Gustav Mahler

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mahler had parallel careers as conductor and composer, in each of which he was regarded by many of his contemporaries as the leading musical figure of his generation. His ten symphonies and other varied compositions represent the culmination of romanticism and the beginnings of modern music.

Early Life

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia, a small town which now lies in the Czech Republic but which was then part of the Austrian Empire.

His father, Bernhard Mahler, had married Marie Hermann three years earlier, and a son was born in 1858, but he died in infancy. Bernhard, a coachman who had become the owner of a small distillery and tavern, was thirty at the time of his marriage and ten years older than his bride. Marie may have agreed to marry beneath her social station because she was lame from birth, for there is no evidence of affection between her and the ambitious Bernhard.

In the sixteen years following Gustav’s birth, his mother bore twelve more children, of which six died in infancy. Though this rate of infant mortality was not uncommon at the time, in an emotionally ambivalent household it could not fail to affect a sensitive child like Gustav. It is reported that when he was asked, at an early age, what he would like to be when he grew up, he replied: “A martyr.” Fortunately, his love of music soon became a refuge from the brutality of his home life: At age four he could play folk tunes on a small accordion, and at five he was discovered in his grandparents’ attic playing a piano. By the age of ten, he gave his first public piano recital, which took place in the Moravian town of Iglau (now Jihlava), where the family had moved in late 1860.

In the Austria of Mahler’s youth, there had been a liberalization in the laws governing the activities of members of the Jewish faith, to which all Gustav’s forebears belonged (though perhaps with varying degrees of orthodoxy). Gustav’s father, who read widely and fancied himself a scholar, was devoted to the hope that his children would take advantage of the situation and improve their lot in life. Bernhard hoped that Gustav would excel in music, but he also insisted that Gustav continue his general education; in 1870, Gustav was sent to Prague to study. When it was discovered that Gustav was being mistreated in the home where he boarded and received piano lessons, his father brought him back to Iglau.

Mahler’s growing local reputation as a pianist caused him to be taken by a benefactor to play for Julius Epstein, a professor at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. On September 20, 1875, the fifteen-year-old Mahler was enrolled at the conservatory, where he remained for nearly three years studying harmony, composition, and piano. Perhaps as significant as the instruction that he received was his exposure to the artistic life of Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, and the home of successive generations of great composers. In June, 1876, Gustav’s single-minded devotion to his studies won for him the conservatory’s first prize in piano for a performance of a sonata by Franz Schubert, a Viennese predecessor whose influence can be seen in Mahler’s mature work. Another piano prize followed in 1877, and in the same year he won a prize for the composition of a chamber music work. When Mahler left the conservatory with a diploma in 1878, he possessed a fine general musical education. At his father’s insistence, however, Gustav immediately returned to Iglau to continue his general studies, and in the summer he passed his final examinations, apparently not without difficulty. Although his father has been unsympathetically treated by the composer’s biographers, Mahler’s broad range of intellectual interests may be credited partly to Bernhard’s persistent influence.

Life’s Work

Returning to Vienna in the autumn of 1878, Mahler was enrolled at the university to study philosophy and art history. At about the same time, he began to write the text of a cantata, Das klagende Lied (the song of lament), his earliest surviving large-scale composition, which he composed during the following months and completed on November 1, 1880. Mahler’s main source of support had been his earnings from teaching piano, an occupation that he had begun nearly ten years earlier, but in the summer of 1880 he gained summer employment as a conductor at a resort. In the following year, he obtained a longer-term appointment as conductor at Laibach (now Ljubljana), and in January, 1883, a position at Olomouc, which he held for only a few months. In the midst of his modest but rising conducting career, Mahler continued to compose. In 1881, Mahler had unsuccessfully placed Das klagende Lied in competition for the Beethoven Prize, offered by a Vienna musical group. He later reflected that had he won the prize, he would not have had to remain in the world of the stage as an opera director, but much evidence points to the immense creative advantages that Mahler derived from his experiences as a conductor. In any event, his career continued to advance. In August of 1883, he started work as assistant at the Court Theatre of Kassel, Germany, and in August of the following year he moved to the German Theatre in Prague, the leading city of his native Bohemia, where he was successful as an interpreter of the operas of Richard Wagner and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

While still at Kassel, Gustav fell in love with a singer, Johanna Richter. When their relationship ended with Richter leaving Mahler for another man, Gustav composed a memorial to the affair, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884; Songs of a Wayfarer). This cycle of four songs for soprano and orchestra, widely regarded as the composer’s first masterpiece, reveals with great force the emotional world of the twenty-three-year-old Mahler. His love of nature and capacity for grief are communicated in a strikingly original musical language that weds elements of folk song to unorthodox harmony and highly colorful orchestration. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen reflects Mahler’s devotion to a famous collection of traditional poems and songs known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (youth’s magic horn), from which he was to draw much inspiration in composing both songs and symphonies.

Mahler’s first four symphonies, completed between 1887 and 1900, are appropriately referred to as the “Wunderhorn” symphonies, since they incorporate verses and melodies from the original Wunderhorn sources and Mahler’s adaptations of them. Mahler’s conception of the symphony—that it “must be like the world” and embrace everything—allowed him to expand its scope by including vocal elements and by greatly lengthening the works. In Mahler’s works, the traditional form of the symphony is superseded by the composer’s expressive ambitions. Mahler sought a mastery of symphonic form but defined it more flexibly; unity was a matter not only of rational musical architecture but also of mood and philosophical intention.

In August, 1886, Mahler took up an appointment as second conductor at Leipzig, Germany, where he remained until May of 1888. His departure from Leipzig because of a conflict with the director sounds a characteristic note in Mahler’s subsequent conducting career; his standards were uncompromising and his methods were sometimes nearly tyrannical, and could not have been tolerated in any case had Mahler not been a musician of the highest caliber. His next position, begun on October 1, 1888, was as musical director at the Royal Budapest Opera; he remained there until March of 1891, immediately moving to Hamburg, Germany’s largest city, as chief opera conductor. During this period, the personal circumstances of Mahler’s life changed considerably; in 1889, his father, mother, and a married sister died within months of one another, and he had to assume responsibility for his brothers and sisters. Although he was well paid for his conducting, his finances were rarely in good order. Nevertheless he succeeded in completing many works, seeing to their performance as circumstances allowed. His success as a composer was not immediate. Only with the presentation in 1895 of his second symphony—at his own expense and under his direction—did Mahler achieve unquestioned recognition as a composer.

As Mahler’s fame as a conductor grew, he began to hope that he might be appointed to direct the Vienna Court Opera, which was the...

(The entire section is 3498 words.)