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Gustav Mahler, 1892

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 18 May 1911) was a Bohemian-born Austrianmarker composer and conductor. He was best known during his own lifetime as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day. He has since come to be acknowledged as among the most important late-Romantic/early-Modernist composers, although his music was never completely accepted by the musical establishment of Viennamarker while he was still alive. Mahler composed primarily symphonies and songs; however, his approach to genre often blurred the lines between orchestral Lied, symphony, and symphonic poem.


Early life

Gustav Mahler at six years

Gustav Mahler was born into a German-speaking, Ashkenazic Jewish family in Kalištěmarker (in German, Kalischt), Bohemia, then in the Austrian Empiremarker, today in the Czech Republicmarker. He was the second of fourteen children, seven of whom died in infancy and one of whom died at the age of 12. His parents soon moved to Jihlavamarker (in German Iglau), where Mahler spent his childhood. Having noticed the boy's talent at an early age, his parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was six years old.

In 1875, Mahler, then 15, was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoiremarker, where he studied piano under Julius Epstein, harmony with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Franz Krenn. Three years later Mahler attended Vienna Universitymarker, where Anton Bruckner was lecturing. There he studied history and philosophy as well as music. While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with the cantata Das klagende Lied. The work was entered in a competition where the jury was headed by Johannes Brahms, but failed to win a prize.

Growing reputation

Gustav Mahler's home in Leipzig, where he composed his Symphony No.

Mahler began his career as a conductor with a job at a summer theatre at Bad Hallmarker in 1880. In the years that followed, he took conducting posts at successively larger opera houses, beginning in Ljubljanamarker in 1881, Olomoucmarker in 1882, Viennamarker in 1883, and Kasselmarker also in 1883. While in Kassel, Mahler had an ill-fated love affair with soprano Johanna Richter, which prompted his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler continued his operatic conducting positions in Praguemarker in 1885, and Leipzigmarker in 1886. In 1887, he took over conducting Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen from an ill Arthur Nikisch, firmly establishing his reputation among critics and public alike. The year after, he made a complete performing edition of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, the success of which brought financial rewards and contributed to his gradually growing fame. Brahms was greatly impressed by his conducting of Don Giovanni.

Mahler was next conductor and music director of the Hungarian Royal Operamarker from 1888 to 1891 in Budapestmarker, in which city he premiered his Symphony No. 1, originally in five movements, in 1889. His following post was at the Hamburg Operamarker from 1891 to 1897. Among his close friends in Hamburg was composer, journalist, and teacher Josef Bohuslav Foerster. Foerster's wife, soprano Berta Lauterer-Foerster, was a member of the opera ensemble, as was baritone Vilém Heš; Mahler later engaged both at the Vienna State Operamarker. While Mahler was at Hamburg his youngest brother Otto, also a composer, committed suicide in 1895 at the age of 21. From 1893 to 1896, Mahler took summer vacations at Steinbach am Atterseemarker in Upper Austria, where he revised and edited his Symphony No. 1, completed his Symphony No. 2, sketched his Symphony No. 3, and wrote most of the song collection Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (Songs from 'The Youth's Magic Horn'), based on a famous set of heavily redacted folk-poems.

In 1897 Mahler, then 37, was offered the directorship of the Vienna State Opera, the most prestigious musical position in the Austrian Empiremarker. This was an 'Imperial' post, and under Austro-Hungarian law, no such posts could be occupied by Jews. Mahler, who was never a devout or practising Jew, had, in preparation, converted to Roman Catholicism. As a child, he had been a chorister in a Catholic church where he had also learned piano from the choir master. Both Catholic and Jewish influences are observable in his music, for example his use of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" in his Eighth Symphony, and in the Klezmer-like theme and textures of the third movement of the first symphony respectively.

In 1899 and 1910 he conducted his revised versions of Schumann's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4.

In ten years at the Vienna Opera, Mahler transformed the institution's repertoire and raised its artistic standards, bending both performers and listeners to his will. When he first took over the Opera, the most popular works were Lohengrin, Manon, and Cavalleria rusticana; the new director concentrated his energies on classic operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and, in collaboration with the painter Alfred Roller (Brnomarker 1864–Vienna 1935), created shadowy, transfixing productions of Fidelio, Tristan und Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

In Mahler's time, Vienna was one of the world’s biggest cities and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was home to a lively artistic and intellectual scene. It was home to famous painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Mahler knew many of these intellectuals and artists.

Mahler worked at the Opera for nine months of each year, with only his summers free for composing at various komponierhäuschen (composing huts). These summers he spent mainly at Maiernigg, on the Wörtherseemarker and in that idyllic setting he composed his fifth through eighth symphonies, the Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), both based on poems by Friedrich Rückert, and Der Tamboursg'sell, the last of his 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' settings.

Later years

Gustav Mahler in 1909

In June 1901, he moved into a new villa on the lake in Maiernigg, Carinthia. On 9 March 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (1879 –1964), twenty years his junior and the stepdaughter of the noted Viennese painter Carl Moll. Alma was a musician and composer, but Mahler forbade her to engage in creative work, although she did make clean manuscript copies of his hand-written scores. Mahler did interact creatively with some women, such as viola-player Natalie Bauer-Lechner, two years his senior, whom he had met while studying in Vienna. But he told Alma that her role should only be to tend to his needs. Alma and Gustav had two daughters, Maria Anna ('Putzi'; 1902–07), who died of diphtheria at the age of only four, and Anna Justine ('Gucki'; 1904–88), who later became a sculptor.

The death of their first daughter left Mahler grief-stricken; but further blows were to come. That same year he was diagnosed with a heart disease (infective endocarditis) and was forced to limit his exercising and count his steps with a pedometer. At the Opera, his obstinacy in artistic matters had created enemies, and he was also increasingly subject to attacks in anti-Semitic portions of the press. His resignation from the Opera, in 1907, was hardly unexpected.

Mahler's own music aroused considerable opposition from music critics, who tended to hear his symphonies as 'potpourris' in which themes from "disparate" periods and traditions were indiscriminately mingled. Mahler's juxtaposition of material from both "high" and "low" cultures, as well as his mixing of different ethnic traditions, often outraged conservative critics at a time when workers' mass organizations were growing rapidly, and clashes between Germans, Czechs, Hungarians and Jews in Austro-Hungary were creating anxiety and instability. However, he always had vociferous admirers on his side. In his last years, Mahler began to score major successes with a wider public, notably with a Munich performance of the Second Symphony in 1900, with the first complete performance of the Third in Krefeldmarker in 1902, with a valedictory Viennese performance of the Second in 1907, and, above all, with the Munich premiere of the gargantuan Eighth in 1910. The music he wrote after that, however, was not performed during his lifetime.

The final impetus for Mahler's departure from the Vienna Opera was a generous offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He conducted a season there in 1908, only to be set aside in favor of Arturo Toscanini; while he had been enormously popular with public and critics alike, he had fallen out of favor with the trustees of the board of the Met. Back in Europe, with his marriage in crisis and Alma's infidelity having been revealed, Mahler, in 1910, had a single (and apparently helpful) consultation with Sigmund Freud.

Having now signed a contract to conduct the long-established New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler and his family travelled again to America. At this time, he completed his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and his Symphony No. 9, which would be his last completed work. In February 1911, during a long and demanding concert season in New York, Mahler fell seriously ill with a streptococcal blood infection, and conducted his last concert in a fever (the programme included the world premiere of Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque). Returning to Europe, he was taken to Parismarker, where a new serum had recently been developed. He did not respond, however, and was taken back to Vienna at his request. He died there from his infection on 18 May 1911 at the age of 50, leaving his Symphony No. 10 unfinished.

Mahler's grave

Mahler's widow reported that his last word was "Mozartl" (a diminutive, corresponding to 'dear little Mozart'). He was buried, at his request, beside his daughter, in Grinzing Cemetery outside Vienna. In obedience to his last wishes, he was buried in silence, with the gravestone bearing only the name "Gustav Mahler" and a simple Jugendstil monument.Mahler's good friend Bruno Walter describes the funeral: "On 18 May 1911, he died. Next evening we laid the coffin in the cemetery at Grinzing, a storm broke and such torrents of rain fell that it was almost impossible to proceed. An immense crowd, dead silent, followed the hearse. At the moment when the coffin was lowered, the sun broke through the clouds" (Walter 1957, 73).

Alma Mahler quotes Gustav as saying "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austriamarker, as an Austrian among Germanmarker, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." However, this is astonishingly close to a remark written by Anton Rubinstein in the 1860s or 1870s, and may therefore have been adapted, for its appositeness, by Mahler (or indeed Alma).

Alma outlived Gustav by more than 50 years, and in their course, she was active in publishing material about his life and music. However, her accounts have been attacked as unreliable, false, and misleading. This became so problematic, it became known by musicologists and historians as the "Alma Problem". For example, she tampered with the couple's correspondence and, in her publications, Gustav is often portrayed more negatively than some historians might like.


Mahler is generally recognized as the last great German symphonist. He sought to expand the scope and breadth of the symphony to the greatest possible extent, believing that the symphony should "take in the whole world." This expansion of scope can be seen not only the great length of his works, but also in the explosion of orchestral forces employed and in the aesthetic goal of maximum expressive impact. He saw himself in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to the Romantics Bruckner and Brahms; he also incorporated the ideas of non-Viennese Romantic composers like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The major influence on his work, however, was not a symphonic composer at all but rather that of Wagner, who was, according to Mahler, the only composer after Beethoven to truly have "development" (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) in his music.

Mahler and genre

With the exceptions of an early piano quartet, the early cantata Das Klagende Lied, and Totenfeier, the original tone-poem version of the first movement of the second symphony, Mahler's entire output consists of only two genres: symphony and song. Besides the nine completed numbered symphonies, his principal works are the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually rendered as 'Songs of a Wayfarer', but literally, 'Songs of a Travelling Journeyman') and Kindertotenlieder ('Songs on the Death of Children'), and the synthesis of symphony and song cycle that is Das Lied von der Erde ('The Song of the Earth').

However, much of Mahler's music generally expands and blurs the lines of these traditional genres. He originally described his Symphony No. 1 – the "Titan"- as a "symphonic poem." All the first period symphonies (see below) have some degree of programmatic content, in contrast to the ideal of "absolute music" espoused by Eduard Hanslick and exemplified in the symphonies of Brahms. Mahler's Symphonies 2–4 all employ vocal soloists and texts. The Symphony No. 8 pushes the limits of the definition of the symphony; with its 8 soloists, multiple choirs and combination of both sacred and secular texts, it is emblematic of Mahler's maximalist, inclusive conception of the symphony. In contrast, Das Lied von der Erde could also be considered a symphony, in that it is a multi-movement orchestral work, except that Mahler chooses not to label it as such.

Style of writing

The spirit of the Lied (German for song) constantly rests in his work. He followed Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann in developing the song cycle, but rather than write piano accompaniment, he orchestrated it instead. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is a set of four songs written as a rejected lover wandering alone along the earth; Mahler wrote the text himself, inspired by his unhappy love affair with a singer while conducting at Kassel.

Keenly aware of the colorations of the orchestra, the composer filled his symphonies with flowing melodies and expressive harmonies, achieving bright tonal qualities using the clarity of his melodic lines. Among his other innovations are expressive use of combinations of instruments in both large and small scale, increased use of percussion, as well as combining voice and chorus to symphony form, and extreme voice leading in his counterpoint. His orchestral style was based on counterpoint; two melodies would each start off the other seemingly simultaneously, choosing clarity over a mass of sound.

Often, his works involved the spirit of Austrian peasant song and dance. The Ländler – the Austrian folk-dance, which developed first into the minuet and then into the waltz – figures in several symphonies, as indeed do the minuet and the waltz. (All three historical stages – Ländler, minuet, and waltz – are represented in the 'dance movement' of the Ninth Symphony).

Mahler combined the ideas of Romanticism, including the use of program music, and the use of song melodies in symphonic works, with the resources that the development of the symphony orchestra had made possible. The result was to extend, and eventually break, the understanding of symphonic form, as he searched for ways to expand his music. He stated that a symphony should be an "entire world". As a result, he met with difficulties in presenting his works, and would continually revise the details of his orchestration until he was satisfied with the effect.

He was deeply spiritual and described his music in terms of nature very often. This resulted in his music being viewed as extremely emotional for a long time after his death. In addition to restlessly searching for ways of extending symphonic expression, he was also an ardent craftsman, which shows both in his meticulous working methods and careful planning, and in his studies of previous composers.


Mahler's harmonic writing was at times highly innovative, stretching the limits of conventional tonality. Still, tonality, as an expressive and constructional principle, was clearly of great importance to Mahler. This is shown most clearly by his approach to the issue of so-called 'progressive tonality'. While his First Symphony is clearly a D major work, his Second 'progresses' from a C minor first movement to an E-flat major conclusion; his Third moves from a first movement which begins in D minor and ends in F major to a finale which ends in D major – while his Fourth in G major dies away in a serene E major. The fifth symphony intensifies the process, moving from a C-sharp minor funeral march, through a desperately conflict-ridden A minor movement, a vigorous dance movement in D major, and a lyrical F major 'Adagietto', to a triumphant finale in D major – while the Sixth, very much by contrast, starts in A minor, ends in A minor, and juxtaposes a slow movement in E-flat major with a scherzo in A minor. The Seventh is tonally highly 'progressive', with a first movement that moves from a (possible) B minor start to an E major conclusion, and a finale that defines a celebratory C major. In the Eighth Symphony, the composer's expressive intentions led him to construct a work that both starts and ends in E-flat – whereas the 'valedictory' Ninth moves from a D major first movement to a D-flat major finale. The Tenth, insofar as we can be sure that Mahler's ultimate tonal intentions are discernible, was to start and end in F-sharp major.


First period
The Komponierhäuschen in Steinbach am Attersee, where Mahler composed his Third Symphony

Mahler's symphonic output is generally divided into three 'periods'. The 'first period', dominated by his reading of the Wunderhorn poems, comprises his first four symphonies. Within this group, the cross-fertilization from the world of Mahlerian song is considerable. His Symphony No. 1 uses a melodic idea from one of the Gesellen songs in its first movement, and employs a section of another in the central part of its third. (The third movement of the first symphony also contains a version of the round 'Bruder Martin'—known, in its French version, as 'Frère Jacques'—presented in a minor key.) The third movement of the Symphony No. 2 is a voice-less orchestral amplification and extension of a Wunderhorn song, and is followed by a Wunderhorn setting incorporated completely. The third movement of the Symphony No. 3 is another orchestral fantasia on a Wunderhorn song, while the fifth movement is a Wunderhorn setting composed especially for the symphony. In the Symphony No. 4, the finale is a pre-existing Wunderhorn setting (earlier considered as a possible finale for the Symphony No. 3), elements of which are prefiguratively inserted into the first three movements.

Second period
The symphonies of Mahler's 'second period', Nos. 5 to 7, manifest an increased severity of expression and a growing interest in non-standard instrumentation. Mahler had already used somewhat unusual instruments such as a post horn (in the third symphony) in his earlier symphonies. However, in the 'second period' his use of non-standard instruments became more striking with a whip in the Symphony No. 5; cowbell, deep bell and a hammer in the Symphony No. 6; and cowbells, cornet, tenor horn, mandolin and guitar in the Symphony No. 7.

Although the symphonies in the 'second period' have no vocal component, the world of Mahlerian song is hinted at in the first movement of the fifth and the slow movement of the sixth, in which phrases from one of the Kindertotenlieder are briefly heard, and in the finale of the fifth, which incorporates material from the 1896 Wunderhorn song 'Lob des hohen Verstandes.'

Third period
Mahler's symphonic 'third period' is marked by increasing polyphony and embraces Nos. 8, 9, and 10 (unfinished), as well as Das Lied von der Erde. Credible connections to freestanding songs are difficult to demonstrate in these works – perhaps, unsurprisingly, as Mahler's last non-symphonic songs were the Kindertotenlieder, completed in 1904. A striking example does come, however, with the intervallically exact reminiscence, on the final page of the Symphony No. 9, of the line 'The day is fine on yonder heights' from Kindertotenlieder No. 4.

Few composers freely interconnected their work so completely as did Gustav Mahler. Musical interconnections can be heard to exist between symphonies and symphonies, and between symphonies and songs, that seem to bind them together into a larger 'narrative.' For example, material heard in the third symphony recurs in the finale of the fourth symphony. A trumpet line from the first movement of the fourth opens the fifth symphony. And a 'tragic' harmonic gesture repeatedly heard in the sixth symphony (a major chord declining into a minor) makes a striking reappearance in the seventh symphony. The same gesture can 'prophetically' be heard at the end of the first movement of the second symphony. The rising melody line from the adagietto on the fifth symphony makes an appearance in its finale, and again in revised form in the finale of the seventh symphony. Furthermore, a theme heard in the first symphony is restated in the first movement of the ninth, the last complete symphony Mahler wrote.

Curse of the ninth

According to Alma Mahler (see the Alma Problem), Mahler stated that the three final orchestral blows which are heard on the finale of his sixth symphony prophesied three things: losing his post at the Vienna Opera, the death of his daughter, and ultimately his own death. Mahler was obsessed with Beethoven's legacy; he declared that all of his symphonies were "ninths", having the same effect and scale as Beethoven's famous Choral. Mahler was also apparently a believer in the curse of the ninth and thus scared of writing a ninth numbered symphony. This is held to be the reason why he did not give a number to the symphonic work – Das Lied von der Erde – which followed his Eighth, but instead described it merely as Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges "Die chinesische Flöte") (A symphony for one tenor and one alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra, after Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute"). The work can be considered a combination of song cycle and symphony.

Leonard Bernstein, who was instrumental in championing Mahler's music after his centenary, portrayed the Symphony as the prophetic musical statement of the 20th century crisis in classical music. Not only did Mahler suspect that he would not live long after the work was completed in 1909, but (according to Bernstein) he also "prophesied" through the music that the death of major/minor tonality was soon at hand. A further extension of that idea also implied that the death of Faustian culture and perhaps the entire human race (the rumblings of World War I were already apparent) would soon be at hand.

Mahler's unfinished tenth symphony was later orchestrated by Deryck Cooke, with the blessing of Alma Mahler. While Leonard Bernstein, for one, never performed or recorded this "realization," many other conductors appreciated the work, both performing and recording it.


Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who felt a strong affinity with Mahler, expressed the view that Mahler's music foretold the many cataclysms of the twentieth century. The autobiographical response in his music to personal suffering, its combinations of sincerity, satire and irony, and the transcendent search for spirituality, have appealed to the Post-Modern search for meaning and spiritual resolution. The music translates the personal into a universal message. Its look for new answers, after the Modern questioning of earlier traditions, gives it a timely relevance.

A combination of factors (World War I, economic depression, Antisemitism in Austria, which had caused Mahler himself to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 to improve his prospects, and World War II) inhibited performances of Mahler's music between 1911 and the mid-century. As a result, it was principally among the prominent composers who had known Mahler or been part of his circle that his influence had first been felt, even if such personal relationships often brought extra-musical factors into play. During a concert tour to Finlandmarker in November 1907, Mahler told fellow composer and great symphonist Jean Sibelius, that "the symphony should be like the world: it must embrace everything" ("die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen"). Sibelius had a different conception of the symphony, as the conflict and harmonious resolution of different musical themes. Together, the two composers offered two influential visions, of the meaningful depth of the symphonic form for later composers. The list of Mahler's compositions is not large, as he saw himself as a part time composer. However, his focus on the Symphony and the Song Cycle, gave both a new expressiveness and grandeur. Putting his philosophy of the symphony into practice, Mahler brought the genre to a new level of artistic development. Increasing the range of contrasts within and between movements, necessitated an expansion of scale and scope (at around 95 minutes, his six-movement Symphony No. 3 is the longest in the general symphonic repertoire. His Symphony No. 8 premiered with some one thousand performers)—while the admission of vocal and choral elements (with texts drawn from folk-poetry, Nietzsche, Goethe, Chinese literature, and Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism), made manifest a philosophical as well as autobiographical content. Along with Richard Strauss, Mahler dominated late 19th Century and early 20th Century Austro-German musical tradition. This tradition, dating from Bach to Schoenberg, represented the mainstream strand in the historical development of orchestral music, with other national traditions arranged in relation, or opposition to it. Mahler's adopted home of Viennamarker, became the main centre of the musical world, in the latter part of this time, until it was rivaled by Parismarker under the modernist visions of Stravinsky and Diaghilev. With his music, Mahler pushed musical Romanticism to the limits of its form, with new harmonic inventiveness, but it was left for later avant-garde composers to experiment with the very foundations of musical structure. Neglected for several decades after his death, the invention of the Long Playing record, was ideally suited to bring Mahler's large-scale works to wide public dissemination and popularity in the 1960s. Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs are now part of the core repertoire of major symphony orchestras worldwide.

In his popular book on classical music, The Lives of the Great Composers, the influential music critic Harold Schonberg, relates that Mahler's music inspires perhaps the most enthusiastic following of any composer. Mahler devotees, he says, see in his music a mystical description of Nature, and a search for the Divine. Mahler, he says, is obsessed with the Meaning of Life, and suffers the martyrdom and struggle of the search. The music is characterised by "soul states, inner crises, ecstasy, transfiguration". He describes the alternative view of Mahler detractors, including himself, who find the obsession in the music, too unbalanced and neurotic, sometimes banal or hysterical. He says it is tempting to identify with the music, but he alleges that the questions of Mahler-the deep thinker, are too simple. He sees them as indulgent in the personal suffering of this spiritual search, immature complaints before the Divine. For devotees, the very qualities of imbalance and obsession in Mahler's music, single it out as uniquely expressive of spirituality, for a 20th Century, sceptical Post-Modern audience. Mahler's era of fin de siècle Vienna, inherited the 19th Century recession in traditional religious beliefs, accompanied by new searches into man's unconscious, and new humanistic spirituality in German Philosophy. Mahler's music can transcend these currents, so that he can set anti-Christian texts of Nietzsche, alongside Christian invocations of the delights of Heaven. In the 3rd Symphony, for example, Mahler composes a hymn to Nature, where successive movements relate the worlds of the arrival of Spring, the wild flowers, the animals in the wood, the life of Man, and the realm of the angels. The last movement, he described as "what love tells me", which he also said could be called "what God tells me". This artistic vision moves from a veneration of Divine immanence in Nature, sharing these pantheistic aspects with some other Romantic and Neo-Romantic composers (such as the pagan leanings of Wagner and Delius), to a search for the Theism of Divine transcendence, outside physical existence. This can have a compatibility with the philosophical theory of Panentheism, that proposes that "all is within God". By identifying Nature with Divinity, but also that God's essence independently transcends existence, Panentheism can give Theism some room to celebrate Divinity in Nature, without becoming idolatrous. Whether he could be consoled by resolution of the questions, is reflected with each successive symphonic attempt. The 1st Symphony depicts an autobiographical vision of his childhood, metaphorically personified by the life of a huntsman, taken from a children's book illustration by Moritz von Schwind, where Mahler questions "why have you lived, why have you suffered?" The same questions permeate each new composition. With the tragedies of his final years, the 9th Symphony captures his reactions of despair. The 10th Symphony, brought together fully by later scholars, reaches a peace, resignation and acceptance of his life. Perhaps the interpretation is open to the listener, as to whether the music articulates a resolution of his search for Divinity. It has been said that Mahler is a mystic, unable to be consoled by discovering the answers. However, to a believer in Theism, to whom the presence of God is granted, Mahler can capture the exile of the World from this Divine reality.

Alongside the philosophical and spiritual search in Mahler's music, the other elements make his music, perhaps the most autobiographical of any of the great composers. In a vivid way, Mahler turned the longings and sufferings of his life into art. The themes that obsess Mahler relate to childhood innocence, Nature, love, fate, ironic pathos, spiritual redemption, death and resurrection. The busy Jewish culture of his youth, as well as the precarious acceptance of Jews amidst growing anti-semitic currents in society, permeate his works. The language of his youth between Bohemia and Moravia, was German, while his parents spoke the Yiddish from the small villages. Norman Lebrecht sees throughout his music qualities derived from Yiddish. Its ironic and humorous patterns can juxtapose statement, with qualification. Lebrecht cites the 1st Symphony as an example of this, where the slow movement arranges the nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques", into the minor key, so that it becomes a funeral march. This then transforms into what Lebrecht interprets as a wild Jewish Klezmer celebration. As the simple story of the huntsman's funeral, this depicts his procession, accompanied by the woodland animals, in an ironic reversal of power. However, as an autobiographical metaphor, it has deeper significance. Irony says one thing, while meaning another, so that here the popular tune of childhood delight, turns into protest against the widespread death of children from illness, in the society in which Mahler grew up. The Jewish celebration, protests against the clash of this with the traditional Jewish veneration and protection of life. With this interpretation, Lebrecht cites this as perhaps the first social and political protest in Western Music. Mahler's baptism to Catholicism may have arisen from a need for professional entry to society, rather than from religious belief, but there is no evidence to doubt his sincerity. His compositions clearly reveal that he found aesthetic meaning in the high rituals of the Church. His assimilated Jewish background meant that he could identify with cosmopolitan spiritual and aesthetic values in wider European society. While he was alienated from Jewish observance, in other ways, perhaps, the Jewish roots of Mahler shape the spiritual quest of his music. The restless search for meaning reflects the religious and cultural response of Judaism to persecution, and his Jewish status as an outsider in society propels the individualism of his vision . Other forms of dramatic juxtaposition recur throughout his music, that also derive from autobiographical roots in Mahler's life and psychology. Profound statements can suddenly break into banal, frivolous or humorous asides. Serene expressions of love for Alma, can coexist with awesome or mocking pathos. In a revealing childhood episode, after a beating from his father, Mahler ran into the street, where he encountered a musical band in celebratory procession. This associated the connection between high drama and banal statement. Meanwhile the transcendent, spiritual beauty of Nature in his music is also tellingly foreshadowed by a story from his fifth year. In a rare walk with his father into the forest, his father remembered an urgent task left unfinished at home. He left the young Gustav on a log, promising to return to him, where he forgot about him. Four hours later, he returned, finding Mahler patiently transfixed by the sounds and beauty of Nature. It seems that the long opening of the 1st Symphony captures just such an experience of the delight and sounds of Nature.


Schoenberg, almost a full generation younger than Mahler, came to venerate the older man as a "saint" : an exemplary figure, selflessly devoted to art, generous to younger composers, and badly treated in the same way he himself was badly treated; Schoenberg could still, however, display a complicated attitude to the music and even speak of having had an "aversion" to it. This ambivalence did not, however, prevent him from becoming a penetrating analyst of Mahler's irregular melodic structures, or defending the Seventh Symphony against an American critic, nor did it inhibit his adoption and even refinement of massive Mahlerian effects in his Gurrelieder or Pelleas und Melisande, or, in those same works and elsewhere, the pursuit of Mahlerian clarity through soloistic or chamber-style orchestral scoring.

For Alban Berg, younger still, Mahler was a musical influence rather than a personal one (the tragic Symphony No. 6 was "the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral" ), and Mahlerian elements can be heard in many of his works. For example, the two hammer blows (three in the original edition) in the finale of the Mahler Sixth find their echo in Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, which features seven hammer blows in its final movement as well as thematic material of a decisively Mahlerian cut.

In the case of Anton Webern, who, in his early professional life, had conducted performances of Mahler symphonies, one may detect a Mahlerian concern with total textural clarity, while the small scale and rhetorical sparseness of Webern's later pieces means that the most overt 'Mahlerisms' are more identifiable in his youth. Parallels have also been drawn between Webern's and Mahler's love of nature, particularly the Carinthian countryside.

The earliest significant non-contemporaries to register the impact of Mahler were perhaps Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom identified with elements of Mahler's personal and creative character as well as with aspects of his musical style. Britten, who had first come to know Mahler's Symphony No. 4 while still a student, produced a 'reduced orchestra' version of the second movement of Symphony No. 3 and during his life performed Mahler's music as both a piano-accompanist and conductor. Both Britten and Shostakovich came to hold Das Lied von der Erde in special regard, and undeniable references to it are found in such works as the former's Phaedra and the latter's Fourth and Tenth symphonies. In the United Statesmarker, Aaron Copland's development of an authentically 'American' sound was influenced by Mahler, most notably in his Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman.

As well as Shostakovich, Britten and Copland, Mahler's music also had a significant influence on Richard Strauss, Ernst Krenek, Ferruccio Busoni, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the early symphonies of Havergal Brian, the music of Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Luciano Berio and Alfred Schnittke. Alexander von Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony in particular seems to have been inspired by Das Lied von der Erde.

The work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been compared to Mahler's.

Among other leading composers, an aversion to Mahler can often be attributed to radically incompatible creative goals rather than to any failure to recognise his technical skill: to Stravinsky, Mahler was "malheur" (French for "misfortune"), while Vaughan Williams described him as a "tolerable imitation of a composer". By the late 20th century, however, Mahler's kaleidoscopic scoring and motivically independent lines in intense contrapuntal combination had become staples of modernism, and formerly shocking features of his music such as his radical discontinuities, his penchant for parody and quotation (including self-quotation) and his blunt juxtaposition of 'high' and 'low' styles were prominent features of postmodernism.

Ultimately, one commentator believes, Mahler has influenced virtually every significant strand in twentieth-century music, with the notable exception of the impressionism of Debussy. Pierre Boulez, himself a renowned Mahler conductor, has said that a study of Mahler's music "is indispensable to anyone reflecting today on the future of music."

Mid and late 20th century

Mahler's difficulties in getting his works accepted led him to say, "My time will come". That time came in the mid 20th century, at a point when the development of the LP was allowing repeated hearings of the long and complex symphonies in competent and well-recorded performances. By 1956, every one of Mahler's symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony) had been issued on LP – as had Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das Klagende Lied, the song cycles, and many individual songs.

Advocated by composers who had known him (prominently Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg), and by conductors including Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein, his works won over an audience hungry for the next wave of musical exploration. In the late twentieth century, new musicological methods led to the extensive editing of his scores, leading to various attempts to complete the tenth symphony, such as by Deryck Cooke, and improved versions of the others.

Today, there is a Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra named in his honour.

Urlicht/Primal Light, a CD of improvised interpretations of Mahler's music by the New York composer and pianist Uri Caine, won the International Mahler society's "Best CD of the Year" in 1997. It features a distinctly contemporary-jazz flavoured set of instruments, including saxophone, turntables, guitar and electronics. Jewish elements are prominently featured, such as the song of a Cantor, and Klezmer-ish clarinet features.

Mahler in popular culture

Representations of Mahler

Although Mahler was once regarded as a composer of 'difficult' music, he has since the 1960s had a considerable presence in popular culture. Mahler's persona was strongly associated with that of Thomas Mann's character Gustav von Aschenbach in the 1971 film version of Death in Venice, which recast Aschenbach (an author in Mann's novella) as a conductor whose compositions were derided. The music also used extracts from Mahler's Third and Fifth Symphonies, particularly the Adagietto which became famous as a result. The Adagietto had frequently been performed on its own, notably at the memorial service for Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In 1974 Ken Russell made a biographical film entitled Mahler, very loosely based on the composer's life, with Robert Powell in the title role. There is a scene in the film where Mahler, waiting for the train to pull out of the station, observes a man who appears similar to Dirk Bogarde in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film of Death in Venice smiling at a blonde-haired boy dressed in a quaint sailor's uniform. The English playwright Ronald Harwood wrote a play in 2001 entitled Mahler's Conversion about the composer's emotional crisis on changing religion. The movie Bride of the Wind is based on the life of Alma Mahler and her various romances – Gustav Mahler is portrayed by Jonathan Pryce.

Mahler's music

Mahler's music has often featured in films and other media to suggest a character in turmoil, or one with a bohemian personality. In the film version of Educating Rita, Rita's (Julie Walters) new roommate Trish (Maureen Lipman), who is playing the last movement of Mahler's Sixth Symphony at full volume on her turntable, says "Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" as she opens the door to Rita for the first time. The character subsequently takes a drug overdose. In the book Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby (but not the film), Marion enjoys listening to Mahler's Second Symphony after shooting heroin. Excerpts from Mahler's Seventh Symphony appear in the soundtrack to the film Parting Glances, and his First Symphony is used as incidental music in the film Rubin and Ed. The final movement of Mahler's Third Symphony was used on an episode of the BBC's 'Coast' programme, during a description of the history of HMS Temeraire. The complete movement was used at the conclusion of one episode of the 1984 television series, Call to Glory.

In Britain, the opening notes of the Nachtmusik second movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony were for many years familiar as the theme for Castrol GTX motor oil in television commercials. Mahler is also referenced in the song "Ladies Who Lunch" from the musical Company by Stephen Sondheim.

Movement II of Symphony No. 1 was used prominently in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Counterpoint". As the title suggests, Mahler's use of counterpoint is discussed.

In the Japanese TV series Kekkon Dekinai Otoko, the main character Shinsuke Kuwano, a classical music and opera buff, plays the finale of Symphony No. 5 in his apartment frequently.

Mahler's music is used extensively as background music in the sprawling Japanese space opera, Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

A portion of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from the Rückert-Lieder is given a central role in the short film Champagne from Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.




  • Symphony No. 1 in D major (?1884–1888; rev. 1893–1896; 2nd rev. 1906).
    • Note: This was first called "Symphonic Poem", later "Titan" (presumably after Jean Paul, a suggestion however rejected by Mahler). Originally in 5 movements, the second movement, Blumine, was discarded in the final revision.
  • Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1888–1894; rev. 1903)
    • Note: This was first entitled Symphony in C Minor (with no number), as the First Symphony was still being billed as a Symphonic Poem. The title "Resurrection," while popular with listeners, does not appear on the score and is not used in works of reference (e.g. the New Grove). In addition, the subtitle was derived from the "Resurrection" Chorale by Friedrich Klopstock, as performed at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, which Mahler attended. This chorale influenced Mahler heavily and gave him the needed inspiration for the completion of this work (it is also rather uncanny that he was in attendance at von Bülow's funeral, as the man despised the New German School (i.e. Mahler's music).
  • Symphonic Poem 'Todtenfeier' in C minor (1888)
    • Note: This work was derived from the Symphony in C Minor, as Mahler had not finished the symphony by 1888 (see above). Later, the Symphonic Poem became what is now the first movement of the Second Symphony (after many revisions). The name 'Todtenfeier' comes from Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady, which is a poem in three sections about love and death (paralleling Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen from Des Knaben Wunderhorn).
  • Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893–1896; rev. 1906)
  • Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892, 1899–1900; rev. 1901–1910)
  • Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor/D major (1901–1902; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: While the symphony begins in the advertised C-sharp minor, it should be noted that the composer, himself, wrote in a letter to his publisher, "it is difficult to speak of a key for the whole symphony, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted."
  • Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903–1904; rev. 1906; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: At a performance in Vienna in 1907, the title "Tragic" was attached to the symphony on posters and programs, but the word does not appear on the score and is not used in works of reference.
  • Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904–1905; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: The title "Song of the Night", while popular with listeners, did not originate with Mahler, does not appear on the score, and is not used in works of reference.

American premiere of Mahler's Symphony No.

:Note: Several prominent Mahler conductors – notably Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado and Sir Georg Solti – have, for various reasons (for instance, the lack of counterpoint) refused to perform any of the various "completions" or "performing versions" of the Tenth that were available to them. Some have however performed the Adagio as a stand-alone movement.

Vocal works

:(literally Songs of a Travelling Journeyman, usually translated as Songs of a Wayfarer.)
  • Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment (1888–1896; two others 1899 and 1901)
  • Rückert Lieder, for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment (1901–1902)
  • Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), for voice and orchestra (1901–1904)
  • Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) for alto (or baritone) and tenor soloists and orchestra (1908–1909)
    • Note: this work can be classified as both a symphony and a song cycle. Some believe that Mahler avoided numbering it as a symphony due to a superstitious fear of the curse of the ninth.

Other works


On 9 November 1905 Mahler recorded four of his own compositions for the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano:
  • "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld", from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (piano accompaniment only).
  • "Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald", from Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (piano accompaniment only).
  • "Das himmlische Leben", Wunderhorn setting used as fourth movement of Symphony No. 4 (piano accompaniment only).
  • First movement (Trauermarsch) from Symphony No. 5 (in arrangement for solo piano).

Arrangements of the symphonies

In view of the relative infrequency of the symphonies' early performances (partly a result of their instrumental demands), consideration of the various piano, 2-piano and piano duet arrangements that were current during Mahler's lifetime (or shortly after) is not without interest – especially where these were produced by outstanding musicians:

  • Das klagende Lied: vocal score with piano reduction by J.V. von Wöss
  • Symphony No. 1: arranged for piano duet by Bruno Walter (1906)
  • Symphony No. 2: arranged for 2 pianos by Hermann Behn (Leipzig, 1895); for piano duet by Bruno Walter (1899); for 2 pianos (8 hands) by Heinrich von Bocklet (1899; publ. U.E., Vienna, 1914)
  • Symphony No. 3: arranged for piano duet by J.V. von Wöss; second movement (Menuetto) transcribed for piano solo by Ignaz Friedman (1913)
  • Symphony No. 4: arranged for piano duet by J.V. von Wöss
  • Symphony No. 5: arranged for 2 pianos by August Stradal (Leipzig, n.d.); for piano (2 hands) by Otto Singer (Leipzig, n.d. [1920?]); fourth movement (Adagietto) arranged for violin and piano by Otto Wittenbecher (C.F. Peters, Leipzig, 1914)
  • Symphony No. 6: arranged for piano duet by Alexander Zemlinsky (Leipzig, 1906)
  • Symphony No. 7: arranged for piano duet by Alfredo Casella (Berlin, 1910)
  • Symphony No. 8: vocal score with piano reduction by J.V. von Wöss (1910)
  • Das Lied von der Erde: vocal score with piano reduction by J.V. von Wöss (1912)
  • Symphony No. 9: arranged for piano duet by J.V. von Wöss (1912)

See also


  • Bernstein, Leonard. 1967. "Mahler: His Time Has Come." High Fidelity Magazine. September 1967. 51–54. (reprinted in Bernstein (1982). Findings. ISBN 0671429191. also in various other media, and on the web, here. )
  • Burnett-James, David. 1989. Sibelius. The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers Series. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0711916837
  • Carr, Jonathan. 1999. The Real Mahler. Constable and Robinson. ISBN 0-09-479500-2.
  • Cooke, Deryck. 1980. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23175-2 (cloth) ISBN 0-521-29847-4
  • James, Burnett D. 1985. The Music of Gustav Mahler. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3167-3
  • Lebrecht, Norman. 1987. Mahler Remembered. London: Faber. ISBN 0571150098 (cloth) ISBN 0571146929 (pbk.)
  • Walter, Bruno. 1957. Gustav Mahler. Translation from the German supervised by Lotte Walter Lindt. New York: Knopf
  • Franklin, Peter: "Gustav Mahler", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 29 November 2007), (subscription access)

Further reading

  • Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. (1996). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-00769-3.
  • An Affinity with Gustav Mahler, edited by Stewart Quentin Holmes. London: Elius Books, 1999 (ISBN 095287125-3)
  • Blaukopf, Kurt. (1973). Gustav Mahler. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-0464-X.
  • Carr, Jonathan. (1998). Mahler: A biography. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press. ISBN 0879518022
  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. (1995). Gustav Mahler: Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904) (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315159-6.
  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. (2000). Gustav Mahler: Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907) (Vol. 3). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315160-X.
  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. (2008). Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short, 1907-1911 (Vol. 4). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198163879.
  • Fischer, Jens Malte. (2003). Gustav Mahler. Der fremde Vertraute. Biographie. Wien: Paul Zsolnay. ISBN 3-552-05273-9.
  • Franklin, Peter (1997). The Life of Mahler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-46761-6
  • Gartenberg, Egon (1978). Mahler, the man and his music. Macmillan Pub Co (January 1978). ISBN 0028708407.
  • Greco, Antonio. (2006). Gustav Mahler:"Il mio tempo verrà - Meine Zeit wird kommen" - Viaggio tra le 10 Sinfonie. - Giuseppe Laterza Editore. Bari (Italia). ISBN 88-8231-370-0
  • Machlis, J. and Forney, K. (1999). The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (Chronological Version) (8th ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-97299-2.
  • Mitchell, Donald. (1958, reprinted 2005). Gustav Mahler, Vol. 1: The Early Years. Boydell Press. ISBN 1843830035
  • Mitchell, Donald. (2005). Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years: Chronicles and Commentaries. Boydell Press. ISBN 1843830035
  • Mitchell, Donald. (2008). Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death. Interpretations and Annotations. Boydell Press. ISBN 0851159087
  • Pfohl, Ferdinand. 1973. Gustav Mahler, Eindrücke und Erinnerungen aus den Hamburger Jahren. Schriftenreihe zur Musik 4, edited by Knud Martner. Hamburg: Verlag der Musikalienhandlung K. D. Wagner.
  • Sadie, S. (Ed.). (1988). The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-333-43236-3.


  1. Franklin, Grove online
  2. Seckerson, Edward. Mahler. Omnibus Press, 1984. p. 30.
  3. Gustav Mahler - an overview of the classical composer at
  4. Island of Freedom - Gustav Mahler at
  5. These revised versions of the Schumann symphonies have now been recorded by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig, under Riccardo Chailly.
  6. See Mahler's Heavenly Retreats (composing huts)
  7. Gustav Mahler Komponierhäuschen --- Klagenfurt/Maiernigg --- Austria at
  8. Libman-Sacks Endocarditis Retrieved 2008-08-11
  9. G. Mahler's grave in Ginzing Cemetery, Vienna
  10. Carr 1999
  11. See The symphony - Gustav Mahler Retrieved on 2009-04-04
  12. The symphony - Gustav Mahler Retrieved on 2009-04-04
  13. Bernstein, 1967
  14. Burnett-James 1989, 41
  15. See Julian Johnson, Webern and the Transformation of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) .
  16. Ref to "African Mahler"
  17. Lebrecht 1987, .
  18. Quoted in Lebrecht 1987, x.
  19. Cited in Cooke 1980, 4.
  20. - Putting it together since 1994. at
  21. BGM of LoGH
  22. James 1985, 137.

External links

Biographies and essays

Mahler organizations, archives, etc.

Recordings, books and sheet music


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