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Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

(1860 - 1911)

Having lived a divided life of triumph and heartbreak, of optimism and hopelessness, it is only fitting that the music of Gustav Mahler portrays such conflict and arouses varying reactions in listeners, from fierce adoration to outright dislike.

Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia, to the owners of a brandy distillery. Gustav was the second of twelve children born to Bernhard and Marie Mahler, six of whom died very young and one of whom committed suicide. Gustav did show a musical precocity and Bernhard, open to his son's talent, began paying for piano lessons. Gustav gave his first public recital in Iglau at the age of ten, before finding his way to the Prague Gymnasium and Vienna Conservatory.

His conservatory period was generally a success, having won awards for piano playing and composition, but having first dealt with the anti-Semitic views of Vienna's musical establishment. Mahler chose to conduct while earning a sparse composing income, working through the smaller halls of Bohemia and Hungary before establishing himself as a podium tour de force with appointments in Prague (1885-6), Leipzig (1886-8), Budapest (1888-91), Hamburg (1891-7), and, ultimately, Vienna (1897-1901). Mahler was popular in his conducting role, leading revolutionary changes in orchestral repertoire and how opera, particularly Wagner, is presented.

The personal life of Mahler, even with its depth of success, was remarkably troubled. His harsh rehearsal methods and dealings with musicians were widely criticized, although many were fascinated by his leadership and considered his performances to be on an entirely different level. His Jewish background made him even more of a target for Vienna's racist newspapers, imposing pressure to which he later caved. He converted to Roman Catholicism while in Vienna for political reasons, overlooking his true faith. Mahler's ten-year marriage to Alma Maria Schindler barely escaped divorce, having been strained by their age difference of 19 years, his identity problems, and the death of their five-year-old elder daughter, Maria Anna. A psychoanalytical discussion about their marriage between Gustav Mahler and Freud is very well-known.

Mahler's compositional output is almost entirely of symphonies and lieder . He never wrote a complete opera, despite making such a large contribution to operatic design and presentation. Of his nine full symphonies, the Second ( Resurrection, premiered 1895), Third ( Pan, 1902), and Eighth ( Symphony of a Thousand, 1910) are arguably the most popular with listeners. His song canon is extensive, including the cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), Des Knaben Wunderhorn ( The Youth's Magic Horn), and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). For those who find the symphonies less appealing, the songs are easily approachable and beautiful in tone.

The style of Mahler is late-Romantic, along the lines of Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. Although tending to use the classical forms of sonata and scherzo, his themes typify the anxious fin-de-siécle mood that took hold of Europe during his era. While drawing closer to the world of New Music - atonality - he expanded the Romantic orchestra to its breaking point. His Eighth Symphony, divided into two parts on an ancient church hymn and the transfiguration scene from Goethe's Faust, requires some one thousand performers, including eight vocal soloists, adult and children's choirs, quadruple winds, two harps, large percussion section, and organ. Naturally, Mahler's commitment to new sounds and his idea of the symphony as an "entire world" were unpopular but for a small group of Viennese admirers. But the group did include Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, who led the Germanic musical world through later years.

Mahler died of a blood infection in Vienna on May 18, 1911, at the age of 50. His music was seldom performed in the years immediately after his death and further set back by the Nazi's crackdown on "degenerate" music in Germany and Austria during the Second World War. Even today, Mahler's stormy works seem coarse to many and are an acquired taste. But through growing interests in Mahler's legacy, his music has seen a steady revival over the past five decades. ~ Paul-John Ramos

Mahler's signature

Recommended Recordings


Sheet Music for this Piece
Kindertotenlieder/Deutsche Grammophon 427697-2
Thomas Hampson (baritone), Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Kindertotenlieder/EMI CDC7477932
Janet Baker (soprano), John Barbarolli/Halle Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Das Lied von der Erde

Sheet Music for this Piece
"The Song Of The Earth"/Deutsche Grammophon 413459-2
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Francisco Araiza (tenor), Carlo Maria Giulini/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
"The Song Of The Earth"/EMI CDC7472312
Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
"The Song Of The Earth"/RCA Gold Seal 60178-2-RG
Maureen Forrester (contralto), Richard Lewis (tenor), Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Symphonies

Sheet Music for this Piece
Symphony #1 "Titan" (Original Version)/Harmonia Mundi HMU907118
James Judd/Florida Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #1 "Titan"/London 411731-2
George Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #1 "Titan"/Denon 33C37-7537
Eliahu Inbal/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #2 "Resurrection"/Telarc CD-80081/2
Kathleen Battle (soprano), Maureen Forrester (contralto), Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Symphony #2 "Resurrection"/Deutsche Grammophon 423395-2
Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Christa Ludwig (contralto), Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #3 in D minor/Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2006/7
Norma Procter (contralto), Jasha Horenstein/London Symphony Orchestra & Ambrosian Singers
Symphony #3 in D minor/Denon C37-7828/29
Doris Soffel (mezzo-soprano), Eliahu Inbal/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #4 in G Major/Philips 412119-2
Roberta Alexander (soprano), Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Symphony #4 in G Major/Denon 33C37-7952-EX
Helen Donath (soprano), Eliahu Inbal/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #5 in C Sharp minor/Denon 33CO-1088-EX
Eliahu Inbal/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #5 in C Sharp minor/Deutsche Grammophon 423608-2
Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #5 in C Sharp minor/RCA RCD1-5453
James Levine/Philadephia Orchestra
Symphony #6 "Tragic"/London 414674-2
Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #6 "Tragic"/Deutsche Grammophon 427697-2
Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #7 in E minor/Deutsche Grammophon 413773-2
Claudio Abbado/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #7 in E minor/Deutsche Grammophon 419211-2
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #8 "Symphony of a Thousand"/London 414493-2
Soloists, Gerog Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Vienna State Opera Chorus & Singverein
Symphony #8 "Symphony of a Thousand"/EMI CDS7476258
Soloists, Klaus Tennstedt/London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus
Symphony #9 in D Major/Sony SM3K47585
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #9 in D Major/Deutsche Grammophon 419208-2
Leonard Bernstein/Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Symphony #9 in D Major/Deutsche Grammophon 410726-2
Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #10 (Adagio) in F Sharp Major/Sony SM3K47585
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #10 (Completed by Cooke) in F Sharp Major/EMI CDC7544062
Simon Rattle/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra