Gustav Mahler

1860 1911

Gustav Mahler



Gustav Mahler was one of the leading symphonists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His role was firmly rooted in between Austro-German musical traditions and early 20th century modernism. He skilfully combined these two fields together with his own personal style, brimming with profound emotion and drawing on personal experience for inspiration, which raised his symphonies and songs to a heroic status.

Mahler was born in 1860 in Bohemia to a Jewish family and grew up in prosperous petit-bourgeois surroundings with a rich musical and cultural influence. Mahler attended school at the Iglau Gymnasium and at the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, before eventually having the opportunity to study at the Vienna Conservatory from the age of 15 and Vienna University two years later. He had a deep interest in philosophy and literature and was a great follower of Wagner and Nietzsche, as well as ideals of pan-Germanism and socialism. His interest in Wagner marked him out as having modernist tendencies, in contrast with Brahms and Hanslick who also lived in Vienna at the time.

By the age of 21, Mahler was conducting on average 50 opera and operetta performances per year, beginning with a conducting sojourn in Laibach (now Ljubljana) in 1881. His earliest reviews were favourable in both German- and Slovenian-language newspapers, particularly praising the unifying effect his music was having on the increasingly unstable Austro-Hungarian empire.

Mahler pretended to be 25 years old instead of 23 in order to take up a post of music and choral director at Kassel theatre, where he worked for two years. He achieved a lot as a composer and conductor here, but was subordinate to the authoritarian state-appointed general manager Baron von Gilsa, who often reported Mahler in a punishment book for minor offences such as walking too noisily or making the female members of the chorus laugh. Mahler got caught up in an unhappy love affair with one of the sopranos, Johanna Richter and he dedicated an orchestral song cycle to her, entitledLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Apprentice – sometimes translated as Songs of a Wayfarer).

After leaving the post in Kassel, Mahler moved to Prague, where he conducted a lot ofWagner’s works between 1885-6. In July 1886 he moved on to take up another position in Leipzig where he won over the Leipzig critics and the public in his direction of Wagner’sDie Walküre and Siegfried, albeit through very forceful and chaotic rehearsals. Mahler’s unorthodox ways tended to act as a form of fuel for anti-Semitic reporters.

Mahler’s First Symphony was premiered in its first edition on 20 November 1892 in Budapest. Mahler found his time working at the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest extremely stressful due to the mounting political tensions in Hungary, specifically the fact that the wave of Magyar nationalism at that time called for native Hungarian singers, which Mahler found difficult to locate. As a composer and conductor who represented German culture, his influence in Budapest was made rather complicated.

Mahler travelled to New York in 1907 to conduct a season at the Metropolitan Opera, which he found to be a conservative and elitist establishment. He conducted mainly Wagner and Mozart operas there. His American debut on New Year’s Day 1908 consisted ofTristan und Isolde. On his second trip to New York, he conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra and premiered his Second Symphony. Precisely a year later, he conducted his First Symphony with the rival orchestra, theNew York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mahler discovered, around the time of the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910, that his wife, Alma was having an affair with Walter Gropius, the German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School. This led to Mahler seeking advice from Sigmund Freud in Leiden. Alma and Gustav Mahler continued their marriage, with Alma secretly continuing the affair with Gropius, eventually marrying him after Mahler’s death.

Mahler’s style mixes modernism, ideals of Romanticism and ethnic influences. Mahler’s use of the popular landler and the waltz are the most easily recognisable dance forms used throughout Mahler’s work, a strong influence, having grown up in a prosperous Moravian market town where Czech folksongs and barrel organs were part of the fabric of his surroundings.  On the other hand, Mahler’s fascination with Austro-German high art played a huge part in all aspects of his career. He was highly influenced by Romantic ideals in which the Austro-German classical music tradition was seen as a superior form philosophically and spiritually.

Gustav Mahler died in Vienna, of bacterial endocarditis. His Tenth Symphony was left unfinished and the sketches convey an intense emotional turbulence, which on the surface, he appeared to have overcome. The last four years of his life, although they had been hugely successful professionally, were marked by marriage problems and the tragic death of his five year old daughter.