Gustav Mahler

The symphonic music of GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911), has been described by conductor Leonard Bernstein as “a photographic camera capturing society in its decline. It is the music of the furious explosion – in the wreckage of human baseness it showers the world as never before with the rain of beauty.”  Mahler’s grand symphonies (he wrote nine and an unfinished tenth, the vocal-symphonic cycle Song for the Earth) ponder with the ardor of the heart the eternal questions of the meaning of life, of good and evil, the corruptible and the eternal, the sublime and the fallen. Thus he closed the last pages of the great Romantic symphony and traced the new path of the genre in 20th century art.

For Mahler, writing a symphony means “to build a new world with all the means of technique“. The Austrian composer unfolded his artistic ideas not only in his symphonies, but also in the magnificent vocal cycles The Boy’s Magic Horn,  Songs of a Wayfarer and Songs on Dead Children. Themes and images from his songs pervade some of the symphonic opuses.

During his lifetime, Gustav Mahler was known and revered more as a conductor than as a composer. But that did not affect his determination to pursue the path he had chosen. He composed his works in the scarce spare time of his intense conducting schedule and mostly during summer breaks.

Mahler was born into a poor Jewish family in the small Czech town of Kalisz (then a province of the Austrian Empire). His father was a minor merchant and barely earned a living for his 12 children. Five of Gustav’s siblings died of malnutrition. He thus became acquainted with misery and sorrow too early.  His fascination with music manifested itself in his childhood. At the age of 4, he sang dozens of folk songs he heard in Jihlava, where the family moved. At the age of 6, he began to study piano, played continuously, tried to compose and was so subdued by music that he forgot even to eat. To help support the family, at the age of 8 he began giving piano lessons to his peers and younger children. Despite his modest means, his father took him to Vienna, where he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 15 and graduated with honours in 1878. In parallel, he attended lectures in history, philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna. His modern idols in art are Wagner and Bruckner.

The conducting job provided the living wage throughout his life. Already at the age of 20 he became opera conductor in Bad Halle, the next appointments were in Ljubljana, Olomouc, Kassel, Leipzig, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg. The peak of his career was the decade 1897-1907, when he headed the Vienna Court Opera. He also conducted regularly the subscription concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Mahler’s stagings of operatic classics and works by contemporary composers (he also appeared as a director), as well as his famous symphonic concertos, covering a huge repertoire, constitute a whole era in the art of conducting.

However, he was forced to leave the leading opera theatre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire because of conflicts with musicians who were dissatisfied with his authoritarian style. In fact, Mahler was a fanatically demanding conductor, intolerant of artistic compromise. This did not please the orchestrators. Towards the end of his life (1907- 1911) he became conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

One of the happiest events in his life was his marriage to the beautiful and educated socialite Alma Schindler, 19 years his junior. A devastating blow to the family was the death of the elder of their two daughters. Soon after, the composer learned that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition, and his marriage to Alma broke down. Returning to Vienna from the USA, he died at the age of 51.

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