Gustav Mahler is hailed as one of the most prominent and influential symphonic composers belonging to the 19th and early 20th century. His creation principally comprised of symphonic and song cycles that postulated complex orchestral scores. Though, Mahler scarcely tasted popularity and success as a composer during his lifetime, his talents as interpretive artist on the conductor's rostrums was immensely acclaimed and also earned him some of the most prestigious assignments as music director to reputed orchestras. Born in a Jewish family, he had to endure the anti-Semitic campaigns, which even led to his exile from Vienna, yet his artistic endeavors hardly seemed to cease. Gustav Mahler once stated, "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.” As a composer, he introduced many distinctive styles which in course of time laid a profound influence upon the Viennese composers of the following generations that instigated significant trends in operatic production setting new standards.
Gustav Mahler's Childhood & Early Life
Born in Kaliste, Bohemia on the 7 July 1860 to a distillery manager father and a homemaker mother, Gustav Mahler was the second of fourteen children. Five of his siblings died in infancy while three others did not live till mature adulthood. From his early childhood, Gustav witnessed constant conflicts between his browbeating father and his frail mother. This perhaps influenced his compositional style as they always reflected such themes which depicted a struggle between good and evil, happy and sad, strong and weak. Mahler musical aptitudes were obvious at very early stages and by the time Gustav turned eight, he was already composing music. Gustav’s parents encouraged his musical pursuits and sent him to private tutors to learn his first lessons. Young Mahler then tried for Vienna Conservatory where he studied 1875 to 1878. Though Mahler's studies at the Conservatory got off to a slow start, the final year fetched him many composition awards. In 1878, Mahler graduated from the conservatory, but failed to earn the silver medal, bestowed for outstanding achievements. Mahler then joined the Vienna University and pursued his interest in literature and Philosophy.
After leaving the university in 1879, Mahler made some earnings as a piano teacher and in 1880, finished his dramatic cantata "Das klagende Lied" ("The Song of Lamentation"). Mahler developed a keen interest in German philosophy. One of his friends Siegfried Lipiner introduced him to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Fechner and Hermann Lotze. The influence of these philosophers persisted which was evident in Mahler’s music long after his student days were over. Mahler took his first professional conducting job in a small wooden theatre in the spa town of Bad Hall, south of Linz during the summers of 1880 at the behest of Julius Epstein who promised to work Gustav’s way up. At Landestheater in Laibach (modern day Ljubljana, in Slovenia) in 1881, Mahler associated himself with a resourceful company which was on its course to attempt ambitious works. Mahler got the first opportunity to conduct his first full-scale opera, ‘Verdi's Il trovatore’, which was among his 50 such works, which he presented during his time in Laibach. However, after the completion of his six-month term, Mahler returned to Vienna where at the Vienna Carltheater, he worked as part-time chorus-master. Later in January 1883, Mahler was appointed as the conductor at a run-down theatre in Olmütz (present day Olomouc). Even though Mahler didn’t share very amicable relations with the members of the orchestra, yet he was successful in bringing up five new operas to the theatre, one of which was Bizet's Carmen. Soon Mahler received warm and enthusiastic reviews from the critic, which until then had been hostile. After a week's trial at the Royal Theatre in the Hessian town of Kassel, Mahler was appointed from August 1883 as the "Musical and Choral Director" of the theater.
Here Mahler conducted his most preferent opera, Weber's Der Freischütz. On 23 June 1884, Gustav conducted his own incidental music to Joseph Victor von Scheffel's play Der Trompeter von Säkkingen ("The Trumpeter of Säkkingen"), which was the first professional public performance of his own work. Passionate yet unfulfilled love affair with soprano Johanna Richter inspired Mahler to write a series of love poems, which eventually became the text of his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"). In July, Mahler resigned from the position and was offerd the position of an assistant conductor at the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague. Mahler left Prague in April 1886 for Leipzig, where he was offered a position at the Neues Stadttheater. However, the position accompanied a bitter rivalry with his senior colleague Arthur Nikisch, primarily over the share of conducting duties for the theatre's new production of Wagner's Ring cycle. But later, in January 1887, due to Nikisch's illness, Mahler took charge of the whole cycle and experienced an exceptional public success. In spite of this, his relationship with his orchestra remained resentful, who deplored his tyrannical ways and heavy rehearsal schedules.
In Leipzig, Mahler met Carl von Weber and agreed to work on a performing version of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos ("The Three Pintos"). Mahler added some composition of his own and the work was premiered, in January 1888 at the Stadttheater. This work was immensely successful which brought both critical acclaim and financial rewards. However the relationship with Weber family was scarred by a romantic involvement to Carl von Weber's wife Marion. Though, equally passionate on both sides, this romantic attachment led to nowhere.
Mahler was appointed the director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest from October 1888. In May 1891, he resigned from his Budapest post as he was offered the position of the chief conductor at Hamburg Stadttheater. While at Stadttheater, Mahler introduced several new operas, such as Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, Verdi's Falstaff and works by Smetana. However soon he was compelled to resign from his post with the subscription concerts in the wake of financial failures and an ill-received interpretation of his re-scored Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Since 1895 Mahler had been trying to attain the directorship of the Vienna Hofoper. However the appointment of a Jew to this position was barred which he overcame by converting to Roman Catholicism in February 1897. A couple of months later Mahler was appointed to the Hofoper, provisionally as a staff conductor with the title of Kapellmeister.
Though in Vienna Gustav experienced several theatrical triumphs yet his days in Vienna years were full of hardships. His conflicts with the singers and the house administration persisted throughout his tenure. Mahler was immensely successful in raising the standards, yet his tyrannical style was resented by both orchestra members and singers. In December 1903, Mahler rejected the demands of the stagehands suspecting that the extremists were manipulating his staff. However, the anti-Semitic elements in Viennese society launched a press campaign in 1907, which was intended to drive Gustav out. On November 24, after conducting the Hofoper orchestra in a farewell concert performance of his Second Symphony, Mahler left Vienna for New York in early December.
At a social gathering in November 1901, Gustav met Alma Schindler who was the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll. Though she initially denied meeting Mahler, the two engaged in a debate over a ballet by Alexander von Zemlinsky (Alma was one of Zemlinsky's pupils), and agreed to meet at the Hofoper the next day. Soon both fell in love and on 9 March 1902, they got married at a private ceremony. By that time Alma was already pregnant with her first child, a daughter Maria, who was born on 3 November 1902. She gave birth to a second daughter Anna, in 1904. Mahler, much dejected by the campaign launched against him in Vienna, took his family to Maiernigg in the summer of 1907. After their arrival at Maiernigg, both his daughters fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria. Anna recovered but Maria succumbed after a fortnight's struggle on 12 July.
Even in the face of emotional turmoil during the summers of 1910 Mahler worked on his Tenth Symphony, completing the Adagio and drafting four more movements. In November 1910, Mahler and Alma returned to New York, where Mahler busied himself into a busy Philharmonic season of concerts and tours. Mahler began suffering from a persistent sore throat round Christmas 1910. On 21 February 1911, Mahler performed his last concert at the Carnegie Hall. After being bedridden for weeks, he was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis. Mahler fought with courage and took a keen interest when one of Alma's compositions was sung on the 3rd of March at a public recital by the soprano Frances Alda. The Mahler family along with a permanent nurse left New York on board SS Amerika bound for Europe on 8 April. Ten days later they arrived at Paris, where Mahler was admitted to a clinic at Neuilly, but there was no improvement. He then travelled by train to the Lŏw sanatorium in Vienna on the 11 May, where he left for the heavenly abode on 18. According to Mahler’s wish he was buried in the Grinzing cemetery on 22 May, 1911. Doctor’s advised Alma to be absent. Among the mourners at the funeral were Bruno Walter, Arnold Schoenberg (whose wreath described Mahler as "the holy Gustav Mahler"), the Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, Alfred Roller and representatives from many of the great European opera houses.
- Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, 1833-1835
- Das Klagende Lied. 1880
- Drei Lieder (three songs for tenor and piano), 1880
- Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (fourteen songs with piano accompaniment) 1880–1890