- Category : Entertain-Music-Composer/Arranger
- Type : PSP
- Profile : 1/3 - Investigating / Martyr
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Tension 2
Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and conductor.
Mahler was best known during his own lifetime as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day. He has since come to be acknowledged as among the most important late-romantic composers, although during his lifetime his music was never fully accepted by the musical establishment.
With the exceptions of an early piano quartet, Das Klagende Lied, an early cantata, and Totenfeier, the original tone-poem version of the first movement of the second symphony, Mahler's entire output consists of only two genres: symphony and song. Besides the nine completed numbered symphonies, his principal works are the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually rendered as 'Songs of a Wayfarer', but very literally, 'Songs of a Travelling Comrade, Companion, or Journeyman') and Kindertotenlieder ('Songs on the Death of Children'), and the synthesis of symphony and song cycle that is Das Lied von der Erde ('The Song of the Earth').
Gustav Mahler was born into a Jewish-European family in Kališt? (in German Kalischt), Moravia, then in the Austrian Empire, today in the Czech Republic, the second of twelve children. His parents soon moved to Jihlava (in German Iglau), Moravia, where Mahler spent his childhood. Having noticed the boy's talent at an early age, his parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was six years old.
In 1875, Mahler, then fifteen, was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire where he studied piano under Julius Epstein, harmony with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Franz Krenn. Three years later Mahler attended Vienna University, where Anton Bruckner was lecturing. There he studied history and philosophy as well as music. While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with the cantata Das klagende Lied. The work was entered in a competition where the jury was headed by Johannes Brahms, but failed to win a prize.
In 1880, Mahler began his career as a conductor with a job at a summer theatre at Bad Hall; in the years that followed, he took posts at successively larger opera houses: in Ljubljana in 1881, Olomouc in 1882, Vienna in 1883, Kassel also in 1883, Prague in 1885, Leipzig in 1886 and Budapest in 1888. In 1887, he took over conducting Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen from an ill Arthur Nikisch, firmly establishing his reputation among critics and public alike. The year after, he made a complete performing edition of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, the success of which brought financial rewards and contributed to his gradually growing fame. Brahms was greatly impressed by his conducting of "Don Giovanni". His first long-term appointment was at the Hamburg Opera in 1891, where he stayed until 1897. From 1893 to 1896, he took summer vacations at Steinbach am Attersee in Upper Austria, where he revised his Symphony No. 1 (first heard in 1889), composed his Symphony No. 2, sketched his Symphony No. 3, and wrote most of the song collection Lieder aus 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' (Songs from 'The Youth's Magic Horn'), based on a famous set of heavily redacted folk-poems.
In 1897, Mahler, then thirty-seven, was offered the directorship of the Vienna Opera, the most prestigious musical position in the Austrian Empire. This was an 'Imperial' post, and under Austro-Hungarian law, no such posts could be occupied by Jews. Mahler, who was never a devout or practicing Jew, had, in preparation, converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon meeting a friend of his shortly after his conversion, he remarked, "I have just changed my coat", showing that it was only for the job.
In 1899 and 1910 he conducted his revised versions of Schumann's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4.
In ten years at the Vienna Opera, Mahler transformed the institution's repertoire and raised its artistic standards, bending both performers and listeners to his will. When he first took over the Opera, the most popular works were Lohengrin, Manon, and Cavalleria rusticana; the new director concentrated his energies on classic operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and, in collaboration with the painter Alfred Roller (Brno 1864-Vienna 1935), created shadowy, transfixing productions of Fidelio, Tristan und Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In Mahler's day Vienna was one of the world’s biggest cities and the capital of a great empire in Central Europe. It was home to a lively artistic and intellectual scene. It was home to famous painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Mahler knew many of these intellectuals and artists.
Mahler worked at the Opera for nine months of each year, with only his summers free for composing; these summers he spent mainly at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee. In that idyllic setting he composed his fifth through eighth symphonies, the Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), both based on poems by Friedrich Rückert, and Der Tamboursg'sell, the last of his 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' settings.
In June 1901, he moved into a fine new villa on the lake in Maiernigg, Carinthia (). On March 9, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (1879 –1964), twenty years his junior and the stepdaughter of the noted Viennese painter Carl Moll. Alma was a musician and composer, but Mahler forbade her to engage in creative work, although she did make clean manuscript copies of his hand-written scores. Mahler did interact creatively with some women, such as viola-player Natalie Bauer-Lechner, two years his senior, whom he had met while studying in Vienna. But he told Alma that her role should only be to tend to his needs. Alma and Gustav had two daughters, Maria Anna ('Putzi'; 1902 – 1907), who died of diphtheria at the age of only five, and Anna ('Gucki'; 1904 – 1988), who later became a sculptor.
The death of their first daughter left Mahler grief-stricken; but further blows were to come. That same year he discovered he had a heart disease (infective endocarditis), and was forced to limit his exercising and count his steps with a pedometer. At the Opera, his obstinacy in artistic matters had created enemies, and he was also increasingly subject to attacks in anti-Semitic portions of the press. His resignation from the Opera, in 1907, was hardly unexpected.
Mahler's own music aroused considerable opposition from music critics, who tended to hear his symphonies as 'potpourris' in which themes from "disparate" periods and traditions were indiscriminately mingled. Mahler's juxtaposition of material from both "high" and "low" cultures, as well as his mixing of different ethnic traditions, often outraged conservative critics at a time when workers' mass organizations were growing rapidly, and clashes between Germans, Czechs, Hungarians and Jews in Austro-Hungary were creating anxiety and instability. However, he always had vociferous admirers on his side. In his last years, Mahler began to score major successes with a wider public, notably with a Munich performance of the Second Symphony in 1900, with the first complete performance of the Third in Krefeld in 1902, with a valedictory Viennese performance of the Second in 1907, and, above all, with the Munich premiere of the gargantuan Eighth in 1910. The music he wrote after that, however, was not performed during his lifetime.
The final impetus for Mahler's departure from the Vienna Opera was a generous offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He conducted a season there in 1908, only to be set aside in favor of Arturo Toscanini; while he had been enormously popular with public and critics alike, he had fallen out of favor with the trustees of the board of the Met. Back in Europe, with his marriage in crisis and Alma's infidelity having been revealed, Mahler, in 1910, had a single (and apparently helpful) consultation with Sigmund Freud.
Having now signed a contract to conduct the long-established New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler and his family travelled again to America. At this time, he completed his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and his Symphony No. 9, which would be his last completed work. In February 1911, during a long and demanding concert season in New York, Mahler fell seriously ill with a streptococcal blood infection, and conducted his last concert in a fever (the programme included the world premiere of Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque). Returning to Europe, he was taken to Paris, where a new serum had recently been developed. He did not respond, however, and was taken back to Vienna at his request. He died there from his infection on May 18, 1911 at the age of 50, leaving his Symphony No. 10 unfinished.
It is said that his last word was "Mozartl" ('Little Mozart'). He was buried, at his request, beside his daughter, in Grinzing Cemetery outside Vienna. In obedience to his last wishes, he was buried in silence, with the gravestone bearing only the name "Gustav Mahler." Mahler's good friend Bruno Walter describes the funeral: "On May 18, 1911, he died. Next evening we laid the coffin in the cemetery at Grinzing, a storm broke and such torrents of rain fell that it was almost impossible to proceed. An immense crowd, dead silent, followed the hearse. At the moment when the coffin was lowered, the sun broke through the clouds" (Walter 1957, 73).
Alma Mahler quotes Gustav as saying "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." However, this is astonishingly close to a remark written by Anton Rubinstein in the 1860s or 1870s, and may therefore have been adapted, for its appositeness, by Mahler (or indeed Alma).
Alma outlived Gustav by more than 50 years, and in their course, she was active in publishing material about his life and music. However, her accounts have been attacked as unreliable, false, and misleading.This constitutes the Alma Problem. For example, she allegedly tampered with the couple's correspondence and, in her publications, Gustav is often portrayed more negatively than some historians might like.
Mahler was the last in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to the Romantics Bruckner and Brahms; he also incorporated the ideas of non-Viennese Romantic composers like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The major influence on his work, however, was that of Wagner, who was, according to Mahler, the only composer after Beethoven truly to have "development" (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) in his music.
Style of writing
The spirit of the Lied (German for song) constantly rests in his work. He followed Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann in developing the song cycle, but rather than write piano accompaniment, he orchestrated it instead. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Journeyman) is a set of four songs written as a rejected lover wandering alone along the earth; Mahler wrote the text himself, inspired by his unhappy love affair with a singer while conducting at Kassel.
Keenly aware of the colourations of the orchestra, the composer filled his symphonies with flowing melodies and expressive harmonies, achieving bright tonal qualities using the clarity of his melodic lines. Among his other innovations are expressive use of combinations of instruments in both large and small scale, increased use of percussion, as well as combining voice and chorus to symphony form, and extreme voice leading in his counterpoint. His orchestral style was based on counterpoint; two melodies would each start off the other seemingly simultaneously, choosing clarity over a mass orgy of sound.
Often, his works involved the spirit of Austrian peasant song and dance. The Ländler – the Austrian folk-dance, which developed first into the minuet and then into the waltz – figures in several symphonies, as indeed do the minuet and the waltz. (All three historical stages – Ländler, minuet, and waltz – are represented in the 'dance movement' of the Ninth Symphony).
Mahler combined the ideas of Romanticism, including the use of program music, and the use of song melodies in symphonic works, with the resources that the development of the symphony orchestra had made possible. The result was to extend, and eventually break, the understanding of symphonic form, as he searched for ways to expand his music. He stated that a symphony should be an "entire world". As a result, he met with difficulties in presenting his works, and would continually revise the details of his orchestration until he was satisfied with the effect.
He was deeply spiritual and described his music in terms of nature very often. This resulted in his music being viewed as extremely emotional for a long time after his death. In addition to restlessly searching for ways of extending symphonic expression, he was also an ardent craftsman, which shows both in his meticulous working methods and careful planning, and in his studies of previous composers.
Mahler's harmonic writing was at times highly innovative, stretching the limits of conventional tonality. Still, tonality, as an expressive and constructional principle, was clearly of great importance to Mahler. This is shown most clearly by his approach to the issue of so-called 'progressive tonality'. While his First Symphony is clearly a D major work, his Second 'progresses' from a C minor first movement to an E-flat major conclusion; his Third moves from a first movement which begins in D minor and ends in F major to a finale which ends in D major – while his Fourth dies away in a serene E major that seemingly has no awareness of its distance from the work's basic G major. The Fifth moves from a C-sharp minor funeral march, through a desperately conflict-ridden A minor movement, a vigorous dance movement in D major, and a lyrical F major 'Adagietto', to a triumphant finale in D major – while the Sixth, very much by contrast, starts in A minor, ends in A minor, and juxtaposes a slow movement in E-flat major with a scherzo in A minor. The Seventh is tonally highly 'progressive', with a first movement that moves from a (possible) B minor start to an E major conclusion, and a finale that defines a celebratory C major. In the Eighth Symphony, the composer's expressive intentions led him to construct a work that both starts and ends in E-flat – whereas the 'valedictory' Ninth moves from a D major first movement to a D-flat major finale. The Tenth, insofar as we can be sure that Mahler's ultimate tonal intentions are discernible, was to start and end in F-sharp major.
His symphonic output is generally divided into three 'periods'. The 'first period', dominated by his reading of the Wunderhorn poems, comprises his Symphonies Nos. 1 to 4. Within this group, the cross-fertilization from the world of Mahlerian song is in fact considerable. The Symphony No. 1 uses a melodic idea from one of the Gesellen songs in its first movement, and employs a section of another in the central part of its third. The Symphony No. 2's third movement is a voice-less orchestral amplification and extension of a Wunderhorn song, and is followed by a Wunderhorn setting incorporated completely. The Symphony No. 3's third movement is another orchestral fantasia on a Wunderhorn song, while its fifth is a Wunderhorn setting made especially for the symphony. In the Symphony No. 4, the finale is a pre-existing Wunderhorn setting (earlier considered as a possible finale for the Symphony No. 3), elements of which are 'prefiguringly' inserted into the first three movements.
The symphonies of the 'second period', Nos. 5 to 7, manifest an increased severity of expression and reveal a growing interest in non-standard instrumentation (a whip in the Symphony No. 5; cowbells, 'deep bells' and a 'hammer' in the Symphony No. 6; and cowbells, cornet, 'tenor horn', mandolin and guitar in the Symphony No. 7), although non-standard instruments are present in earlier symphonies, like a post horn in the Symphony No. 3. Though the symphonies in this group have no vocal component, the world of Mahlerian song is hinted at in the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 and the slow movement of the Symphony No. 6, where phrases from one of the Kindertotenlieder are briefly heard, and in No.5's finale, which incorporates material from the 1896 Wunderhorn song 'Lob des hohen Verstandes'.
Mahler's symphonic 'third period' is marked by increasing polyphony and embraces Nos. 8, 9, and 10 (unfinished), as well as Das Lied von der Erde. Credible connections with freestanding songs are difficult to demonstrate in these works – perhaps unsurprisingly, as Mahler's last non-symphonic songs were the Kindertotenlieder, completed in 1904. A striking example does come, however, with the intervallically exact reminiscence, on the 9th's final page, of the line 'On the heights the day is fine' from Kindertotenlieder no.4.
Few composers are felt to have freely intermixed their work so completely as Mahler; the impression is only strengthened by the musical connections that can be heard to exist between symphonies and symphonies and symphonies and songs, seeming to bind them together into a larger 'narrative'. For example, Material heard in No. 3 recurs in the finale of No. 4; an idea from the first movement of No. 4 is heard to open No. 5; and a 'tragic' harmonic gesture that is repeatedly heard in No. 6 (a major chord declining into a minor) makes a striking reappearance in No. 7. Furthermore, a theme heard in No. 1 is restated in the first movement of No. 9, the last complete work he wrote.
Curse of the ninth
Mahler was obsessed with Beethoven's legacy; he declared that all of his symphonies were "ninths", having the same impact and scale as Beethoven's famous Choral symphony. Mahler was also apparently a firm believer in the curse of the ninth and thus terrified of writing a ninth numbered symphony. This is held to be the reason why he did not give a number to the symphonic work - Das Lied von der Erde - which followed his Eighth, but instead described it merely as Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges "Die chinesische Flöte") (A symphony for one tenor and one alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra, after Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute"). The work can be considered a combination of song cycle and symphony.
Critics are no longer to be found who will insist that Mahler's popularity is a fad or a craze that will shortly pass; but while his place in musical history and in the repertoire seems secure, sober assessment of his specific legacy is inhibited by several factors. For example, little common ground can be found between those who revere Mahler for his 'emotional frankness' and 'spiritual honesty', and his equally vociferous detractors for whom the same music displays 'mawkishness', 'tastelessness' and 'sentimentality' (Franz Schmidt clearly spoke for the latter camp when he described Mahler's symphonies as "cheap novels"). A similar divide separates those who appreciate and analyze the symphonies as conscientiously orchestrated and rigorously organised large-scale forms, and those who see merely the lavish, sprawling outpourings of a 'self-indulgent egotist'.
Passionate admirers of Mahler, too, have sometimes muddied the waters by seeing the composer through the prism of their own preoccupations; thus the critical literature boasts manic-depressives who have insisted that Mahler's contrast-rich work betrays a manic-depressive psychology, and Jews who have claimed that his music exposes the cultural and social tensions that led to the Holocaust. Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who felt a strong affinity with Mahler, expressed the view that Mahler's music "foretold" the many cataclysms of the twentieth century—from world wars to Black Power. Vehement resistance to Mahler's expressive message sometimes has additional racial and nationalistic overtones; devoted Mahlerian Hans Keller used to quote an influential British critic as declaring: "The truth is, we just don't want Mahler over here."
With Mahler thus to some extent still critically embattled, a situation has developed in which his detractors attempt to minimise his legacy, and his admirers tend to respond by exaggerating it. A cautious middle ground might be pursued by noting that a combination of factors (World War I, economic depression, relentless Austrian anti-Semitism and World War II) worked greatly to inhibit performance and understanding of Mahler's music after 1911, and undoubtedly made his posthumous influence less than it could have been. As a result, it was principally among composers who had known Mahler or been part of his circle that his influence was first felt – even if such personal relationships often brought extra-musical factors into play.
During a concert tour to Finland in November 1907 Mahler told fellow composer Jean Sibelius that "the symphony should be like the world: it must embrace everything" ("die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen"); putting this philosophy into practice, he brought the genre to a new level of artistic development. Increasing the range of contrasts within and between movements necessitated an expansion of scale and scope (at around 95 minutes, his six-movement Symphony No. 3 is the longest in the general symphonic repertoire; his Symphony No. 8 premiered with some one thousand performers) – while the admission of vocal and choral elements (with texts drawn from folk-poetry, Nietzsche, Goethe, Chinese literature, and Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism) made manifest a philosophical as well as autobiographical content. Neglected for several decades after his death, Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs are now part of the core repertoire of major symphony orchestras worldwide.
Schoenberg, for example, almost a full generation younger than Mahler, came to venerate the older man as a "saint": an exemplary figure, selflessly devoted to art, generous to younger composers, and badly treated in the same way he himself was badly treated; Schoenberg could still, however, display a complicated attitude to the music and even speak of having had an "aversion" to it. This ambivalence did not, however, prevent him from becoming a penetrating analyst of Mahler's irregular melodic structures, or defending the Seventh Symphony against an American critic, nor did it inhibit his adoption and even refinement of massive Mahlerian effects in his Gurrelieder or Pelleas und Melisande, or, in those same works and elsewhere, the pursuit of Mahlerian clarity through soloistic or chamber-style orchestral scoring.
For Alban Berg, younger still, Mahler was a musical influence rather than a personal one (the tragic Symphony No. 6 was "the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral"), and Mahlerian elements can be heard in many of his works. For example, the two hammer blows (three in the original edition) in the finale of the Mahler Sixth find their echo in Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, which features seven hammer blows in its final movement as well as thematic material of a decisively Mahlerian cut. In the case of Webern, who, in his early professional life, had conducted performances of Mahler symphonies, one may detect a Mahlerian concern with total textural clarity, although the small scale and rhetorical sparseness of Webern's mature pieces means that overt 'Mahlerisms' are hard to find outside his juvenilia.
The earliest significant non-contemporaries to register the impact of Mahler were perhaps Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom identified with elements of Mahler's personal and creative character as well as with aspects of his musical style. Britten, who had first come to know Mahler's Symphony No. 4 while still a student, produced a 'reduced orchestra' version of the second movement of Symphony No. 3 and during his life performed Mahler's music as both a piano-accompanist and conductor. Both Britten and Shostakovich came to hold Das Lied von der Erde in special regard, and undeniable references to it are found in such works as the former's Phaedra and the latter's Fourth and Tenth symphonies. In the United States, Aaron Copland's development of an authentically 'American' sound was influenced by Mahler, most notably in his Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman.
Among other leading composers, an aversion to Mahler can often be attributed to radically incompatible creative goals rather than to any failure to recognise his technical skill: to Stravinsky, Mahler was "malheur" (French for "misfortune"), while Vaughan Williams described him as a "tolerable imitation of a composer". By the late 20th century, however, Mahler's kaleidoscopic scoring and motivically independent lines in intense contrapuntal combination had become staples of modernism, and formerly shocking features of his music such as his radical discontinuities, his penchant for parody and quotation (including self-quotation) and his blunt juxtaposition of 'high' and 'low' styles were prominent features of postmodernism.
As well as Shostakovich, Britten and Copland, Mahler's music also influenced Richard Strauss, the early symphonies of Havergal Brian, and the music of Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Alfred Schnittke. Alexander von Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony seems to have been inspired by Das Lied von der Erde.
Mid and late 20th century
Mahler's difficulties in getting his works accepted led him to say, "My time will come". That time came in the mid 20th century, at a point when the development of the LP was allowing repeated hearings of the long and complex symphonies in competent and well-recorded performances. By 1956, every one of Mahler's symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony) had been issued on LP – as had Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das Klagende Lied, the song cycles, and many individual songs.
Advocated by both those who had known him (prominently among them the composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg), and by a generation of conductors including the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, his works won over an audience hungry for the next wave of musical exploration. In the late twentieth century, new musicological methods led to the extensive editing of his scores, leading to various attempts to complete the tenth symphony, such as by Deryck Cooke, and improved versions of the others.
Mahler in popular culture
Although Mahler was once regarded as writing 'difficult' music, he has since the 1960s had a considerable profile in popular culture. Mahler's persona was strongly associated with that of Thomas Mann's character Gustav von Aschenbach in the 1971 film version of Death in Venice, which recast Aschenbach (an author in Mann's novella) as a conductor whose compositions were derided. The music also used extracts from Mahler's Third and Fifth Symphonies, particularly the Adagietto which became famous as a result. The Adagietto had frequently been performed on its own, notably at the memorial service for Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Mahler's music has subsequently featured in films and other media to suggest a character in turmoil, or one with a bohemian personality. In the film version of Educating Rita, Rita's (Julie Walters) new roommate Trish (Maureen Lipman), who is playing the last movement of Mahler's Sixth Symphony at full volume on her turntable, says "Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" as she opens the door to Rita for the first time. The character subsequently takes a drug overdose. In the book Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby (but not the film), Marion enjoys listening to Mahler's Second Symphony after shooting heroin. Excerpts from Mahler's Seventh Symphony appear in the soundtrack to the film Parting Glances, and his First Symphony is used as incidental music in the film Rubin and Ed.
In 1974 Ken Russell made a biographical film entitled Mahler, very loosely based on the composer's life, with Robert Powell in the title role.
In Britain, the opening notes of the Nachtmusik second movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony were for many years familiar as the theme for Castrol GTX motor oil in television commercials. Mahler is also referenced in the song "Ladies Who Lunch" from the musical Company by Stephen Sondheim.