Gustav Mahler, classical music composer

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Gustav Mahler


Gustav Mahler was born on July 7th, 1860 in the village of Kalischt, at the time a part of Austria-Hungary, but now known as Kaliště in the Czech Republic. The second of fourteen children, Mahler showed an early interest in music after discovering his grandparents' piano when he was four years of age. His rapid progress on the instrument earned him the reputation of a local Wunderkind and he gave his first public performance at the age of ten. With the support of his father, Mahler auditioned for a place at the Vienna Conservatory and was accepted for the academic year of 1875-76. He concentrated on piano during his first two years at the Conservatory, but dedicated his last year to composition. None of his student compositions are known to survive. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1878, Mahler briefly attended the Vienna University, taking courses in literature and philosophy. However, he left the following year and made a meager living as a piano teacher. In 1880, his first substantial composition appeared, a dramatic cantata titled Das klagende Lied ("The Song of Lamentation"), though it would go unperformed until 1901.

In the summer of 1880, Mahler secured his first professional conducting position at a small theater in the spa town of Bad Hall. The position was hardly illustrious and Mahler only accepted the position after receiving encouragement from his former piano teacher that he would quickly work his way up. And indeed, Mahler did just that. Accepting various conducting jobs along the way, he secured a six-year contract with the Leipzig Opera in 1886. With his successes in Leipzig, most notably a production of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, Mahler achieved financial security. From Leipzig, Mahler went to Budapest in 1888 as director of the Royal Hungarian Opera. In 1891, he left Budapest to assume the post of chief conductor for the Hamburg Stadttheater. Further successes in Hamburg enabled Mahler to return more actively to composing, which during his years of establishing his career as a conductor had become an activity resigned to occasional moments of spare time. He bought a retreat on the banks of Lake Attersee in Upper Austria and from then on his summers were devoted entirely to composition.

Mahler made no secret of his desire to acquire the position of director of the Vienna Hofoper and in 1895, he began his maneuverings towards that goal, enlisting the help of influential friends one of which was Johannes Brahms. Mahler even went so far as to convert to Catholicism from Judaism to appease Vienna's anti-Semitic ruling elite. In early 1897, he was appointed provisionally as a staff conductor, awaiting the Emporer's confirmation of his directorship and sharing responsibilities with Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr. and Hans Richter, the conductor of the premier performance of Wagner's Ring cycle in Bayreuth. In October, Mahler was formally appointed as the Hofoper's director. Despite scoring numerous resounding successes, Mahler's years in Vienna was far from ideal. Though he improved performance standards, he was criticized by musicians and singers for his dictatorial rehearsing habits and by the anti-Semitic press for his Jewish background. By 1907, Mahler was looking to escape the hostile environment of Vienna. In the summer of that year, he accepted the directorship of the New York Metropolitan Opera. He made his American debut on New Year's Day 1908, conducting Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. After conducting three concerts with the New York Symphony Orchestra, he resigned his position with the Metropolitan Opera and became the conductor of the re-formed New York Philharmonic.

Contrary to his status as a renowned conductor, Mahler's reputation as a composer was somewhat lackluster. His output is relatively small, due to his limited time to compose, and is exclusive to symphonies and songs, with the sole exception of a piano quartet. His First Symphony, completed in 1888, premiered in Budapest the following year but received negative reviews. On the other hand, the premiere of his Second Symphony under his own direction in Berlin was his first significant success as a composer. His initial years in Vienna left him little idle time, but by 1899 he return to composing with renewed vigor. By this time, his existing works also began to receive more frequent performances. Though many of his works were, to some degree, well-received and certainly attracted interest, Mahler achieved only one unqualified triumph as a composer: the Munich premiere of his Eighth Symphony, advertised as the "Symphony of a Thousand."

In 1911, Mahler was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis, a disease for which at the time the survival rate was nearly zero. Nevertheless, Mahler remained optimistic about the future. After returning to Europe from New York, he died in Vienna on May 18th. Following his death, his music was largely neglected. It was banned by the Nazi Party and what performances of it did take place failed to receive any positive reactions despite the efforts of a few ardent supporters such as Aaron Copland. Following World War II, Mahler's music underwent a significant revival and has since garnered much more favorable opinions. Today, he is one of the most performed and recorded composers.

Composer Title Date Action
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3 03/04/2010 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Quartet for Piano and Strings in a minor (1876-78) 08/05/2011 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Rheinlegendchen 07/20/2013 Play
Gustav Mahler 3rd movement, Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen, Symphony no. 1 12/24/2011 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 1 06/30/2013 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 4 08/18/2010 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Adagio, from Symphony no. 9 06/28/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6 03/09/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6, 1st movement 03/07/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6, 2nd movement 03/07/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6, 3rd movement 03/07/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6, 4th movement 03/07/2012 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5 12/28/2012 Play
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5 06/07/2010 Play Add to playlist
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5 (Adagietto) 08/19/2009 Play Add to playlist