A six-year-old Gustav Mahler discovers a piano in his grandmother’s attic and gives his first public performance at 10. Born in 1860 in the Czech Republic, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler served as director for the Vienna Court Opera; subsequently, he led the New York Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra. Mahler who became popular for his 10 symphonies and various songs with orchestra, which drew together many different strands of Romanticism is often focused on death and the afterlife. He is known for his choral work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) and the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer).
Ironically, Mahler’s music remained in obscurity for several decades after his death; later Mahler was acknowledged as an important forerunner of 20th-century techniques of composition influencing the works of composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten.
For a great part of his life composing was essentially a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor—hence Mahler’s oeuvre is relatively small. In fact, Mahler’s works are designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists– often employing vocal soloists and choruses in addition to augmented orchestral forces.
Mahler’s music journey can be said to have spanned three creative periods, each of which produced a symphonic trilogy. The three symphonies of his first period based on a non-musical story or idea were conceived on a programmatic basis, the actual programs being concerned with establishing some ultimate ground for existence in a world dominated by pain, death, doubt, and despair. While he won accolades as a conductor, he faced the public’s lack of comprehension as a composer during the first creative period. During this period he created three symphonies of unprecedentedly wide contrasts but unified by his unmistakable creative personality and his firm command of symphonic structure, viz Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Funeral March in the Manner of Callot; and the five-movement Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 3 in D Major.
Symphony No. 2 (excerpt)
During the Middle Period, Mahler set a high standard which proved almost unapproachable by his successors because he ensured an unprecedented standard of interpretation and performance. He was perceived as a fanatical idealist, who inspired his artists with a ruthless wave of energy.
Mahler entered the Last Period at the age of 47, and tragically he died at 50. Thus he could not hear the three works constituting his last-period trilogy: Das Lied von der Erde (1908; The Song of the Earth), Symphony No. 9 (1910), and Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp Major. Actually, his last period work was a more concerted effort to break away vis-a-vis the earlier period. It represented a threefold attempt to come to terms with the modern individual’s fundamental problem—the reality of death.
Music aficionados have listed Mahler’s notable works as , Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major; Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor; Resurrection Symphony No. 2 in C Minor; Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Symphony No. 3; Des Knaben Wunderhorn; The Song of the Earth; Tragic Symphony; Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp Major”
Symphony No. 5 (Adagietto)
Mahler’s personal life was a torturous one. Mahler was one of 13 children growing up in times where ethnic and racial insults made him feel like an outsider. Mahler’s life was also affected by the behaviour of his incompatible parents where he witnessed a strict father physically maltreating his docile mother—resulting in a mother-fixation complex.
Genetically, Mahler got his mother’s weak heart, which led to his passing away at the age of 50. Many of his siblings also had immature deaths due to a variety of illnesses. The only stabilizing factor was his marriage to Alma Maria Schindler, who bore him two daughters.
It was perhaps these traumatic early years that generated the nervous tension, the obsession with death, and the constant quest to discover some meaning to existence that was to encompass Mahler’s life and music. But despite these adversities, he exuded prodigious energy, intellectual power, and inflexibility of purpose that goaded him to reach unimaginable heights, as both a master conductor and a composer.
Symphony No. 1 (excerpt)
No wonder admirers and critics alike recognize Mahler’s phenomenal influence during a period of musical transition. In his works, one can witness shades of influence on the 20th century radical elements: these elements include ‘progressive tonality’; dissolution of tonality; a breakaway from harmony produced by the entire orchestra in favour of a contrapuntal texture for groups of solo instruments within the full orchestra; the principle of continually varying themes rather than merely restating them; and ironic quotation of popular styles and of sounds from everyday life.
A website covering the entire spectrum of Mahler was started on January 1, 2020, by the Mahler Foundation. It highlights the fact that Mahler’s cathartic music continues to live in the present because he is a true composer of the 20th and 21st centuries. Really, his canvas covers the most extreme human emotions and reaches the minds and hearts of all ages, nations and religions. As Gustav Mahler once said, ‘A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’