Composer. He is known for his epic-scale symphonies and orchestral song-cycles, which provided an important link between the late 19th Century Romantic and early Modern periods. His music was thought to be so baffling and idiosyncratic that it was not fully appreciated until 50 years after his death. He was also an outstanding conductor. Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Czech Republic), one of 11 children of a poor Jewish couple. Tragedy stalked his youth. Six of his siblings died of childhood diseases; an older brother committed suicide, an older sister went insane. Still another brother was born mentally handicapped and later became a criminal. Mahler himself grew into a hypersensitive and very neurotic adult, but he also had musical gifts and an iron will that helped him contend with life's adversities. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory from 1875 to 1880, where he won a prize in composition and absorbed the influences that would shape his work: Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner. After writing a failed opera, "Das Klagende Lied" (1880), Mahler embarked on a career as one of the greatest conductors of his era, specializing in theatre music. In this capacity he was ahead of his time in demanding multiple rehearsals and absolute fidelity to the composer's intentions, presenting scores without cuts or interpolations. After several minor appointments, during which he gained a well-deserved reputation as a martinet, Mahler conducted the Budapest Opera from 1888 to 1891, and the Hamburg Opera from 1891 to 1897. He was noted for his Mozart and Wagner productions. In 1897 he was named Music Director of the prestigious Vienna State Opera, where he remained for a decade. His dramatic reforms and pitiless perfectionism made him many enemies there, but they also turned the Vienna Opera into the finest in Europe. Far less succesful were Mahler's attempts to promote his own music. He often battled for years to get his symphonies performed, only to have them hissed by audiences and panned by the critics. With single-minded determination he swept aside all disappointments and kept working. In 1902 he married Alma Schindler, who was 19 years his junior and considered one of the most beautiful women in Vienna. They had two daughters, Maria and Anna; Anna later became a famous sculptor. Maria's death of scarlet fever at age five in 1907 devastated the composer, especially because he superstitiously believed he had tempted fate by writing his 1904 song-cycle, "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"). Further marital woes with Alma led Mahler to briefly consult Sigmund Freud for psychoanalysis. Also in 1907, the most fateful year of his life, he was diagnosed with a terminal heart disease (infective myocarditis) and resigned from the Vienna Opera. Weary of the Vienna musical establishment's petty intrigues, he served as director of the New York Philharmonic from 1908 to 1910 and also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera for three years; but in time he found the creative atmosphere there even more stifling. In February 1911 Mahler's health took a sudden turn for the worse and he returned to Vienna, where he died in a nursing home. His obituaries eulogized his eminence as a conductor but said almost nothing about his music. It took younger generations to carry the torch for him. Mahler's compositions, though vast in scope, are not many in number. His heavy workload as a conductor left him only his summer vacations for composing, and he maximized this time by concentrating on what he considered "great works". Apart from songs, all his creative energies were poured into symphonies of unheard-of dimensions. Mahler tried to write music so varied and grandiose that the whole world was reflected in it. He used a larger orchestra than any composer before him, and made frequent use of vocal forces and unorthodox instrumentation. His Symphony No. 3 (1896), in six movements lasting almost two hours, is the longest such work in the current repertoire. The Symphony No. 8 (1906), nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand", requires two mixed choruses, a boys' chorus, eight solo voices, an organ, and a gigantic orchestra. Mahler's symphonies were initially criticized as over-pretentious, navel-gazing, bombastic, and vulgar; there are elements of truth in these assertions. But along with the artistic faults, and making them pale in comparison, are the wealth of emotion in his music, the nobility and grandeur of his best pages, his profligate melody, and his awesome resources as an instrumental colorist. Mahler's first important works were songs, and word-setting remained a constant in his career. The "Songs of a Wayfarer" (1885), written to his own lyrics, reflect his lifelong feelings of personal isolation, later expressed in his remark that he felt "three times homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world". (He was dogged by anti-Semitism and in 1897 he had to convert from Judaism to Catholicism in order to secure his post at the Vienna Opera). Mahler's settings of songs from the folk collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), composed between 1892 and 1901, had a notable effect on his concurrent symphonic music. The "Ruckert Songs" (1902) and "Kindertotenlieder," set to poems by Friedrich Ruckert, are more somber and emotionally probing. "The Song of the Earth" (1909) is Mahler's most perfect masterpiece; both a symphony and a song cycle, it represents the culmination of his art and a distillation of its essence. The texts are German translations of old Chinese poems, their themes the transitory nature of all living things. Excluding the Symphony No. 1 (the "Titan," 1888), historians tend to group Mahler's symphonies into three periods. The Second Symphony ("Resurrection", 1894), the Third, and the Fourth (1900) are called the "Wunderhorn Symphonies" because they quote material from the "Das Knaben Wunderhorn" songs. Nos. 5 (1902), 6 ("The Tragic", 1905), and 7 ("The Song of the Night", 1905) are austere and darker, especially the Sixth, with its "hammer stroke of fate" motif and unrelieved gloom. The Fifth's Adagio, for harp and strings, is Mahler's best-known single movement. It is sometimes performed as a separate piece. The Eighth and the Ninth (1910) mark a new phase, inspired by Mahler's recent study of J. S. Bach, in which he favored linear counterpoint over classical harmony. Mahler began, but did not live to finish, a Tenth Symphony; only the opening Adagio was completed in full score. In the 1970's musicologist Deryck Cooke fashioned a performing version of the full Tenth based on the composer's sketches, but most conductors shy away from it, playing only the Adagio. Mahler's difficulties in getting the public to accept his music led him to predict, with resignation but with confidence, "My day will come". And in the 1960's it finally did, thanks to the unflagging efforts of such conductors as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Dimitri Mitropolous, and Leonard Bernstein. In the meantime Mahler had a decisive influence on several important composers, among them Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten, as well as on Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who spread the Mahlerian style to Hollywood movie scoring. Director Luchino Visconti's film "Death in Venice" (1971) modeled its hero after the composer (though there is no evidence Mahler was gay), and used the Adagio from the Fifth Symphony as its theme music. He was also the subject of an even more unconventional biopic by Ken Russell, "Mahler" (1974).
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
1879–1964 (m. 1902)