Prague, Leipzig, Vienna, New York. Gustav Mahler was someone we would call a cosmopolitan today. As a conductor and opera director, he worked in the most important musical centers of Europe and the United States.
His reputation as a relentless, uncompromising conductor who demanded impossible things from his ensemble and brought his musicians to the verge of despair accompanied him wherever he went. As director of the Vienna Court Opera, he not only arranged to lower the orchestra pit, causing the orchestra to effectively disappear, but also refused to grant admission to latecomers. Mahler, the uncompromising reformer.
But wait a minute. Gustav Mahler… we also know him as the creator of colossal orchestral works. As the symphonist who integrated chorus and solo voices into his works, expanding the limits of the genre. As the composer of art songs that alternate melancholy with grotesque humor.
Yes, and lucky for us. Thanks to the devotion of other great conductors like Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein, the name of Gustav Mahler gradually found its way back into concert halls starting in the mid-twentieth century. And this is to be welcomed, since during his lifetime, Mahler the composer always lagged behind Mahler the conductor in terms of public appreciation. His works were ridiculed, sometimes even booed. In Mahler’s own words, he sought with his symphonies to create a world, but this world was often simply not understood. It is a world that revealed much - his character, his life, and his time.
His most important works include nine completed symphonies (four of which include solo voices and/or chorus), Das Lied von der Erde, and several song cycles (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Kindertotenlieder).
From 1897 to 1907, he serves as director of the Vienna Court Opera. In order to obtain the post, the Jewish-born Mahler converts to Catholicism. After many personal attacks, Mahler resigns in 1907.
In 1902 Mahler marries Alma Schindler at Vienna’s Karlskirche. The marriage produces two daughters, though the eldest - Maria Anna (nicknamed “Putzi”) - dies young.
In 1908, one year after resigning from the Vienna Court Opera, Mahler celebrates his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. To open the program, he conducts Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
In 1909 Mahler completes what he considered to be his most personal work: Das Lied von der Erde for tenor and alto solo, chorus, and orchestra. This magnum opus was not premiered until after Mahler’s death.
On May 18, 1911 Mahler dies at the Loew Sanatorium from complications of heart disease, which had been diagnosed four years earlier.
Did you know?
A hard worker when it came to music, Mahler seemed a bit lacking in drive in other areas: at the Prague Gymnasium he was at the very bottom of the class of 64 students, while at the Iglau Gymnasium he failed his final exam.
Due to his great love of animals and even greater veneration of Wagner, Mahler became a vegetarian for a time.
At the tender age of three, Mahler is said to have interrupted a song at the synagogue with the words, “Be quiet! That’s not beautiful!”, after which he started singing a Bohemian melody.
Childlike innocence and longing versus tyranny and despotism - these antitheses best describe both Mahler’s character and his music.
If someone happened to disturb the composer while at work in his summer “composer’s hut,” they could reckon with a fiery outburst - even the church bells had to keep silent while Mahler was composing.
Mahler was no fan of killing time. In order to use his lunch break efficiently, he would order his food in advance. Before entering the building, he would ring one more time to ensure that the soup was already on the table.