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Classical Composers A-Z: Gustav Mahler

Peter Wintersgill presents a potted biography of the meticulous, demanding and highly strung composer Gustav Mahler.

7th July, 1860, in Kalist, Bohemia, of Jewish parents.

Bernhard, liquor merchant, brutal and domineering.

Marie, down-trodden and ill-treated.

Second of twelve children, only half reached maturity. In the Hapsburg empire only the eldest son in a Jewish family was allowed to marry. His father was thus officially illegitimate.

Started piano lessons aged six, gave a public concert at age 10.

Father was advised to get him properly educated, so sent him to the Vienna Conservatoire in 1875, aged 15, where he stayed three years. In 1878 he wrote Das Klagende Lied (the Song of Sorrow). He became a disciple of Bruckner, who both admired him and influenced his music; he arranged the older man's Third Symphony for piano duet. He also wrote a piano quintet and violin sonata (both in 1876).

The isolation at the Conservatoire, combined with homesickness, made him very depressed. He decided as a result of all this to become a conductor, rather than a composer. As it turned out he did both.

Early Adult Life
He had a succession of conducting posts, mainly in opera houses, initially for only brief periods. His first post was at Laibach near Ljubljana, now part of the former Yugoslavia, his next at Kassell in Prussia, where he had an affair with a young singer called Johanna. As a result of this he wrote the song cycle, Leider Eines Fahrenden Gesseln - Songs of a Wayfarer (1884). This was his first job in a professional opera company.

He left after two years, had a brief spell in Prague, then went on to Leipzeg in 1886. Here he met Baron von Weber, who asked him to complete a manuscript of his grandfather, Carl Maria von Weber. While undertaking this task he fell in love with the Baron's wife, which at one stage became quite a serious affair. He finally had to leave under a cloud and was elected Director of the Royal Opera at Budapest in 1888; he was a great success, but left in three years for a similar post in Hamburg.

Meanwhile 1889 was a very sad year for Mahler. Both his parents died, leaving him with financial worry; the same year saw the premiere of his First Symphony, which he conducted himself. The next year he had an affair with a young violinist, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, who was very loving but very possessive. His love never matched up to hers.

At this time Brahms happened to see him conduct Don Giovanni and was so impressed he congratulated him at the time and provided much needed help and encouragement later on. In 1891 he moved to Hamburg, as mentioned, where he stayed for six years. In 1892 he paid a short visit to London (his only one) to conduct some Wagner.

In 1895 his brother Otto committed suicide, which upset him and his sisters very much. The same year he conducted the premiere of his second symphony (the Resurrection). At this time he had another love affair, with a young singer called Anna, who was also very possessive, but it didn't last long.

Character and Temperament
Mahler was highly strung to an extreme degree, and meticulous and demanding as well. He was as exacting towards his players and singers as he was towards himself. As a result he became very dictatorial, not only in his professional life, but in his private life as well. So much so that his wife, a very sociable and high spirited woman, was kept in a subservient state, isolated from her friends and dominated completely by him.

Later Adult Life
In 1897 there was a chance of becoming conductor of the Imperial Vienna Opera. Realising there was no chance of this as a member of the Jewish faith, he became a Roman Catholic, and, recommended by Brahms, he was duly appointed Director. Next year he succeeded Richter as Director of the Vienna Philharmonic.

He stayed in Vienna for ten glorious years, going from strength to strength. In 1901 he conducted the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, which got a very poor reception. His health was poor at this time and he went to convalesce in the country. Despite his conversion, like Mendelssohn before him, he found that anti-semitism was rite. He had many insults to put up with, both verbal and in print. One paper described him as "that dwarf Jew", while several of them published offensive cartoons of him. Musically however he was a great success.

In 1902, the year his Third Symphony came out, he married Alma Maria Schindler, a society beauty, at the same time as his sister Justine married the violinist Arnold Rose. His marriage saw the final break in his relationship with Natalie Bauer-Lechner. His eldest daughter, Maria Anna, born in 1903, caught scarlet fever from her younger sister, Anna Justine, and died in 1907, aged 4. Mahler was devastated by this and expressed his emotions in Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which was not performed until after his death.

Several of his symphonies were written close together, numbers Five to Eight between 1904 and 1910; he included voices in numbers Two, Three, Four and Eight, no doubt inspired by Beethoven's Ninth, while numbers One, Five, Six, Seven and Ten were purely orchestral. They were all on a large scale, probably the result of his admiration for Berlioz. The one on the largest scale of all was number Eight, called the "Symphony of a Thousand".

In 1907, the year of his daughter's death, Alma's mother died of a stroke; the strain of these two bereavements affected Alma's heart. While the doctor was there he examined Mahler and found that he too had heart disease. From that time on his health gradually deteriorated.

In 1908 he wrote the 7th symphony, the Song of Night. He had become increasingly disenchanted with Vienna, and accepted the offer of the post of Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York., becoming Director of the New York Philharmonic the next year.

His farewell concert in Vienna was Fidelio, a very emotional occasion on all sides. His debut in New York (when he was 47) was Tristan (on 1st January. 1908). During his three year stay his health deteriorated, with increasing tiredness and breathlessness, owing to his heart condition. In 1910 he paid a flying visit to Munich, to conduct the premiere of his 8th Symphony, returning to New York some two months later.

Returning to Vienna, he was clearly worn out, but managed to finish the Song of the Earth, wrote his Ninth Symphony and started his 10th.

Back in New York in 1910 Alma finally exploded. Worn out by Mahler's bullying and domineering personality, she told him she had had enough. To his credit he did realise that she was right and vowed to chang his ways.

Shortly after this he consulted the pioneer psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, from whom he got much help.

He got gradually weaker and died in Vienna on 18th May, 1911, aged 50, from a blood infection complicatinghis heart disease. He had a truly wonderful funeral.

Three of his works had postumous premieres, the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied being conducted by a pupil, Bruno Walter. Symphony Ten, once thought to be unfinished, was found by Deryck Cooke to be finished but shorter than originally thought; it was first conducted in 1961 by Goldschmitt.


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