Personalities | Gustav Mahler | Late Romantic | Classical
(Goos’-taf Ma’-ler) 1860–1911
Austrian composer and conductor
Gustav Mahler bestrode the world of music at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘My time will come’, he remarked about his often misunderstood compositions.
For Mahler the conductor, due recognition did come during his lifetime, but another half-century had to pass before a fully sympathetic appreciation of his creative achievement was possible – nine completed symphonies, conceived on a vast scale, orchestrated with unprecedented richness and refinement, and the series of songs and cycles that inspired many of these great symphonic canvases and impregnated them with sweeping lyricism as well as elements of folk, military and even street music. His large and permanent niche in today’s concert repertory is surely owed, at least in part, to the congruity of his own expressive attitudes with the Zeitgeist of our modern world. ‘As long as my experience can be summed up in words,’ he said, ‘I write no music about it; my need to express myself musically – symphonically – begins at the point where the dark feelings hold sway, at the door which leads into the “other world” – the world in which things are no longer separated by space and time.’
Gustav Mahler was born on 7 July 1860 in Kalischt (Kaliste), Bohemia, a village about 60 miles south-east of Prague. That year the family moved to nearby Iglau (now Jihlava), a larger, German-speaking Moravian town, where Gustav went to school, took piano lessons and played his first public recital at the age of 10. Death was a regular visitor to his home – eight of his 13 younger siblings perished in childhood. Mahler also had to endure the unhappy marriage of his ill-tempered, womanizing father and his gentle, long-suffering, lame mother. The emotional residue of these experiences permeates the music he would later compose. His father, to his credit, acknowledged his son’s talents when a local businessman encouraged him to take the 15-year-old Gustav to Vienna to audition for the Conservatory. There the youth won prizes for piano and composition and performed his first surviving work, a piano quintet, in July 1876. After leaving the Conservatory in 1878, Mahler supported himself by giving piano lessons while working at his first large-scale composition, Das klagende Lied (‘The Plaintive Song’), a cantata on his own text. To its failure to win the prestigious Vienna Beethoven Prize in 1881 he later attributed his years of wandering in ‘that hell’, the theatre.
Years of Wandering
From a summer job in 1880 conducting operettas at the Upper Austrian spa of Bad Hall, Mahler began his steady climb up the musical ladder: in 1881 to Laibach (now Ljubljana); in 1883 to Olmütz (now Olomouc), where a company member observed that he ‘was not liked, but they learned to fear him’; in 1883–85 he was in Kassel, where his precision and fire were praised but his unconventional interpretations criticized (an unhappy affair with a Kassel singer inspired his first masterpiece, the Songs of a Wayfarer); in...
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