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Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler


‘I am,’ wrote Gustav Mahler, ‘three times homeless: a native of Bohemia in Austria; an Austrian among Germans; a Jew throughout the world.’ Mahler’s sense of being an outsider, coupled with penetrating intelligence and an extraordinary talent for depicting his surroundings in music, made him a restless and acutely self-critical artist. ‘The symphony,’ he insisted to fellow composer Jean Sibelius, ‘must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ Mahler’s symphonies are often conceived on an immense scale, with immense philosophical subjects: love and hate, joy in life and terror of death, the beauty of nature, innocence and bitter experience. He was also a great composer of songs, and in these smaller forms he distilled the essence of intense human emotions, developing and enriching his exquisite melodic gift in the process. He was the second of 14 children of a Jewish distillery owner. His parents were apparently ill matched. Mahler remembered violent arguments between them, and was an introspective child. Death was a presence in the house from early on: six of Mahler’s siblings died in infancy. Few of his major works do not feature at least a hint of a funeral march. Indeed his first composition, written when he was 10, was a Funeral March with Polka, a combination that would typify his work as an adult composer. Mahler’s father may have treated his wife harshly, but he did recognise and encourage 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 pianist and teacher Julius Epstein. Epstein pronounced the 15-year-old ‘a born musician’. Accepted into the conservatory, Mahler made friends with brilliant fellow students, including the hugely talented but ill-fated Hans Rott and the great song composer Hugo Wolf. He joined the circle of supporters of Anton Bruckner, whose Third Symphony made a powerful impression on the 17-year-old student. Though successful in his piano studies, Mahler soon realised that composing was his destiny. In 1878, his final year at the conservatory, 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: ardent lyricism, a fascination with nature, and sombre funereal rhythms. For most of his life Mahler supported himself by conducting, and grew to be acknowledged as one of the greatest conductors of his age. His career began unpromisingly with a summer season conducting operetta at the Austrian provincial theatre of Bad Hall in 1880. But his evident talent led to successive appointments at Olmütz, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg and, in 1897, the Vienna Court Opera. He composed whenever he could, usually during his summer holidays and at breathtaking rate. His first important works were songs and song-cycles, notably Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’, 1884) and the settings of folk-inspired lyrics from the popular 19th-century collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Youth’s Magic Horn’, 1888–99). His first four symphonies are closely intertwined with his songs, sometimes reworking a Wunderhorn song as a whole movement, as in the Fourth Symphony (1899–1900). Supposedly a depiction of a child’s idea of heaven, the finale of the Fourth is classically Mahlerian in its rich ambiguity, tenderly capturing the child’s delight while hinting at darker things beneath the surface. The theme of threatened innocence emerges more powerfully the grief-saturated Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Deaths of Children’, 1901–04). Mahler began work on this in the year he both met his future wife, the beautiful and talented Alma Schindler, and survived a near-fatal haemorrhage. Mahler’s love for Alma is poured out in the famous Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony (1901–02), but the symphony begins with one Mahler’s grimmest funeral marches. Thoughts of mortality dominate his next symphony, the Sixth (1903–05), although with its inventive use of one the largest orchestras ever assembled on the concert platform it is also overflowing with life. This delight in the sonic possibilities of an extended orchestra reaches its culmination in the choral Eighth Symphony (1906–07), nicknamed ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ in reference to the vast forces it employs. Mahler’s conducting career reached its height during his tenure at the Vienna Opera, where he was lauded by many but persecuted by the city’s strong anti-Semitic faction, which may have influenced his resignation to resign in 1907. The same year he was diagnosed with the heart condition that was to kill him four years later. His adored daughter Maria died at the age of four, devastating Mahler and his wife. Their relationship would never be the same again. Mahler left Europe for New York in 1908, conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and becoming conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1909. However, it was to Vienna, the city with which he had such an intense love-hate relationship, that he returned to die. The shock of his discovery in 1910 that Alma was having an affair almost certainly hastened his final decline. The works written after the fateful year 1907 show a change in style and expressive focus. There is more introspection, a search more for peace than for great climaxes, often with delicate or sparing textures. The great ‘Song-Symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of Earth’) culminates in Eastern-inspired resignation, while the Ninth Symphony seems to ebb away into silence. Mahler never fully orchestrated his Tenth Symphony, but in the 1960s the British musicologist Deryck Cooke produced a convincing ‘performing version’ that is played occasionally. Cooke’s realisation provides a fascinating glimpse of how Mahler’s music might have developed had he lived longer. Mahler had already become increasingly forward-looking in his approach to harmony, rhythm and sound colour. In his intensely ironic use of popular musical elements, especially Viennese dance tunes, he was also significantly ahead of his time. It is no surprise then that 20th-century composers as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Hans-Werner Henze and Pierre Boulez acknowledged an abiding debt to him.

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