Gustav Mahler and the Modernism in Music

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

On July 7, 1860, Austrian late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler was born. Mahler also was one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century.

Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliště in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire, now Czech Republic, as the 2nd of 14 children into a Jewish German-speaking family to Bernhard Mahler, a coachman and later an innkeeper, and his wife Marie, the daughter of a soap maker. Within months of his birth, the family moved to the nearby town of Jihlava (German: Iglau), Moravia, where Mahler spent his childhood and youth. When he was four years old, Gustav discovered his grandparents’ piano and took to it immediately. He developed his performing skills sufficiently to be considered a local Wunderkind and gave his first public performance at the town theatre when he was ten years old. Due to his bad results at Iglau Gymnasium, his father sent him to the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, but Gustav was unhappy there and soon returned to Iglau. Bernhard Mahler supported his son’s ambitions for a music career, and agreed that the boy should try for a place at the Vienna Conservatory. The young Mahler was auditioned by the renowned pianist Julius Epstein, and accepted for 1875–76.

Among Mahler’s fellow students at the Conservatory was the future song composer Hugo Wolf, with whom he formed a close friendship. He attended occasional lectures by Anton Bruckner and, though never formally his pupil, was influenced by him. Along with many music students of his generation, Mahler fell under the spell of Richard Wagner, though his chief interest was the sound of the music rather than the staging. Mahler left the Conservatory in 1878 with a diploma but without the prestigious silver medal given for outstanding achievement. He then enrolled at the University of Vienna and followed courses which reflected his developing interests in literature and philosophy. After leaving the University in 1879, Mahler made some money as a piano teacher, continued to compose, and in 1880 finished a dramatic cantata, Das klagende Lied (“The Song of Lamentation“).

The next 17 years saw his ascent to the very top of his chosen profession. From conducting musical farces in Austria, he rose through various provincial opera houses, including important engagements at Budapest and Hamburg, to become artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897, at age 37. As a conductor he had won general acclaim, but as a composer, during this first creative period, he immediately encountered the public’s lack of comprehension that was to confront him for most of his career.[1] While conducting at the Hamburg Opera, he took his summer vacations at Steinbach-am-Attersee, during which he concentrated on composition. There, he completed his Symphony No. 1 and the Lieder aus ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ in this period. While in Hamburg, Mahler finally finished his second symphony in 1895. Also, in the same year, Mahler’s younger brother shot himself. Since his parents had died several years before, Mahler became the head of the household. To protect his younger sisters, he moved them to Hamburg to live with him.[4]

In 1897, Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism in order to secure the post as artistic director of the prestigious Vienna Court Opera (Jews were virtually prohibited from holding the post at that time). For the next ten years he stayed at Vienna, where he was noted as a great perfectionist. He ran the Opera for nine months of the year, spending the other three composing, mainly at Maiernigg, where he had built a villa on the Wörthersee.[2] He wed fellow composer and musician Alma Maria Schindler in 1902, with the couple going on to have two daughters as well as a sometimes strained marriage.[5]

In spite of numerous theatrical triumphs, Mahler’s Vienna years were rarely smooth; his battles with singers and the house administration continued on and off for the whole of his tenure. While Mahler’s methods improved standards, his histrionic and dictatorial conducting style was resented by orchestra members and singers alike. In 1907, he was at odds with the Vienna opera house’s administration over the amount of time he was spending on his own music, and was preparing to leave. He began discussions with Heinrich Conried, director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and in June 1907 signed a contract, on very favourable terms, for four seasons’ conducting in New York. Mahler made his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 1 January 1908, when he conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

On his return to Austria for the summer of 1908, Mahler, using a text by Hans Bethge based on ancient Chinese poems, he composed Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth“). Despite the symphonic nature of the work, Mahler refused to number it, hoping thereby to escape the “curse of the Ninth Symphony” that he believed had affected fellow-composers Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner. For its 1908–09 season the Metropolitan management brought in the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini to share duties with Mahler. But the public and critics were confused by his compositions, and generally had negative opinions during Gustav Mahler’s lifetime. He was also subjected to anti-Semitism on occasion. In 1909 he lost his 4 year old daughter to scarlet fever. It was made more poignant by that fact that he had written Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) just a few years earlier. Mahler died in May 1911 from a heart condition at age 50.

Mahler’s compositions were solely symphonic rather than operatic. He eventually composed 10 symphonies, each very emotional and large in scale. He also wrote several song cycles with folk influences. His work is characterized as part of the Romanticism movement and is often focused on death and afterlife.[5] After his death, Mahler’s work went largely unacknowledged. It took decades for his community to recognize his influence.

At yovisto you can learn more the works of Gustav Mahler in the lecture series of Keith James Clarck on “In Mahler`s Footsteps: Mahler`s relationship with the natural world”.

References and Further Reading:

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