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Gustav Mahler (Composer, Arranger)

Born: July 7, 1860 - Kaliště (Kalischt), Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911 - Vienna, Austria

Gustav Mahler was a Bohemian-born Austrian composer and conductor. He was best known during his own lifetime as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day. He has since come to be acknowledged as among the most important late-Romantic composers, although his music was never completely accepted by the musical establishment of Vienna while he was still alive. Mahler composed primarily symphonies and songs; however, his approach to genre often blurred the lines between orchestral Lied, symphony, and symphonic poem.


Gustav Mahler was born into a German-speaking, Ashkenazic Jewish family in Kaliště (in German, Kalischt), Bohemia, then in the Austrian Empire, today in the Czech Republic, the second of 14 children, of whom only six survived infancy. His parents soon moved to Jihlava (in German Iglau), where Mahler spent his childhood. Having noticed the boy's talent at an early age, his parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was six years old.

In 1875, Mahler, then fifteen, was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire where he studied piano under Julius Epstein, harmony with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Franz Krenn. Three years later Mahler attended Vienna University, where Anton Bruckner was lecturing. There he studied history and philosophy as well as music. While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with the cantata Das klagende Lied. The work was entered in a competition where the jury was headed by Johannes Brahms, but failed to win a prize.

In 1880, Mahler began his career as a conductor with a job at a summer theatre at Bad Hall; in the years that followed, he took posts at successively larger opera houses: in Ljubljana in 1881, Olomouc in 1882, Vienna in 1883, Kassel also in 1883, Prague in 1885, Leipzig in 1886 and Budapest in 1888. In 1887, he took over conducting Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen from an ill Arthur Nikisch, firmly establishing his reputation among critics and public alike. The year after, he made a complete performing edition of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, the success of which brought financial rewards and contributed to his gradually growing fame. J. Brahms was greatly impressed by his conducting of Don Giovanni. His first long-term appointment was at the Hamburg Opera in 1891, where he stayed until 1897; it was while Mahler was at Hamburg that his youngest brother Otto, also a composer, committed suicide in 1895 at the age of 21. From 1893 to 1896, Mahler took summer vacations at Steinbach am Attersee in Upper Austria, where he revised his Symphony No. 1 (first heard in 1889), composed his Symphony No. 2, sketched his Symphony No. 3, and wrote most of the song collection Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (Songs from 'The Youth's Magic Horn'), based on a famous set of heavily redacted folk-poems.

In 1897, Gustav Mahler, then thirty-seven, was offered the directorship of the Vienna Opera, the most prestigious musical position in the Austrian Empire. This was an 'Imperial' post, and under Austro-Hungarian law, no such posts could be occupied by Jews. Mahler, who was never a devout or practising Jew, had, in preparation, converted to Roman Catholicism. As a child, he had been a chorister in a Catholic Church where he had also learned piano from the choir master. As the years passed Mahler found much to attract him in Catholicism, and Catholic influences are observable in his music, for example his use of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" in his Eighth Symphony. Still, there is ample evidence of a Jewish spirit manifest in his works, as in the Klezmer-like theme and textures of the third movement of the first symphony. In 1899 and 1910 he conducted his revised versions of Robert Schumann's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4.

In ten years at the Vienna Opera, Gustav Mahler transformed the institution's repertoire and raised its artistic standards, bending both performers and listeners to his will. When he first took over the Opera, the most popular works were Lohengrin, Manon, and Cavalleria rusticana; the new director concentrated his energies on classic operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and, in collaboration with the painter Alfred Roller (Brno 1864-Vienna 1935), created shadowy, transfixing productions of Fidelio, Tristan und Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

In Mahler's time, Vienna was one of the world’s biggest cities and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was home to a lively artistic and intellectual scene. It was home to famous painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Mahler knew many of these intellectuals and artists.

Gustav Mahler worked at the Opera for nine months of each year, with only his summers free for composing at various komponierhäuschen (composing huts). These summers he spent mainly at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee and in that idyllic setting he composed his fifth through eighth symphonies, the Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), both based on poems by Friedrich Rückert, and Der Tamboursg'sell, the last of his 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' settings.

In June 1901, he moved into a new villa on the lake in Maiernigg, Carinthia. On March 9, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (1879-1964), twenty years his junior and the stepdaughter of the noted Viennese painter Carl Moll. Alma was a musician and composer, but Mahler forbade her to engage in creative work, although she did make clean manuscript copies of his hand-written scores. Mahler did interact creatively with some women, such as viola-player Natalie Bauer-Lechner, two years his senior, whom he had met while studying in Vienna. But he told Alma that her role should only be to tend to his needs. Alma and Gustav had two daughters, Maria Anna ('Putzi'; 1902-1907), who died of diphtheria at the age of only four, and Anna Justine ('Gucki'; 1904-1988), who later became a sculptor.

The death of their first daughter left Mahler grief-stricken; but further blows were to come. That same year he was diagnosed by Dr. Emanuel Libman of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital with a heart disease (infective endocarditis) and was forced to limit his exercising and count his steps with a pedometer. At the Opera, his obstinacy in artistic matters had created enemies, and he was also increasingly subject to attacks in anti-Semitic portions of the press. His resignation from the Opera, in 1907, was hardly unexpected.

Gustav Mahler's own music aroused considerable opposition from music critics, who tended to hear his symphonies as 'potpourris' in which themes from "disparate" periods and traditions were indiscriminately mingled. Mahler's juxtaposition of material from both "high" and "low" cultures, as well as his mixing of different ethnic traditions, often outraged conservative critics at a time when workers' mass organizations were growing rapidly, and clashes between Germans, Czechs, Hungarians and Jews in Austro-Hungary were creating anxiety and instability. However, he always had vociferous admirers on his side. In his last years, Mahler began to score major successes with a wider public, notably with a Munich performance of the Second Symphony in 1900, with the first complete performance of the Third in Krefeld in 1902, with a valedictory Viennese performance of the Second in 1907, and, above all, with the Munich premiere of the gargantuan Eighth in 1910. The music he wrote after that, however, was not performed during his lifetime.

The final impetus for Mahler's departure from the Vienna Opera was a generous offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He conducted a season there in 1908, only to be set aside in favour of Arturo Toscanini; while he had been enormously with public and critics alike, he had fallen out of favor with the trustees of the board of the Met. Back in Europe, with his marriage in crisis and Alma's infidelity having been revealed, Mahler, in 1910, had a single (and apparently helpful) consultation with Sigmund Freud.

Having now signed a contract to conduct the long-established New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler and his family travelled again to America. At this time, he completed his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and his Symphony No. 9, which would be his last completed work. In February 1911, during a long and demanding concert season in New York, Mahler fell seriously ill with a streptococcal blood infection, and conducted his last concert in a fever (the programme included the world premiere of Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque). Returning to Europe, he was taken to Paris, where a new serum had recently been developed. He did not respond, however, and was taken back to Vienna at his request. He died there from his infection on May 18, 1911 at the age of 50, leaving his Symphony No. 10 unfinished.

Mahler's widow reported that his last word was "Mozartl" (a diminutive, corresponding to 'dear little Mozart'). He was buried, at his request, beside his daughter, in Grinzing Cemetery outside Vienna. In obedience to his last wishes, he was buried in silence, with the gravestone bearing only the name "Gustav Mahler" and a simple Jugendstil monument. Mahler's good friend Bruno Walter describes the funeral: "On May 18, 1911, he died. Next evening we laid the coffin in the cemetery at Grinzing, a storm broke and such torrents of rain fell that it was almost impossible to proceed. An immense crowd, dead silent, followed the hearse. At the moment when the coffin was lowered, the sun broke through the clouds" (Bruno Walter 1957, 73).

Alma Mahler outlived Gustav by more than 50 years, and in their course, she was active in publishing material about his life and music. However, her accounts have been attacked as unreliable, false, and misleading. This became so problematic, it became known by musicologists and historians as the "Alma Problem". For example, she tampered with the couple's correspondence and, in her publications, Gustav is often portrayed more negatively than some historians might like.


Mahler is generally recognized as the last great German symphonist. He sought to expand the scope and breadth of the symphony to the greatest possible extent, believing that the symphony should "take in the whole world." This expansion of scope can be seen not only the great length of his works, but also in the explosion of orchestral forces employed and in the aesthetic goal of maximum expressive impact. He saw himself in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, L.v. Beethoven and Schubert to the Romantics Bruckner and J. Brahms; he also incorporated the ideas of non-Viennese Romantic composers like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The major influence on his work, however, was not a symphonic composer at all but rather that of Wagner, who was, according to Mahler, the only composer after L.v. Beethoven to truly have "development" (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) in his music.

With the exceptions of an early piano quartet, Das Klagende Lied, an early cantata, and Totenfeier, the original tone-poem version of the first movement of the second symphony, Mahler's entire output consists of only two genres: symphony and song. Besides the nine completed numbered symphonies, his principal works are the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually rendered as 'Songs of a Wayfarer', but literally, 'Songs of a Travelling Journeyman') and Kindertotenlieder ('Songs on the Death of Children'), and the synthesis of symphony and song cycle that is Das Lied von der Erde ('The Song of the Earth').

However, much of Mahler's music generally expands and blurs the lines of these traditional genres. He originally described his Symphony No. 1 - the "Titan"- as a "symphonic poem." All the first period symphonies have some degree of programmatic content, in contrast to the ideal of "absolute music" espoused by Eduard Hanslick and exemplified in the symphonies of J. Brahms. Mahler's Symphonies 2-4 all employ vocal soloists and texts. The Symphony No. 8 pushes the limits of the definition of the symphony; with its 8 soloists, multiple choirs and combination of both sacred and secular texts, it is emblematic of Mahler's maximalist, inclusive conception of the symphony. In contrast, Das Lied von der Erde could also be considered a symphony, in that it is a multi-movement orchestral work, except that Mahler chooses not to label it as such.

The spirit of the Lied (German for song) constantly rests in his work. He followed Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann in developing the song cycle, but rather than write piano accompaniment, he orchestrated it instead. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is a set of four songs written as a rejected lover wandering alone along the earth; Mahler wrote the text himself, inspired by his unhappy love affair with a singer while conducting at Kassel.

Keenly aware of the colourations of the orchestra, the composer filled his symphonies with flowing melodies and expressive harmonies, achieving bright tonal qualities using the clarity of his melodic lines. Among his other innovations are expressive use of combinations of instruments in both large and small scale, increased use of percussion, as well as combining voice and chorus to symphony form, and extreme voice leading in his counterpoint. His orchestral style was based on counterpoint; two melodies would each start off the other seemingly simultaneously, choosing clarity over a mass of sound.

Often, his works involved the spirit of Austrian peasant song and dance. The Ländler - the Austrian folk-dance, which developed first into the minuet and then into the waltz - figures in several symphonies, as indeed do the minuet and the waltz. (All three historical stages - Ländler, minuet, and waltz - are represented in the 'dance movement' of the Ninth Symphony).

Mahler combined the ideas of Romanticism, including the use of program music, and the use of song melodies in symphonic works, with the resources that the development of the symphony orchestra had made possible. The result was to extend, and eventually break, the understanding of symphonic form, as he searched for ways to expand his music. He stated that a symphony should be an "entire world". As a result, he met with difficulties in presenting his works, and would continually revise the details of his orchestration until he was satisfied with the effect.

He was deeply spiritual and described his music in terms of nature very often. This resulted in his music being viewed as extremely emotional for a long time after his death. In addition to restlessly searching for ways of extending symphonic expression, he was also an ardent craftsman, which shows both in his meticulous working methods and careful planning, and in his studies of previous composers.

Mahler's harmonic writing was at times highly innovative, stretching the limits of conventional tonality. Still, tonality, as an expressive and constructional principle, was clearly of great importance to Mahler. This is shown most clearly by his approach to the issue of so-called 'progressive tonality'. While his First Symphony is clearly a D major work, his Second 'progresses' from a C minor first movement to an E-flat major conclusion; his Third moves from a first movement which begins in D minor and ends in F major to a finwhich ends in D major – while his Fourth in G major dies away in a serene E major. In harmonic theory; ending a composition a "third up" or a "third down" from its supposed key is known as "mediant/submediant relationship," so his first four symphonies were conventional to some degree however: things change with the fifth symphony; it moves from a C-sharp minor funeral march, through a desperately conflict-ridden A minor movement, a vigorous dance movement in D major, and a lyrical F major 'Adagietto', to a triumphant finale in D major – while the Sixth, very much by contrast, starts in A minor, ends in A minor, and juxtaposes a slow movement in E-flat major with a scherzo in A minor. The Seventh is tonally highly 'progressive', with a first movement that moves from a (possible) B minor start to an E major conclusion, and a finale that defines a celebratory C major. In the Eighth Symphony, the composer's expressive intentions led him to construct a work that both starts and ends in E-flat - whereas the 'valedictory' Ninth moves from a D major first movement to a D-flat major finale. The Tenth, insofar as we can be sure that Mahler's ultimate tonal intentions are discernible, was to start and end in F-sharp major.


Mahler's symphonic output is generally divided into three 'periods'. The 'first period', dominated by his reading of the Wunderhorn poems, comprises his first four symphonies. Within this group, the cross-fertilization from the world of Mahlerian song is considerable. His Symphony No. 1 uses a melodic idea from one of the Gesellen songs in its first movement, and employs a section of another in the central part of its third. (The third movement of the first symphony also contains a version of the round 'Bruder Martin' - known, in its French version, as 'Frère Jacques' - presented in a minor key.) The third movement of the Symphony No. 2 is a voice-less orchestral amplification and extension of a Wunderhorn song, and is followed by a Wunderhorn setting incorporated completely. The third movement of the Symphony No. 3 is another orchestral fantasia on a Wunderhorn song, while the fifth movement is a Wunderhorn setting composed especially for the symphony. In the Symphony No. 4, the finale is a pre-existing Wunderhorn setting (earlier considered as a possible finale for the Symphony No. 3), elements of which are prefiguratively inserted into the first three movements.

The symphonies of Mahler's 'second period', Nos. 5 to 7, manifest an increased severity of expression and a growing interest in non-standard instrumentation. Mahler used somewhat unusual instruments such as a post horn (in the third symphony) in his earlier symphonies. However, in the 'second period' his use of non-standard instruments became more striking with a whip in the Symphony No. 5; cowbells, deep bells and a hammer in the Symphony No. 6; and cowbells, cornet, tenor horn, mandolin and guitar in the Symphony No. 7.

Although the symphonies in the 'second period' have no vocal component, the world of Mahlerian song is hinted at in the first movement of the fifth and the slow movement of the sixth, in which phrases from one of the Kindertotenlieder are briefly heard, and in the finale of the fifth, which incorporates material from the 1896 Wunderhorn song 'Lob des hohen Verstandes.'

Mahler's symphonic 'third period' is marked by increasing polyphony and embraces Nos. 8, 9, and 10 (unfinished), as well as Das Lied von der Erde. Credible connections to freestanding songs are difficult to demonstrate in these works – perhaps, unsurprisingly, as Mahler's last non-symphonic songs were the Kindertotenlieder, completed in 1904. A striking example does come, however, with the intervallically exact reminiscence, on the final page of the Symphony No. 9, of the line 'The day is fine on yonder heights' from Kindertotenlieder No. 4.

Few composers freely interconnected their work so completely as did Gustav Mahler. Musical interconnections can be heard to exist between symphonies and symphonies, and between symphonies and songs, that seem to bind them together into a larger 'narrative.' For example, material heard in the third symphony recurs in the finale of the fourth symphony. A trumpet line from the first movement of the fourth opens the fifth symphony. And a 'tragic' harmonic gesture repeatedly heard in the sixth symphony (a major chord declining into a minor) makes a striking reappearance in the seventh symphony. The same gesture can 'prophetically' be heard at the end of the first movement of the second symphony. The rising melody line from the adagietto on the fifth symphony makes an appearance in its finale, and again in revised form in the finale of the seventh symphony. Furthermore, a theme heard in the first symphony is restated in the first movement of the ninth, the last complete symphony Mahler wrote.


Symphony No. 1 in D major (?1884-1888; rev. 1893-1896; 2nd rev. 1906).
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1888-1894; rev. 1903)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896; rev. 1906)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892, 1899-1900; rev. 1901-1910)
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor/D major (1901-1902; scoring repeatedly rev.)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-1904; rev. 1906; scoring repeatedly rev.)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1905; scoring repeatedly rev.)
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (1906-1907)
Das Lied von der Erde (subtitled A Symphony for One Tenor and One Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra, After Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute") (1908-1909)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908–1909)
Symphony No. 10 (1910–1911) (unfinished; a continuous "beginning-to-end" draft of 1,945 bars exists, but much of it is not fully elaborated and most of it not orchestrated.)

Vocal works:
Das klagende Lied, cantata (1880; rev. 1893, 1898)
Drei Lieder, three songs for tenor and piano (1880)
Lieder und Gesänge, fourteen songs with piano accompaniment (1880-1890)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment (1883–1885)
Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment (1888-1896; two others 1899 and 1901)
Rückert Lieder, for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment (1901–1902)
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), for voice and orchestra (1901–1904)
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) for alto (or baritone) and tenor soloists and orchestra (1908-1909)

Other works
Piano Quartet in A minor (1876)

More Photos

Source: Mostly Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (May 2009)

Gustav Mahler: Short Biography | Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings of Works for Orchestra
Bach and Mahler [W. Hoffman] | Discussions: Gustav Mahler & Bach

Links to other Sites

Gustav Mahler (Wikipedia)
Gustav Mahler (Classical Music Pages)
Gustav Mahler (mFiles)
Gustav Mahler (Karadar)
Gustav Mahler (Greshes)
Gustav Mahler (Classical Composers Database)
Gustav Mahler Biography (Naxos)
Gustav Mahler (Britannica)
Gustav Mahler (Classical Net)
Gustav Mahler (WW Norton)
Gustav Mahler (IPL)

International Gustav Mahler Society [Engl/German]
The Mahler Archives
The Mahler Society (UK)
Gustav Mahler - Settimane Musicali
The Gustav Mahler Society of New York

About Gustav Mahler
Classical Composer Biography: Gustav Mahler (Lesson Tutor)



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