Wednesday, July 7, 8860

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphonies

[Mahler at 6 (1866)]

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and conductor.

Mahler 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 fourteen children, of whom only six survived infancy.

His parents soon moved to Jihlava (in German Iglau), Moravia, also today in the Czech Republic, 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 15, 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.


Das Klagende Lied


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.


Songs of a Wayfarer (1883)

Symphony No. 1 (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. Brahms was greatly impressed by his conducting of W.A. Mozart's 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 edited folk-poems.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892)

Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection") (1894)

Symphony No. 3 (1896)


n 1897, 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 Symphony No. 8.

Still, there is ample evidence of a Jewish spirit manifest in his works, as in the Klezmer-like theme of the third movement of the first symphony.

In 1899 and 1910 he conducted his revised versions of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 and 4.

In ten years at the Vienna Opera, Mahler transformed the institution's repertoire and raised its artistic standards, bending both performers and listeners to his will.

In Mahler's day Vienna was one of the world’s biggest cities and the capital of a great empire in Central Europe. 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.

Mahler worked at the Opera for nine months of each year, with only his summers free for composing; these summers he spent mainly at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee. 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.


Symphony No. 4 (1900)






In June 1901, he moved into a new villa on the lake in Maiernigg,

Carinthia, Austria.

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. Chauvinst pig!


Five Ruckert Songs: I Am Lost to the World (1902)

Symphony No. 5 (1902)

Kindertotenlieder (1904)

Symphony No. 6 (1904): I

Symphony No. 7 (1905)

Symphony No. 8 ("Of a Thousand") (1906)


Alma and Gustav had two daughters, Maria Anna ('Putzi'; 1902 – 1907), who died of diphtheria at the age of only four, and Anna ('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 discovered he had 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.

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 favor of Arturo Toscanini; while he had been enormously popular with public and critics alike, he had fallen out of favor with the trustees of the board of the Met.

[Mahler at 49 (1909)]

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.


Das Lied von der Erde (1909)

Symphony No. 9 (1909): IV

Symphony No. 10 (incomplete) (1910)

Mahler Remembered


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." 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."

Alma Mahler quotes Gustav as saying "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." However, this is astonishingly close to a remark written by Anton Rubinstein in the 1860's or 1870's, and may therefore have been adapted, for its appositeness, by Mahler (or indeed Alma).

Alma 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 constitutes 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 was the last in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to the Romantics Bruckner and 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 that of Wagner, who was, according to Mahler, the only composer after Beethoven truly to have "development" 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 very literally, Songs of a Travelling Comrade, Companion, or 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).

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 orgy 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 Symphony No. 9).

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.

[8862 Debussy / 8860 Mahler / 8858 Puccini]