Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler was, along with Richard Strauss, the last of the great Post-Romantic composers of the German musical tradition. He was a musical link between the world of Richard Wagner and the expressionist music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School.

Mahler was much better known during his lifetime as an outstanding conductor, which included a ten-year position with the Vienna State Opera, as well as the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic at the end of his career. His conducting in Vienna was highly acclaimed by critics, but his musicians considered him to be very authoritarian and difficult to work with. He also faced constant attacks from within and without due to his Jewish background and the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria at the time. Despite this, he was responsible for numerous new productions.

Mahler’s conducting duties left him only the summer off-season in which to compose. Because of this, his output is fairly small. Other than one rarely performed piece of chamber music, his entire body of work consists of 10 symphonies and a handful of symphonic song cycles. Mahler’s symphonies draw on Wagner’s highly chromatic musical style and usually require a large number of musicians to perform. Several even include vocal soloists and large choirs. His two earliest symphonies, No. 1, “Titan” and No. 2 “Resurrection” were not very successful during his life, but are among his most popular works now. The biggest success of his lifetime was the 8th Symphony, often called the “Symphony of a Thousand,” due to the large number of orchestral, vocal, and choral forces required to perform the work. The 8th Symphony was premiered 100 years ago this week and the applause at the end of the piece reportedly lasted over a half hour. This was the last of his works which he heard performed in his life. After finishing his 9th Symphony, Mahler began work on a new symphonic piece. Due to his superstitious beliefs, (Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner all died after their 9th symphonies), Mahler refused to call it a symphony. Instead, the piece bears the name Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). After completing this, Mahler began work on a 10th symphony and did, in fact, die before completing. A performing edition as later completed by English composer Deryck Cooke.

After Mahler’s death in 1911, his music fell into neglect and was infrequently performed. A handful of conductors kept his memory alive, including two of his former conducting assistants, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as Leopold Stokowski and American composer Aaron Copland. A Mahler revival, largely spearheaded by Leonard Bernstein, began in the 1950’s and today he is one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers in the symphonic literature. Some outstanding Modern Mahler cycles include sets by Bernstein, Lorin Maazel, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Pierre Boulez. His influence on 20th Century composers included the composers of the Second Vienna School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern), German cabaret composer Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten. Even avant-garde jazz pianist Uri Caine has released a CD of Mahler’s music arranged for jazz ensemble. (Buy it here).

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Mahler. (A Ken Russell film based on the life of the composer.)

Suggested Reading:

Norman Lebrecht. Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.