Gustav Mahler

The Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) introduced innovations that had a profound influence on the Viennese composers of the next generation and initiated significant trends in operatic production that set a new standard.

Gustav Mahler once said: "Composing a symphony means, to me, building a new world with every available technical means. The ever-new and changing content determines its own form." This free concept of symphonic form included such innovations as "progressive tonality," that is, beginning a symphony in one key and ending it in a quite different one. Such practices were often misunderstood and rejected by Mahler's contemporaries. However, he became resigned to this, for, as he liked to say, "My time will yet come." His prophecy proved to be right, for in the second half of the 20th century he became one of the most popular symphonic composers.

Mahler can be seen as an important transitional figure between the 19th and 20th centuries. His taste for gigantic forms, monumental instrumentation, and long lyrical themes (often derived from his own songs) is certainly related to 19th-century esthetic ideals. So, too, is his frequent inclusion of the chorus or the solo voice in his symphonies—an idea inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Mahler's last works, especially the Ninth Symphony and the unfinished Tenth Symphony, show ever greater economy in the use of available means. Many sections of these works are almost like chamber music in their soloistic treatment of instruments. Such passages were well understood and used as models by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. This kind of instrumentation, as well as Mahler's increasing freedom in the handling of tonality, foreshadowed the new age's ideal of sound. Thus, for all his romantic, 19th-century traits, in many ways Mahler can be considered a truly "modern" composer.

Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in Kaliště, Bohemia. When he was a few months old, his family moved to the larger town of Jihlava (Iglau), where the father, Bernhard, kept a distillery and bar. Here Gustav acquired his first musical impressions. Loitering in the neighborhood of the military barracks, he learned many marches, which he would play on the accordion. At the age of 4 he could sing about 200 folk songs, which he learned from the family maid. Perhaps the great emphasis on march rhythms and folklike melodies in his works comes in part from these sources.

Mahler's musical gifts developed rapidly, and his ambitious father did all he could to advance them. At the age of 15 the boy was taken to Vienna, where he was immediately accepted at the conservatory. His career there was a successful one; he won prizes in both composition and piano playing. Most of his works from that time are lost, but two song fragments and part of a piano quartet in A minor were preserved. The first movement of the quartet is virtually complete in manuscript except for a missing passage in the piano part which is easily reconstructed. It shows the influence of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann but, especially in its principal theme, already foreshadows later Mahlerian ideas.

Mahler graduated in July 1878. That fall he began the composition of the cantata Das klagende Lied (The Song of Grief). He wrote the text himself, basing it on fairy tales by Ludwig Bechstein and the Grimm brothers. The work, finished the following year, was submitted for the Beethoven Prize, but the judges rejected it. Between 1878 and 1883 Mahler worked at three operas: Herzog Ernst von Schwaben, Die Argonauten, and Rübezahl. The music of all of them has been lost, but the manuscript of the Rübezahl libretto has survived.

In 1880 Mahler took a conducting position in the lightopera theater at the summer resort of Bad Hall in Upper Austria. This was the first of many opera-conducting posts he was to hold until 1897: Ljubljana, Olomouc, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg. Theatrical duties generally kept him fully occupied during these winter seasons, so that he was forced to be a "summer composer." Nevertheless, he completed important works. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883-1885; Songs of a Wayfarer), composed to his own texts, reflect his unhappy love affair with the soprano Johanne Richter in Kassel. They furnished major thematic material for the First Symphony (1884-1888). The Second Symphony (1887-1894) is often known as the Resurrection Symphony, after its grandiose choral setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's resurrection hymn. The Third Symphony (1893-1896), with its six extended movements, is perhaps the longest symphony ever written.

Mahler became the director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897. He brought new standards to that institution and initiated many reforms which are taken for granted today. He was the first in Vienna to bar latecomers from the opera house till the end of an act. He performed Richard Wagner's music dramas without cuts, following the stylistic principles established by Wagner at Bayreuth. In producing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operas, too, Mahler strove for stylistic authenticity, restoring the recitatives with harpsichord accompaniment which had often been cut by his predecessors. He tried to simplify operatic staging, seeking symbolism rather than excessive realism; the painter Alfred Roller, who became his stage designer, helped him to achieve this aim.

Despite his heavy responsibilities at the opera house, Mahler was able to compose five symphonies during his Vienna years. The Fourth (1899-1900) is a cheerful work; its finale is a delightful song for soprano based on a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), a collection of folk poetry which was one of Mahler's favorite text sources. The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies (1901-1905) are purely instrumental; they show his ever-increasing mastery of his chosen medium. The Eighth (1906-1907), for eight vocal soloists, double chorus, and boys' chorus, with a very large orchestra, was nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand at the time of its first performance, under the composer's direction, in 1910. An innovation here was the setting of texts in two different languages: the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) and the final scene of Goethe's Faust. Important songs of the Vienna period were the Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (1899-1904; Seven Last Songs; texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and by Friedrich Rückert) and the Kindertotenlieder (1901-1904; Songs on the Death of Children; texts by Rückert).

The intrigues of Mahler's professional and personal enemies forced him to leave the Vienna Court Opera in 1907. His final seasons as a conductor were spent in New York City, where he was very successful at the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic. He knew that, because of a serious heart condition, he might die soon. In this knowledge, he composed his last and greatest works. Das Lied von der Erde (1907-1908; The Song of the Earth) is a six-movement symphony with alto and tenor soloists; the texts are from a collection of translated Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute) by Hans Bethge. The dominating theme is the transitoriness of human existence in the face of eternity.

Musically and spiritually, Mahler's last two numbered symphonies are closely related to Das Lied. The Ninth was completed in 1910. Mahler never finished the Tenth, but in recent years several attempts have been made to bring his manuscript into performable condition. This aim was most convincingly realized by Deryck Cooke; his version, first heard in 1964, is still controversial but has been widely performed and recorded with great success.

Mahler conducted his last concert in New York on Feb. 21, 1911, and collapsed immediately thereafter from a severe streptococcal infection. Taken back to Europe, he seemed to recover briefly, but the infection could not be cured. On May 18 he died in Vienna.


Further Reading on Gustav Mahler

A vivid, if often inaccurate, account of Mahler's later life is in Alma Mahler Werfel's memoir, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters (rev. ed. by Donald Mitchell, 1969). The younger Mahler is revealed in Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Recollections of Gustav Mahler, translated by Dika Newlin (publication pending). Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler (1936; trans. 1941), is a warmly personal appreciation by one of Mahler's greatest interpreters. Dika Newlin, Bruckner-Mahler-Schoenberg (1947), places Mahler in historical perspective and offers analyses of the principal works. Neville Cardus, Gustav Mahler, His Mind and His Music: The First Five Symphonies (1966), is the first detailed study in English of Mahler's first five symphonies and is to be followed by a second volume dealing with the remaining symphonies. Mahler's early works are rather sketchily discussed in Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Early Years (1958). H. F. Redlich, Bruckner and Mahler (1955), convincingly links the two composers. Arnold Schoenberg's essay "Gustav Mahler" in his Style and Idea (1950) should not be overlooked by any student of the subject.