Music

Gustav Mahler

Born 7 July 1860. Died 18 May 1911.
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Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Alan Gilbert conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No 3.

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Biography

Born on 7 July 1860 in the Bohemian town of Kaliste, Gustav Mahler was the second of 14 children of a Jewish distillery-owner. His parents were ill-matched, but his father at least recognised his son’s musical talents.

Gustav gave his first piano recital at the age of 10, and five years later was taken to the Vienna Conservatory to play for Julius Epstein. He pronounced the 15-year-old ‘a born musician’. Accepted into the conservatory, Mahler made friends with fellow-students Hans Rott and Hugo Wolf, became a devotee of Wagner’s music and Nietzsche’s philosophy, and a supporter of Anton Bruckner. In 1878 he began his first major work, Das klagende Lied (‘The Song of Sorrow’), in which many of the distinctive features of his mature style can already be heard.

Mahler’s career as a conductor began unpromisingly, conducting operetta at the Austrian provincial theatre of Bad Hall, but his obvious talent led to successive appointments at Olmütz, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg and, in 1897, the Vienna Court Opera. There he was lauded by many but persecuted by the city’s strong anti-Semitic faction, forcing his resignation in 1907 – the year that he was diagnosed with the serious heart condition that was to kill him four years later.

Mahler left Europe for New York, making his Metropolitan Opera debut on 1 January 1908 and becoming conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1909, though he returned to Vienna to die.

In the midst of this demanding schedule, he composed whenever he could. His first important works were songs and song-cycles, notably Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfaring Lad’, 1883–5) and the settings of folk or folk-inspired poems from the 19th-century collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’, 1888–1901).

Still more impressive are the grief-saturated Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Deaths of Children’, 1901–4) and the great ‘song-symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’, 1908–9). Mahler also completed nine symphonies, and left a 10th in sketch score. For Mahler the symphony had to be ‘like the world – it must embrace everything’, and even those that have neither sung texts nor programmes appear to invite programmatic or philosophical interpretations.

Though in many respects a post-Wagnerian Romantic, Mahler became increasingly forward-looking, and it is no surprise that 20th-century composers as diverse as Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich, Britten, Henze and Boulez have all acknowledged an abiding debt to him.

Profile © Stephen Johnson

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BBC Reviews

  1. Review of Kindertotenlieder / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (contralto: Sara Mingardo; cello and conductor: Luigi Piovano; Musici Aurei)

    Kindertotenlieder / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (contralto: Sara Mingardo; cello and conductor: Luigi Piovano; Musici Aurei) 2012

    Reviewed by Charlotte Gardner
    One of the most expertly compiled and emotively performed programmes around.
  2. Review of Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9; Lieder (conductor: Otto Klemperer; Philharmonia Orchestra)

    Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9; Lieder (conductor: Otto Klemperer; Philharmonia Orchestra) 2011

    Reviewed by Daniel Ross
    An indispensable set for anyone looking to get closer to Mahler.
  3. Review of Symphony No.2 in C Minor – ‘Resurrection’ (Sir Simon Rattle/Berlin Symphony Orchestra)

    Symphony No.2 in C Minor – ‘Resurrection’ (Sir Simon Rattle/Berlin Symphony Orchestra) 2011

    Reviewed by Daniel Ross
    An entertaining listen, as changeable and dynamic as any of the composer's best work.
  4. Review of Mahler - Lieder (baritone: Christian Gerhaher, piano: Gerold Huber)

    Mahler - Lieder (baritone: Christian Gerhaher, piano: Gerold Huber) 2010

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    This could be the finest Mahler you’ll hear all year. Absolutely essential.
  5. Review of Das Lied von der Erde

    Das Lied von der Erde 2007

    Reviewed by John Armstrong
    ...make sure there's nothing you have to get done straight after listening to this...
  6. Review of Des Knaben Wunderhorn

    Des Knaben Wunderhorn 2007

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    Barbara Bonney and Matthias Goerne team up with Riccardo Chailly and the Royal...
  7. Review of Symphony No. 4, chamber version

    Symphony No. 4, chamber version 2007

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    Think about how often Mahler himself resorts to chamber music textures in his...
  8. Review of Symphony No. 6

    Symphony No. 6 1921

    Reviewed by John Armstrong
    The playing is quite astounding...the recording is a beauty...
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