Gustav Mahler

Composer Gustav Mahler

Last of the great line of German symphonists. One of the musicians who bridged Romanticism and the early Modernist era at the turn of the 20th century.

Vital Statistics
July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)
May 18, 1911, in Vienna
Performed As:
Conductor and pianist
During Lifetime:
The music and writings of Richard Wagner inspired composers to create larger, more complex works. The rise of socialism in Russia resulted in the revolutions of 1904 and 1907.
Biographical Outline
  • Humble Beginnings, 1860-1875: Born into a German-speaking Jewish family, the second of 14 children, Mahler begins piano studies at age 6. Eight of his siblings die in childhood and his brother, Otto commits suicide in 1895, tragedies that unavoidably influenced his outlook on life and his art. But Mahler also imbibes the folk music of the local musicians and bands that play in his father's tavern in Iglau, a military garrison town as well as a commercial center. He also sings in the local church choir and watches the military bands on the town square, a block from the tavern. These influences also make it into his music.
  • The Great Persuader, 1875-1880: At 15, Mahler enlists a local businessman to persuade his father to let him attend the Vienna Conservatory.
  • Ladder Climber, 1880-1891: Determined to be a conductor, Mahler secures his first gig at Bad Hall, a resort town in southern Austria. His high standards and discipline help him work his way up through increasingly prestigious posts to chief conductor at the Royal Hungarian Opera, Budapest (1888), and the Hamburg City Theater (1891-97). Beginning in the late 1880s with songs and his First Symphony, Mahler begins to compose in earnest. From 1891 on, he writes most of his works during summer vacations in the country.
  • Brass Ring, 1897: Through a carefully calculated, secret campaign, which includes a conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, Mahler wins the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera (whose orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic), the most sought-after post in central Europe. His productions there become legendary.
  • Comforts, 1899-1901: Mahler's status at the top of his profession allows him to buy land on the Wörthersee, an Alpine lake, where he builds a villa, completed in 1901. At the "composing hut" on the grounds, he pours out a steady stream of great music, beginning with the Fifth Symphony and the Rückert Lieder. As conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, he introduces his latest symphonies to a mixed reception. Overburdened, he steps down from the directorship of the Philharmonic in 1901.
  • Fraught Frauship, 1902-1907: Mahler marries Alma Schindler, a highly educated, intelligent, and beautiful woman 20 years his junior, in 1902. The marriage is filled with tension, especially after their first daughter Maria (nicknamed Putzi) dies, in 1907. Still, Mahler's summers are happy and incredibly productive.
  • American Beckons, 1908-1911: In 1908, Mahler accepts an invitation to become music director of the Metropolitan Opera, but resigns in 1909, when the management brings in Arturo Toscanini to share conducting duties. Mahler immediately becomes music director of the lately-reformed New York Philharmonic. During the summers he returns to Austria where he continues composing -- the Ninth Symphony in 1909, half of the Tenth in 1910. In 1910, the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Munich is a great success. Though he has learned that his wife Alma is having an affair, he sails for New York for the 1910-11 season. That winter, he contracts bacterial endocarditis, incurable in the days before antibiotics. He returns to Vienna, where he dies. Alma lives until 1964, having influenced early Mahler scholarship and having been the subject of books, plays, and movies based on her life.
Fun Facts
  • Nature lover: Mahler loved the outdoors and alpine vistas. He once told a visitor to his summer cottage, “Don’t bother looking at the view—I have already composed it.”
  • Unfinished 10th: Mahler completed only the first movement of his Symphony No. 10. Several composers have tried using Mahler’s sketches to finish the rest of it.
  • Funny walk: Mahler was reported to have an “odd, jerky” walk. His daughter claimed it was due to his habit of frequently changing rhythm, something he did even while rowing a boat.
  • Famous therapist: With his marriage in crisis in 1910, Mahler had one (reportedly helpful) therapy session with Sigmund Freud.
  • In his own words: “A symphony should be like the world: It must embrace everything.”
  • Temper, temper: Mahler wasn't easy to live with or work with. He had a nasal, high-pitched voice, was authoritarian and prone to anger, and he was a stickler for even minor details. Though he got results professionally, he also made enemies.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Symphonies and songs form practically all of Mahler’s output. They are known for the wide variety of ideas and styles they encompass, the large orchestras they require, and their powerful, heaven-storming climaxes. He wrote nine symphonies, plus one complete movement and extensive sketches for a 10th. The first two, and the Fourth and Fifth are the most popular, and the Fifth contains the "Adagietto" movement that may be the most famous thing Mahler ever wrote.
  • Youth Focus: Mahler was attracted throughout his life to themes of childhood and innocence. He wrote many songs to poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The youth’s magic horn) a famous anthology of re-created folk poetry. Wunderhorn songs also show up in his first four symphonies, in various guises.
  • Great Conductor: As one of world’s best conductors, Mahler knew the orchestra inside and out. His music has marvelously detailed, inventive orchestration.
  • Wide Range: Mahler’s music, particularly his symphonies, reflect both “high” and “low" musical influences. The First contains a clarinet line that has almost klezmer aspects and a minor-key version of Frère Jacques; the Fourth offers a cheerful first movement with sleighbells, plus a finale describing a child’s view of heaven.
  • Song Cycles: Mahler wrote three major song cycles with orchestral accompaniment: Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), Songs of a Wayfarer, and Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the Earth), which is considered a hybrid symphony. Also, four of his symphonies are scored for chorus or vocal soloists, or both.
  • “Symphony of 1000”: The promoter Emil Gutmann came up with this famous moniker for Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. No fewer than 1,029 musicians were scheduled to perform at the 1910 Munich premiere; the 1916 U.S. premiere in Philadelphia, under Leopold Stokowski, had 1,032 participants. Recent performances have gotten by with as “few” as 305.
Recommended Websites
  • Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, “Titan”
  • Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
  • Symphony No. 4 in G Major
  • Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor
  • “Wunderhorn Songs”
  • Lieder eines fahrendes Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer)
  • Kindertötenlieder (Songs on the death of children)
  • Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the Earth)