Gustav Mahler

While Mahler made his career as an orchestral conductor and his compositions often received a mixed critical response in his lifetime, he is now viewed as an extremely influential composer in the transition between the Romantic and Modern eras.


Figure 1. Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper

Figure 1. Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860–18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.

Born in humble circumstances, Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner and Mozart. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Mahler’s œuvre is relatively small; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists. Most of his twelve symphonic scores are very large-scale works, often employing vocal soloists and choruses in addition to augmented orchestral forces. These works were often controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 3, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphonyin 1910. Some of Mahler’s immediate musical successors included the composers of the Second Viennese School, notably Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler. The International Gustav Mahler Institute was established in 1955 to honour the composer’s life and work.

Antecedents and Influences

Mahler was a “late Romantic,” part of an ideal that placed Austro-German classical music on a higher plane than other types, through its supposed possession of particular spiritual and philosophical significance. He was one of the last major composers of a line which includes, among others, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms. From these antecedents Mahler drew many of the features that were to characterise his music. Thus, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came the idea of using soloists and a choir within the symphonic genre. From Beethoven, Liszt and (from a different musical tradition) Berlioz came the concept of writing music with an inherent narrative or “programme,” and of breaking away from the traditional four-movement symphony format. The examples of Wagner and Bruckner encouraged Mahler to extend the scale of his symphonic works well beyond the previously accepted standards, to embrace an entire world of feeling.

Early critics maintained that Mahler’s adoption of many different styles to suit different expressions of feeling meant that he lacked a style of his own; Cooke on the other hand asserts that Mahler “redeemed any borrowings by imprinting his [own] personality on practically every note” to produce music of “outstanding originality.” Music critic Harold Schonberg sees the essence of Mahler’s music in the theme of struggle, in the tradition of Beethoven. However, according to Schonberg, Beethoven’s struggles were those of “an indomitable and triumphant hero,” whereas Mahler’s are those of “a psychic weakling, a complaining adolescent who . . . enjoyed his misery, wanting the whole world to see how he was suffering.” Yet, Schonberg concedes, most of the symphonies contain sections in which Mahler the “deep thinker” is transcended by the splendour of Mahler the musician.