems from an anthology known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn). This was a collection of over 700 German folksong texts which had been published early in the 19th century. It was an important source of text material for composers such as Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss, but Mahler was intoxicated by it. The Wunderhorn poems appear as Lieder settings and also as movements in Mahler's symphonies. [listen]

Perhaps even more importantly, it was while he was in Leipzig that Mahler wrote the first draft of his first symphony, as well as a tone poem that later became the first movement of the second. Neither was performed at the time but it shows that he was thinking on a scale as grand if not grander than the operas he was conducting in the theatre. Even at this stage Mahler seemed aware that - to quote Alex Ross - his "project was to do for the symphony what Wagner had done for the opera: he would trump everything that had gone before."

Mahler left Leipzig in 1888 and took up a post in Budapest as director of the Royal Hungarian Opera. He thus found himself at the helm of one of the major theatres of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the age of only 28. He worked hard, as always, to improve standards and before long was embroiled in opera and city politics in a way which by now was becoming standard for him.

Personal pressures increased with the deaths of his parents and one of his sisters in 1889. Successful performances of some of his early songs in November 1889 were followed a week later by the premiere of the first version of the first symphony.

The reaction to the first symphony (which was titled a "symphonic poem in two parts") was mixed. By 1891 the situation in Budapest was becoming more tense for Mahler and he actively sought employment elsewhere. He succeeded in being appointed chief conductor at the Hamburg State Theatre. Although technically a lower-status position than the one he'd had in Budapest, Mahler did enjoy being back in a German-speaking environment. Grove claims that in Hamburg Mahler "inspired hatred and respect in almost equal measure" so things really hadn't changed. Audiences were generally supportive of his efforts and it again allowed him time to focus on his compositions.

Gustav Mahler (1892)

In 1894 Mahler completed the second symphony (known as the "Resurrection" symphony), and this had its first complete performance in Berlin in December 1895. The final movement, which proclaims a glorious choral vision of life after death, is preceded by a breathtakingly tender setting of one of the Wunderhorn poems, called Urlicht or Primal Light.

Staggering though it might seem, Mahler was composing much else besides the second symphony at this time. Quite a number of settings of Wunderhorn poems were written in the early 1890s, but between 1893 and 1896 he topped off the gigantic second symphony with the even more gigantic third. Mahler's third is a cosmic vision which makes up the longest regularly-performed symphony in the repertoire.

In 1897 Mahler left Hamburg to take up probably the most important opera post in Europe, director of the Vienna Court Opera. In his career he’d frequently encountered anti-Semitic attitudes throughout, but in Vienna such attitudes were deeply entrenched. He had to formally convert to Catholicism before he could be considered for the Court Opera post. This he did in February 1897 and he started work in Vienna (first as Kapellmeister, soon after as Director) two months later.

Vienna Hofoper, now the Staatsoper (1889)

Mahler threw himself into his work, taking control of every aspect of production, introducing rehearsal regimes and performance standards that were unprecedented. As one might imagine, he trod on lots of toes in the process. He also took over the concert series for the Vienna Philharmonic, and the resulting workload took an enormous toll. He had by now established a regular pattern of composing during his summer vacations and soon he was producing more work.

The third symphony had its premiere in Berlin in 1902, six years after it was finished. It covers an entire world - maybe even an entire universe - of emotional states.

By the time the third symphony had been performed in 1902, though, the fourth symphony had already been premiered in Munich. In the fourth Mahler pulls back his symphonic vision and writes a more conventional work, in terms of scale. The orchestra is, for Mahler, rather small, and the mood is elegant on the one hand, and rather cheeky on the other.

Orlik: Gustav Mahler (1902)

The fourth symphony had been written between 1899 and 1900; its successor, the fifth, occupied the composer in 1901 and 1902, and it was premiered in Cologne in 1905. For the first time since the first symphony Mahler created a symphony which was purely instrumental and didn't require voices. The fifth contains probably the most famous orchestral movement in all of Mahler's music, the famous Adagietto.

While in Vienna, in 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler. She was a highly intelligent and artistically astute woman 19 years his junior who was also a skilled composer. The marriage occasioned great happiness and unspeakable torment for Mahler and was the source of much of the emotional turmoil which seems to have found expression in his music.

Alma Schindler (1902)

The sixth symphony was completed in 1906 but before this, and often overlapping with his work on the fourth and fifth symphonies, Mahler turned his attention again to the writing of songs. The orchestral song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children) was completed in 1904 and received its first performance in 1905. It comprises five songs.

The poems in the Kindertotenlieder were by Friedrich Rückert, and at the same time as writing the cycle Mahler was setting other poems of Rückert which are nowadays referred to as the Rückert-Lieder although Mahler didn't conceive of them as a cycle.

Mahler's remaining works numbered only six, all symphonies in one form or another. The last new work to be performed while he was still working in Vienna was the sixth symphony. This had been composed between 1903 and 1906 and received its first performance in Essen in May, 1906. Again, the sixth is a non-vocal symphony and it was given the title "Tragic" by the composer. It’s the central wok in the trilogy of symphonies (nos 5, 6 and 7) which deal with heroic struggles against fate, and in the sixth Mahler expresses this on the canvas of a massively large orchestra.

Scandals and opposition increased with regard to Mahler's work at the Vienna Court Opera, so much so that he was largely forced out of the post in 1907. In the middle of that year one of his daughters died, and Mahler himself was diagnosed as having a heart disorder. While this seems to have weighed heavily on his mind he certainly had no intention of giving up his work. In late 1907 he and Alma left for New York, where he took up the post of Director of the Metropolitan Opera.

Gustav Mahler (1907)

The seventh symphony had been composed immediately after the sixth, in 1904 and 1905. It's a work which has aroused all sorts of contradictory opinions over the century since its premiere in Prague in 1908. Some see it as a dark night of the soul, others as a bleak existential joke.

Mahler's time in New York was as stormy and as controversial as his other appointments, but he always gave superlative performances as an opera conductor - wherever he was - if he was given the chance to do things his way. Composition wise, he broke out of the heroic trilogy of the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies with the gigantic eighth, composed in 1906 and 1907, and completed shortly before he left Vienna.

The old New York Metropolitan Opera House in 39th Street, around the time of Mahler's tenure there

Mahler disliked the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" which became attached to the eighth symphony thanks to the promoter of the premiere. The work deals with redemption, both religious redemption (in the first part) or redemption through love (in the second). It uses massive forces (the source of the nickname), with a huge orchestra, offstage brass, multiple choirs and eight vocal soloists. It certainly packs a punch.

The eighth was first performed in Munich in 1910 and it was the last of his works Mahler heard performed. Prior to this (in 1908) he'd written a work which synthesised the two genres to which he had devoted his composing life: song and symphony. Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) sets German translations of pseudo Chinese poetry which deal with the fragility of life, the transience of youth and beauty and the hope of renewal in springtime. It's scored for alto (or baritone) and tenor soloists with a large orchestra, and it was in fact called a symphony by the composer, even though he didn't want it numbered among his official list of symphonies. [listen]

Mahler never heard Das Lied von der Erde performed. Likewise, the ninth symphony, which he wrote in 1908 and 1909, wasn't premiered until after his death. The ninth is a fitting end to a unique creative career, even though Mahler intended to follow it with a tenth symphony. The tenth wasn't finished and is known today in various completions of Mahler's sketches which give a glimpse of what might have been. The ninth, though, is glorious. It's sad, but it lets go of life with the greatest reluctance, acknowledging beauty and life, and agreeing to have no further part in either.

Mahler became seriously ill in New York in early 1911 but managed to get back to Vienna via a clinic Paris. He died in Vienna on 18 May 1911.

Mahler's grave in the Grinzing Cenetery, Vienna

This thumbnail sketch of Mahler's life and work makes no attempt to delve into the complex motives or even content of the man's music or professional life. But as far as Mahler's music is concerned there is no doubt that his magnificent works constitute a body of creative outpourings unequalled in western music. They challenge on all sorts of levels, and they reward those who would take up that challenge, be it as a performer or as a listener.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2011.

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