Gustav Mahler - Biography


Gustav Mahler was born on July 7th 1860 in Kalischt Bohemia now in the Czech Republic and died on May 18th 1911 in Vienna. Mahler has a double place in musical history as one of the greatest conductors we know of and a great composer, the last of the great Austro-German symphonists. Mahler was the son of a Jewish family who kept a tavern eventually in the small Moravian (an adjacent Czech province to Bohemia)town of Iglau .Mahler was the second of fourteen children only six of whom were to survive infancy. Mahler showed musical talent at an early age and was given piano lessons starting at the age of six. The combination of the death of these siblings along with a brutal and tyrannical father scarred his childhood. He won a scholarship to the Vienna Conservatory at fifteen where he studied under eminent teachers like Robert Fuchs and Fritz Krenn and formed a friendship with a fellow student who was to who become a great composer Hugo Wolf. Upon graduation from the conservatory he attended the University of Vienna where he studied composition with the great composer Anton Bruckner. In his teens he wrote his first compositions some songs, sketches for an opera and a Piano Quintet that Mahler later disowned. His first mature composition was a dramatic cantata Das Klagende Lied based on a brothers Grimm like medieval story that involved a love triangle between two brothers those results in fratricide. This is a work of startling originality from a twenty year old .The first section of the three part work was suppressed for nearly ninety years in part because the fratricide that occurs triggers a memory of Mahler’s brother who was closest to his age dying of a childhood illness when he was ten.


Mahler in his early twenties started his career conducting in small provincial opera houses in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which eventually leads to major posts in Leipzig and finally Budapest in 1888 where he draws the attention of a not easily impressed Johannes Brahms. Though the intensive work of conducting in theatres didn’t leave him much time for composition he collected a loose cycle of Schubert like nature songs of Youth his first great vocal cycle with orchestra Songs of a Wayfarer. While in Budapest he worked on the first version of his First Symphony. The Symphony initially had five movement one of which Blumine (Flowers) was jettisoned in the final version. The most amazing portion of this amazing symphony is the slow movement which was inspired by a woodcut Death of a Hunter this movement starts with child song Frere Jacques performed as a sardonic funeral March and moves on to a surrealistic episode with a Klezmer Band. The symphony also uses material from his Songs for a Wayfarer.


Mahler obtained his first music directorship with his appointment to the Hamburg Opera in 1891.Mahler became one of the most celebrated conductor in Germany during his six years there. The great conductor Hans von Bulow who was a predecessor in Hamburg became a great admirer even though the Wagner disciple was a fervent anti -Semite. Mahler received another family trauma when his younger brother Otto a promising young musician who was staying with him killed himself .He composed a symphonic poem Totenfeir that was to eventually become the first movement of his monumental Symphony # 2 Resurrection. This Symphony, over eighty minutes in length in five movements calls for a colossal orchestra plus an offstage band chorus two soloists for the last movement, a Michelangelo scaled representation of the Last Judgment and Resurrection. The concept does astonish in its audacity, though some (not myself) question its taste. As an antidote to the metaphysics of his previous Symphony the Third Symphony is a colossal work, a hundred or so minutes in length embracing a pantheistic vision of nature. Again the music incorporates themes borrowed from his Songs of Youth particularly a mock tragic song Cuckoo is Dead which is the main theme for the third movement. The symphony concludes with a long and very beautiful slow movement.


Mahler in 1897 was to take his most fateful step when he accepted the position of the director of the Vienna Opera probably the most prestigious in Europe. In order to take this state position in a Catholic country he needed to convert from Judaism. Since Mahler was not a practicing Jew and he was attracted to the mystic aspect of Catholicism this was not that great a hardship. In the anti-Semitic atmosphere that existed in a good portion of Austria at the time his appointment stirred up enormous controversy. Wagner’s widow the Franco/Hungarian daughter of Franz Liszt, Cosima Wagner who ran the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth was furious over it. Mahler with his demonic energy transformed the Vienna Opera from a very good opera house to the greatest in the world. He controlled every aspect of the music the staging and the scenery. When he was told early on that he was challenging tradition he replied “that tradition was the last bad performance”


As the century turned Mahler wrote what was to become the most popular of his works the Fourth Symphony with a song as the last movement where the singer describes the a child’s vision of heaven. Also from this period comes two great song cycles Des Knaben Der Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn) and Ruckert Lieder.


In 1902 Gustav Mahler meets the 23 year old Alma Maria Schindler daughter of a famed sculptor, an amateur composer who was considered one of the most beautiful women in Vienna. The diminutive Mahler with thick glasses and a strange preoccupied air seemed an odd match for this blue eyed robust figured blonde but they marry. Alma Mahler was to live to 1964 and become one of the most fascinating women of her time and was to remain the muse for the remaining nine years of Mahler’s life. Mahler was to write in the next years his powerful Fifth Symphony which opens with a mighty funeral march and contains the short (for Mahler) and deeply affecting Adagietto a love song for Alma. Mahler was next to write two tragic works that were to become a presentiment of the calamities that were to befall him, The Kindertotenlieder (Songs for the Death of Children) and the massive Sixth Symphony. Alma and Mahler had two daughters, Maria and Anna. Alma felt that Mahler was tempting the fates by writing a song cycle about the death of children and the oldest did succumb to diphtheria at four in 1907. While the doctor was attending his daughter he was concerned about Mahler’s breathing and un healthy appearance examined him and determined that he had heart disease that was later diagnosed as an endocarditic heart which in those days was incurable. The gigantic last movement of the Sixth has three blows struck by a huge hammer on a block of wood ,after Mahler received his first two personal blows he deleted the third from the score to avoid tempting fate. Weakened by illness and grief he no longer had the will to fight off the ceaseless intrigues against him at the Vienna Opera and decided to take a financially rewarding position at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the fall of 1907. During this period he wrote the mysterious and enigmatic Seventh Symphony the least popular of his symphonies but a great work with its three central “night pieces” none the less that points the way to works of Schoenberg and Berg.


Mahler initially has great success at the Met but the man who hires him Conried is replaced by Gatti-Cazazza of La Scala Milan who brings along his great imperious Music Director Arturo Toscanini. Mahler is eventually forced out from the Met but secures a very well paid position as music director of New York Philharmonic. The New York Phil was not as prestigious a position as it is now and Mahler had interference from a board run by wealthy society women who interfered with Mahler’s autocratic way of running things. In the interim Alma Mahler who had many famous lovers in her long life fell in love with the young Water Gropius who was to become one of the great architects of the 20th century. Mahler found out and was devastated; he sought out professional advice from none other then Sigmund Freud. Mahler reconciled with his wife. Mahler was to have one last triumph the greatest in his life the premier of the Symphony # 8 in Munich in 1910. This great two movement Choral Symphony written for an orchestra of 150 eight soloists and choruses of up to 800 was nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand The first section was a setting of a medieval hymn, the second a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.


Mahler during the last two years of his life completed two great masterpieces Das Lied von Der Erde (Song of the Earth) and the Symphony # 9. The first work is an hour song cycle based on Chinese poems that express resignation in the face of death. The Ninth Symphony opens with huge first movement that is the most complex and impressive piece structurally that Mahler ever wrote and concludes with a beautiful slow Movement that ends as quietly and slowly as possible, a musical representation death. Mahler was in the throes of writing his Tenth Symphony a far more violent and bitter work then the Ninth when he died. The opening Adagio and short third movement were virtually complete and were approved for performance by Alma in 1924, the remaining three movements were elaborate sketches and were realized in a performing edition by the English musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1960’s. Mahler’s heart disease by the spring of 1911 triggered a massive infection of his entire blood stream; he left New York for a Paris clinic with the hope that experimental treatments could clear the infection. It didn’t and Mahler requested to return to Vienna where he died on May 18h 1911.


Mahler while always viewed as a great conductor was a very controversial figure as a composer for the first six decades of the Twentieth Century. There were a sizeable group of Mahlerites who fervently supported his music led by his close friend and disciple the conductor Bruno Walter and other great conductors who knew Mahler, Willem Mengelberg and Otto Klemperer. When Hitler came into power his music was banned in Germany and upon the Annexation of Austria 1938 it was also banned there because of his Jewish origins. Signs of resurgence occurred in the 50’s due in great part to recordings. Around the time of the centennial of Mahler’s birth in 1960 there was a worldwide resurgence of performances and recordings of his music. In the vanguard of this surge was Leonard Bernstein perhaps the most celebrated classical musician of his age. Mahler at this present time is universally recognized to be in the pantheon of great composers. He once after a very harsh judgment of one of his works prophesized that “my time will come”, it most assuredly has.

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