Who was Mahler?

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a late Romantic composer, as well as one of the most prominent conductors of his generation. Best known for his nine finished symphonies, Mahler is a hugely important connection between the 19th-century Austro-German tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, and the early 20th-century modernism of Schoenberg and others.

When was Mahler born?

Mahler was born on the 7 July 1860 in Bohemia - then a part of the Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic. The little Gustav was the second son born to Bernhard and Marie: the couple eventually had 12 children, but only six survived infancy. The family were Jewish.

Where did Mahler grow up?

The future composer spent his childhood in the town of Jihlava, where his father had a successful inn and distillery business. Later, from 1875-78, Mahler studied at the Vienna Conservatory, where he learned piano with Julius Epstein and composition and harmony with the composer Robert Fuchs.

What are Mahler's most famous pieces?

Mahler is best known for his nine completed symphonies, which between them cross a huge musical and emotional terrain, from joy and awe at nature, via sardonic laughter to bleak despair and on into redemption and hope. Mahler's symphonic output is without a dioubt one of the most intense and involving emotional journeys that a listener can go on.

Among his symphonies, the best known include Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (also known as the 'Resurrection'). Also very famous is Mahler's Symphony No. 5, with its memorable beginning that draws rhythmically on the opening of Beethoven's own Fifth Symphony, and its soulful, almost unbearbly poignant Adagietto, thought to be a musical love letter to Mahler's wife Alma Mahler. Among other things, the Adagietto is used in the 1971 film of Death in Venice.

Mahler's Symphony No. 6, also known as the 'Tragic', is another of the composer's best known symphonies.

Who did Mahler marry?

In November 1901, the 41-year-old Mahler met Alma Schindler at a party. The two of them got talking - about a ballet by Alexander von Zemlinsky, with whom Alma was studying. They started seeing each other very soon afterwards, and were married on 9 March 1902.

Did Mahler have children?

By that time, Alma was already pregnant with her first child, Maria Anna. The couple had a second daughter, Anna, in 1904. Anna Mahler became a prominent sculptor.

When did Mahler die?

Mahler died in Vienna on 18 May 1911. He had been suffering for some years from rheumatic mitral valve disease. This resulted in the frequent throat infections that, probably, put an end to his life. At the time of his death Mahler was a much in-demand conductor: during the 1910-11 season, he was booked in for 90 concerts.

On his deathbed, Mahler's final words were 'Mozart... Mozart'.

Who are the greatest Mahler conductors?

In the early and middle 20th centuries, conductors like Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg were great conductors of Mahler's symphonies. Later, in the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein played a hugely important role in the resurgence of interest in Mahler. Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw made a much-admired Mahler cycle (the composer has always been very popular in the Netherlands). Rafael Kubelík, born like Mahler in Bohemia, also made a hugely respected Mahler symphony cycle.

Was Mahler famous during his lifetime?

While during his lifetime Mahler's status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect, which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 his compositions were rediscovered by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.

What was Mahler's musical style?

‘My time will come.’ That’s probably the most famous of all the remarks attributed to Gustav Mahler.

It seems to have come resoundingly true in our own time. Not only do Mahler’s symphonies and song cycles turn up regularly in concert programmes and record catalogues, but the use of the voluptuously beautiful Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony in the Visconti film Death in Venice has also brought Mahler to an audience that might never have thought of setting foot in a concert hall or the classical section of a record store.

Yet for most of his career Mahler was widely known, not as a composer, but as a great conductor who also happened to compose. His nine completed symphonies – the backbone of his output – were ridiculed in some circles. He was routinely accused of being absurdly extravagant, morbid, self-indulgent, unable to discriminate between the sublime and the ridiculous, and worst of all, derivative.

Who was Mahler influenced by?

When Mahler was conductor at the Vienna Opera, there was a standing joke among musicians. A messenger is seen delivering some scores to Mahler’s dressing room: Beethoven, Berlioz, Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky – ‘Aha,’ says the observer, ‘he’s composing again!’

Many Mahler-loving readers will find it baffling that one of the most original and distinctive composers of the 20th century could ever have been dismissed as a mere plagiarist. But the fact is, there is a grain of truth in the allegation.

Play the very beginning of the slow (third) movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony followed by the orchestral introduction to the Quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ from Act I of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and you’ll discover the Mahler is virtually a copy. Only the metre is changed: four beats to a bar instead of three. It can’t be coincidence: Fidelio was one of the operas Mahler conducted most frequently.

Mahler: the great synthesist

In fact, Mahler is one of music’s great synthesisers. He brings together elements from a huge range of sources: folksongs, street-ditties, barrel-organ tunes, crude military marches, Biergarten waltzes rub shoulders with noble chorales and melodies whose grace and warm intensity recall Schubert or Schumann.

This wild mixing process can also be felt at a deeper, structural level. Thus the Third Symphony combines stretches of self-evident symphonic logic with elements of oratorio, Lieder and even Viennese operetta; the Eighth progresses from a Herculean display of neo-Beethovenian counterpoint to something much closer to grand opera.

Attempts have been made to explain the bewildering range of Mahler’s soundworlds in terms of his personal psychology. One incident is made much of by some commentators. In August 1910, Mahler met Sigmund Freud who, in a letter written 14 years later, described what the composer told him. ‘[Mahler’s] father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was a specially painful scene between them.

'It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air “O, du lieber Augustin”. In Mahler’s opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.’

Yet Mahler’s bringing together of incongruous elements is not in itself new. What is new is the way he exalts it into a musical philosophy. Even those derivations from other composers are part of it all. He isn’t simply stealing from them: he is invoking the great classical tradition in which he was raised.

The terrifying climax of the Adagio first movement of the incomplete Tenth Symphony, for example, brings to mind both the Adagio final movement of the Ninth Symphony by Mahler’s teacher Bruckner and the climactic crescendo of the slow movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.

It’s as though Mahler were telling us, ‘I belong with these people, and yet I don’t’; the kind of ironic stance one might expect of an artist who described himself as ‘three times homeless: a native of Bohemia in Austria; an Austrian among Germans; a Jew throughout the whole world.’

It is also what one might expect of a highly self-conscious 20th-century composer looking back on the 19th century. For although Mahler often seems to present himself in late-Romantic musical dress, his vision of a universe that is full of ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions is a thoroughly modern one, in line with the puzzles of Franz Kafka or the ‘impossible’ pictures of Max Escher.

Gustav Mahler, whose Symphony no.8 was also premiered in September 1910, the same month as Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia'
Gustav Mahler: 'although Mahler often seems to present himself in late-Romantic musical dress, his vision of a universe full of ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions is a thoroughly modern one'

Not that Mahler always remains true to this ‘modern’ vision. When, at the end of the Fifth Symphony, he brings back the chorale theme from the second movement in brassy triumph, it seems he wants us to hear this as the culmination of a musical story-line that has run throughout the work. But in all his symphonies, the story-line is eventually disrupted by forces which seem to intrude from some other dimension.

Far from seeing everything in terms of one all-encompassing vision, he can see only the frightening diversity of things – a universe without the reassuring certainties of religious faith or Newtonian physics.

Sometimes he himself is unequal to that vision. He tries to find faith, rational order in his cosmos. At other times he attempts escapism, as in the Fourth Symphony’s nostalgic portrayal of an imagined childhood paradise. But the attempts ultimately fail and then there is the possibility of the void to be faced – as in the singer’s unresolved falling phrases at the end of Das Lied von der Erde.

Perhaps that is why it took so long for Mahler’s time to come. Yet his ability to confront a potentially godless universe can help us confront it. If we make the journey with him, we may find that we are the better for it.

Yes! According to recent research, Beyoncé Knowles is Gustav Mahler's eighth cousin, four times removed.


Stephen JohnsonJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Stephen Johnson is a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine, with work also published in The Independent, The Guardian and Gramophone. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, and has presented programmes and documentaries on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams.