|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013|
He was born in the village of Kalischt, Bohemia, in what was then the Austrian Empire.
His family later moved to nearby Iglau, where Mahler grew up.
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.
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 (Wiener Hofoper).
Mahler’s 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.
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, but he devoted as much time as he could to his compositions, faithfully reserving his summer months for intense periods of creative concentration, supplemented as time permitted during his active concert seasons with the tasks of editing and orchestrating his expansive works.
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 première of his Eighth Symphony in 1910.
The Mahler family came from eastern Bohemia and were of humble circumstances; the composer’s grandmother had been a street pedlar.
Bohemia was then part of the Austrian Empire; the Mahler family belonged to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and was also Jewish.
From this background the future composer developed early on a permanent sense of exile, “always an intruder, never welcomed“.
Bernhard Mahler, the pedlar’s son, and the composer’s father, elevated himself to the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie by becoming a coachman and later an innkeeper.
He bought a modest house in the village of Kalischt, on a straight line roughly halfway between Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia.
Bernhard’s wife Marie gave birth to the first of the couple’s 14 children, a son Isidor, who died in infancy. Two years later, on 7 July 1860, their second son, Gustav, was born.
In December 1860, Bernhard Mahler moved with his wife and infant son to the town of Iglau, 25 km to the south-east, where he built up a distillery and tavern business.
Iglau is a city situated on the river Igel, on the historical border between Moravia and Bohemia.
Among the principal buildings are the early Gothic churches of St. Jacob, Friars Minor church of Our Lady and Dominican church of Holy Cross, the Baroque church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Municipal Hall and a number of municipal houses containing Gothic and Renaissance details.
There is also a Jewish cemetery, containing some remarkable monuments including the tombstone of the parents of Gustav Mahler.
The family grew rapidly, but of the 12 children born to the family in Iglau only six survived infancy.
Iglau was then a thriving commercial town of 20,000 people where Gustav was introduced to music through street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies, and the trumpet calls and marches of the local military band.
Many of these elements would later contribute, in some measure, to his mature musical vocabulary.
When he was four years old, Gustav discovered his grandparents’ piano and took to it immediately.
He developed his performing skills sufficiently to be considered a local ‘Wunderkind‘ (child prodigy) and gave his first public performance at the town theatre when he was ten years old.
Although Gustav loved making music, his school reports from the Iglau Gymnasium portrayed him as absent-minded and unreliable in academic work.
In 1871, in the hope of improving the boy’s results, his father sent him to the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, but Gustav was unhappy there and soon returned to Iglau.
In 1874 he suffered a bitter personal loss when his younger brother Ernst died after a long illness.
(Adolf Hitler also lost a beloved younger brother (Edmund) in his childhood.)
Mahler sought to express his feelings in music: with the help of a friend, Josef Steiner, he began work on an opera, ‘Herzog Ernst von Schwaben’ (“Duke Ernest of Swabia”) as a memorial to his lost brother.
Neither the music nor the libretto of this work has survived.
|k.k. Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst|
Bernhard Mahler was supportive of his son’s ambitions for a music career, and agreed that the boy should try for a place at the Kaiserlich und Königlich Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst (Vienna Conservatory).
The young Mahler was auditioned by the renowned pianist Julius Epstein, and accepted for 1875–76.
He made good progress in his piano studies with Epstein and won prizes at the end of each of his first two years.
For his final year, 1877–78, he concentrated on composition and harmony under Robert Fuchs and Franz Krenn.
Few of Mahler’s student compositions have survived; most were abandoned when he became dissatisfied with them.
He destroyed a symphonic movement prepared for an end-of-term competition, after its scornful rejection by the autocratic director Joseph Hellmesberger on the grounds of copying errors.
|Hitler and Brukner|
Mahler may have gained his first conducting experience with the Conservatory’s student orchestra, in rehearsals and performances, although it appears that his main role in this orchestra was as a percussionist.
Mahler was influenced by Richard Wagner during his student days, and later became a leading interpreter of Wagner’s operas
Among Mahler’s fellow students at the Conservatory was the future song composer Hugo Wolf, with whom he formed a close friendship.
Wolf was unable to submit to the strict disciplines of the Conservatory and was expelled.
Mahler, while sometimes rebellious, avoided the same fate only by writing a penitent letter to Hellmesberger.
He attended occasional lectures by Anton Bruckner and, though never formally his pupil, was influenced by him.
(Anton Brukner was one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite composers.)
On 16 December 1877, he attended the disastrous première of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, at which the composer was shouted down, and most of the audience walked out.
Mahler and other sympathetic students later prepared a piano version of the symphony, which they presented to Bruckner.
Along with many music students of his generation, Mahler fell under the spell of Richard Wagner, though his chief interest was the sound of the music, rather than the staging.
It is not known whether he saw any of Wagner’s operas during his student years.
Mahler left the Conservatory in 1878 with a diploma, but without the prestigious silver medal given for outstanding achievement.
He then enrolled at the University of Vienna (he had, at Bernhard’s insistence, sat and with difficulty passed the “matura”, or entrance examination) and followed courses which reflected his developing interests in literature and philosophy.
After leaving the University in 1879, Mahler made some money as a piano teacher, continued to compose, and in 1880 finished a dramatic cantata, ‘Das klagende Lied’ (“The Song of Lamentation”).
This, his first substantial composition, shows traces of Wagnerian and Brucknerian influences, yet includes many original musical elements.
Its first performance was delayed until 1901, when it was presented in a revised, shortened form.
Mahler developed interests in German philosophy, and was introduced by his friend Siegfried Lipiner to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Fechner and Hermann Lotze.
These thinkers continued to influence Mahler and his music long after his student days were over.
Early Conducting Career – First Appointments
In the summer of 1880, Mahler took his first professional conducting job, in a small wooden theatre in the spa town of Bad Hall, south of Linz.
In 1881, he was engaged at the Landestheater in Laibach, where the small but resourceful company was prepared to attempt more ambitious works.
Here, Mahler conducted his first full-scale opera, Verdi’s ‘Il trovatore’, one of more than 50 that he presented during his time in Laibach.
After completing his six-month engagement, Mahler returned to Vienna and worked part-time as chorus-master at the Vienna Carltheater.
In January 1883, Mahler became conductor at a run-down theatre in Olmütz.
He later wrote: “From the moment I crossed the threshold of the Olmütz theatre I felt like one awaiting the wrath of God.“
Despite poor relations with the orchestra – (a common problem for Mahler), Mahler brought five new operas to the theatre, including Bizet’s ‘Carmen’.
|Königliche Theater in Kassel|
After a week’s trial at the Königliche Theater in Kassel (Royal Theatre in the Hessian town of Kassel), Mahler became the theatre’s “Musical and Choral Director” from August 1883.
The title concealed the reality that Mahler was subordinate to the theatre’s Kapellmeister, Wilhelm Treiber, who disliked him, and set out to make his life miserable.
Despite the unpleasant atmosphere, Mahler had moments of success at Kassel.
|Joseph Victor von Scheffel|
|Carl Maria von Weber|
He directed a performance of one of his his favourite operas, Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, and, on 23 June 1884, conducted his own incidental music to Joseph Victor von Scheffel’s play ‘Der Trompeter von Säkkinge’n (“The Trumpeter of Säkkingen”), the first professional public performance of a Mahler work.
An ardent, but ultimately unfulfilled, love affair with soprano Johanna Richter led Mahler to write a series of love poems which became the text of his great song cycle ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ (“Songs of a Wayfarer”).
In January 1884, the distinguished conductor Hans von Bülow brought the Meiningen Court Orchestra to Kassel and gave two concerts.
|Hans von Bülow|
Hoping to escape from his job in the theatre, Mahler unsuccessfully sought a post as Bülow’s permanent assistant, however, in the following year his efforts to find new employment resulted in a six-year contract with the prestigious Leipzig Opera, to begin in 1886.
Unwilling to remain in Kassel for another year, Mahler resigned in July 1885, and through good fortune was offered a standby appointment as an assistant conductor at the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague.
Prague and Leipzig
In Prague, the emergence of Czech National Revival had increased the popularity and importance of the new Czech National Theatre, and had led to a downturn in the Neues Deutsches Theater’s fortunes.
Mahler’s task was to help arrest this decline by offering high-quality productions of German opera.
He had early success presenting works by Mozart and Wagner, composers with whom he would be particularly associated for the rest of his career, but his individualistic and increasingly autocratic conducting style led to friction, and a falling out with his more experienced fellow-conductor, Ludwig Slansky.
|Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig|
In April 1886, Mahler left Prague to take up his post at the Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig, where rivalry with his senior colleague Arthur Nikisch began at once.
|Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’|
This was primarily over how the two should share conducting duties for the theatre’s new production of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’.
Nikisch’s illness, in January 1887, meant that Mahler took charge of the whole cycle, and scored a resounding public success.
This did not win him popularity with the orchestra, who resented his dictatorial manner and heavy rehearsal schedules.
In Leipzig, Mahler befriended Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer, and agreed to prepare a performing version of Carl Maria von Weber’s unfinished opera ‘Die drei Pintos’ (“The Three Pintos”).
Mahler transcribed and orchestrated the existing musical sketches, used parts of other Weber works, and added some composition of his own.
The première at the Stadttheater, in January 1888, was an important occasion at which Tchaikovsky was present, as were the heads of various opera houses.
The work was well-received; its success did much to raise Mahler’s public profile, and brought him financial rewards.
His involvement with the Weber family was complicated by a romantic attachment to Carl von Weber’s wife Marion which, though intense on both sides, ultimately came to nothing.
|Im Walde – ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’
Schwind von Moritz
At around this time Mahler discovered the German folk-poem collection ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), which would dominate much of his compositional output for the following 12 years.
In May 1888, Mahler’s new-found financial security enabled him to resign his Leipzig position after a dispute with the Stadttheater’s chief stage manager.
Without a post, Mahler returned to Prague to work on a revival of ‘Die drei Pintos’ and a production of Peter Cornelius’s ‘Der Barbier von Bagdad’.
This short stay ended unhappily, with Mahler’s dismissal after an outburst during rehearsals.
However, through the efforts of an old Viennese friend, Guido Adler, Mahler’s name went forward as a potential director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest.
He was interviewed, made a good impression, and was offered the post from October 1888.
In the early years of Mahler’s conducting career, composing was a spare time activity.
Between his Laibach and Olmütz appointments he worked on settings of verses by Richard Leander and Tirso de Molina, later collected as Volume I of ‘Lieder und Gesänge’ (“Songs and Airs”).
Mahler’s first orchestral song cycle, ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’, composed at Kassel, was based on his own verses, although the first poem, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When my love becomes a bride”) closely follows the text of a ‘Wunderhorn’ poem.
The airs for the second and fourth songs of the cycle were incorporated into the First Symphony, which Mahler finished in 1888, at the height of his relationship with Marion von Weber.
The intensity of Mahler’s feelings are reflected in the music, which originally was written as a five-movement symphonic poem with a descriptive programme.
One of these movements, the “Blumine”, later discarded, was based on a passage from his earlier work ‘Der Trompeter von Säckingen’.
After completing the symphonic poem, Mahler composed a 20-minute funeral march, or ‘Totenfeier’ (Celebrations of Death), which later became the first movement of his Second Symphony.
There has been frequent speculation about lost or destroyed works from Mahler’s early years.
The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg believed that the First Symphony was too mature to be a first symphonic work (almost certainly correct), and must have had predecessors.
In 1938, Mengelberg revealed the existence of the so-called “Dresden archive”, a series of manuscripts in the possession of the widowed Marion von Weber.
The archive was almost certainly destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945; and there is the strong possibility that some important manuscripts, either early symphonies or parts of early symphonies, were to be found in Dresden.
Royal Opera Budapest
On arriving in Budapest in October 1888, Mahler encountered a cultural conflict between conservative Hungarian nationalists who favoured a policy of Magyarisation, and progressives who wanted to maintain and develop the country’s Austro-German cultural traditions.
In the opera house a dominant conservative caucus, led by the music director Sándor Erkel, had maintained a limited repertory of historical and folklore opera.
By the time that Mahler began his duties, the progressive camp had gained ascendancy following the appointment of the liberal-minded Ferenc von Beniczky as intendant.
Aware of the delicate situation, Mahler moved cautiously; he delayed his first appearance on the conductor’s stand until January 1889, when he conducted Hungarian language (?) performances of ‘Das Rheingold’ and ‘Die Walküre’, however, his early successes faded when plans to stage the remainder of the ‘Ring Cycle’ and other German operas were frustrated by a renascent conservative faction which favoured a more traditional “Hungarian” programme.
In search of non-German operas to extend the repertory, Mahler visited Italy where among the works he discovered was Pietro Mascagni’s recent sensation ‘Cavalleria rusticana’.
In February 1889, Bernhard Mahler died; this was followed later in the year by the deaths both of Mahler’s sister Leopoldine and his mother.
Mahler himself suffered poor health, with attacks of haemorrhoids and migraine and a recurrent septic throat.
Shortly after these family and health setbacks the première of the First Symphony, in Budapest on 21 November 1889, was a disappointment.
The critic August Beer’s lengthy newspaper review indicates that enthusiasm after the early movements degenerated into “audible opposition” after the Finale.
Mahler was particularly distressed by the negative comments from his Vienna Conservatory contemporary, Viktor von Herzfeld, who had remarked that Mahler, like many conductors before him, had proved not to be a composer.
In 1891, Hungary’s move to the political right was reflected in the opera house when Beniczky was replaced as intendant by Géza Zichy, a conservative aristocrat determined to assume artistic control over Mahler’s head.
Mahler began negotiating with the director of the Hamburg Stadttheater; in May 1891, having agreed to a contract there, he resigned his Budapest post.
His final Budapest triumph was a performance of ‘Don Giovanni’ which won him praise from Brahms, who was present.
(Brahms’ and Mahler’s attitudes to each other’s music were generally negative, but in one of his last concerts with the New York Philharmonic shortly before his death Mahler conducted a performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony that his concertmaster Theodore Spiering said he would never forget.)
During his Budapest years Mahler’s compositional output had been limited to the ‘Wunderhorn’ song settings that became Volumes II and III of ‘Lieder und Gesänge’, and amendments to the First Symphony.
Mahler’s Hamburg post was as chief conductor, subordinate to the director, Bernhard Pohl (known as Pollini) who retained overall artistic control.
Pollini was prepared to give Mahler considerable leeway if the conductor could provide commercial as well as artistic success.
This Mahler did in his first season, when he conducted Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ for the first time and gave acclaimed performances of the same composer’s ‘Tannhäuser’ and ‘Siegfried’.
Another triumph was the German premiere of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’, in the presence of the composer, who called Mahler’s conducting “astounding“.
Mahler’s demanding rehearsal schedules led to predictable resentment from the singers and orchestra with whom the conductor “inspired hatred and respect in almost equal measure.“
He found support, however, from Hans von Bülow, who was in Hamburg as director of the city’s subscription concerts.
Bülow, who had spurned Mahler’s approaches in Kassel, had come to admire the younger man’s conducting style, and on Bülow’s death in 1894 Mahler took over the direction of the concerts.
In the summer of 1892 Mahler took the Hamburg singers to London to participate in a six-week season of German opera – his only visit to Britain.
His conducting of ‘Tristan’ enthralled the young composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who “staggered home in a daze and could not sleep for two nights“, however, Mahler refused further such invitations as he was anxious to reserve his summers for composing.
In 1893 he acquired a retreat at Steinbach, on the banks of Lake Attersee in Upper Austria, and established a pattern that persisted for the rest of his life; summers would henceforth be dedicated to composition, at Steinbach or its successor retreats.
Now firmly under the influence of the ‘Wunderhorn’ folk-poem collection, Mahler produced a stream of song settings at Steinbach, and composed his Second and Third Symphonies there.
‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Alte deutsche Lieder (The Boy’s Magic Horn: Old German Songs) is a collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, and published in Heidelberg, in the Grand Duchy of Baden.
The book was published in three editions: the first in 1805 followed by two more volumes in 1808.
The collection was an important source of idealized folklore in the Romantic nationalism of the 19th century. ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ became widely popular across the German-speaking world; Goethe, one of the most influential writers of the time, declared that ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ “has its place in every household”.
Arnim and Brentano, like other early 19th-century song collectors, such as the Englishman Thomas Percy, freely modified the poems in their collection.
The editors, both poets themselves, invented some of their own poems.
Some poems were modified to fit poetic meter, to conform to then-modern German spelling, or otherwise to conform more closely to an idealized, Romantic “folk style” (naturpoesie).
Performances of Mahler works were still comparatively rare.
On 27 October 1893, at Hamburg’s Ludwig Konzerthaus, Mahler conducted a revised version of his First Symphony; still in its original five-movement form, it was presented as a ‘Tondichtung’ (tone poem) under the descriptive name “Der Titan”.
This concert also introduced several recent ‘Wunderhorn’ settings.
Mahler achieved his first relative success as a composer when the Second Symphony was well-received on its première in Berlin, under his own baton, on 13 December 1895.
Mahler’s future conducting assistant Bruno Walter, who was present, said that “one may date Mahler’s rise to fame as a composer from that day.”
That same year Mahler’s private life was disrupted by the suicide of his younger brother Otto.
Otto Mahler (18 June 1873 – 6 February 1895) was a Bohemian-Austrian musician and composer who committed suicide at the age of twenty-one.
The twelfth child of Bernard and Marie Mahler, Otto was born in Jihlava and resembled his elder brother Gustav Mahler in displaying a special talent for music at an early age.
Otto was a talented student. He appears to have been less diligent than his brother had been, however. After a few successful terms studying harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner and piano with Ernst Ludwig, his marks declined, and the annual report for his first year shows that for some reason he took no final examination in composition. From that point on his academic performance was increasingly poor, and in April 1892, Otto Mahler left the Conservatory without a diploma.
With the help of his brother, Otto was able to find minor musical posts in provincial towns. He seldom stayed long in any place, however. In the autumn of 1893, he took on a position as choirmaster and second conductor of the Leipzig Opera. After moving to a position in Bremen, he returned to Vienna.
It was in Vienna on 6 February 1895, that Otto shot himself with a revolver while in the house of his and Mahler’s friend Nina Hoffmann-Matscheko. According to Gustav’s widow Alma, Otto’s suicide-note stated that life no longer pleased him, so he ‘handed back his ticket’.
At the Stadttheater Mahler introduced numerous new operas: Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’, Humperdinck’s ‘Hänsel und Gretel’, and works by Smetana, however, he was forced to resign his post with the subscription concerts after poor financial returns and an ill-received interpretation of his re-scored Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Mahler had made it clear that his ultimate goal was an appointment in Vienna, and from 1895 onward was manoeuvring, with the help of influential friends, to secure the directorship of the Vienna Hofoper.
He overcame the bar that existed against the appointment of a Jew to this post by converting to Roman Catholicism in February 1897.
Despite this event, however, Mahler has been described as a lifelong agnostic, or at best a Pantheist or Deist
Two months later the ‘Aryan’ Mahler was appointed to the Hofoper, provisionally as a staff conductor with the title of Kapellmeister.
As he waited for the Austrian Kaiser’s confirmation of his directorship, Mahler shared duties as a resident conductor with Joseph Hellmesberger Jr (son of the former conservatory director) and Hans Richter, an internationally renowned interpreter of Wagner, and the conductor of the original ‘Ring Cycle’ at Bayreuth in 1876.
Director Wilhelm Jahn had not consulted Richter about Mahler’s appointment; Mahler, sensitive to the situation, wrote Richter a complimentary letter expressing unswerving admiration for the older conductor. Subsequently the two were rarely in agreement, but kept their divisions private.
Vienna, the imperial Habsburg capital, had recently elected an anti-Semitic conservative mayor, Karl Lueger, who had once proclaimed: “I myself decide who is a Jew and who isn’t.“
In such a volatile political atmosphere Mahler needed an early demonstration of his German cultural credentials.
He made his initial mark in May 1897 with much-praised performances of Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ and Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’ (The Magic Flute).
Shortly after the ‘Zauberflöte’ triumph, Mahler was forced to take sick leave for several weeks, during which he was nursed by his sister Justine and his long-time companion, the viola player Natalie Bauer-Lechner.
Mahler returned to Vienna in early August to prepare for Vienna’s first uncut version of the Ring cycle.
This performance took place on 24–27 August, attracting critical praise and public enthusiasm. Mahler’s friend Hugo Wolf told Bauer-Lechner that “for the first time I have heard the Ring as I have always dreamed of hearing it while reading the score.”
On 8 October Mahler was formally appointed to succeed Jahn as the Hofoper’s director.
His first production in his new office was Smetana’s Czech nationalist opera ‘Dalibor’, with a reconstituted finale that left the hero Dalibor alive.
This production caused anger among the more extreme Viennese German nationalists, who accused Mahler of “fraternising with the anti-dynastic, inferior Czech nation“.
During Mahler’s tenure a total of 33 new operas were introduced to the Hofoper; a further 55 were new or totally revamped productions, however, a proposal to stage Richard Strauss’s controversial opera ‘Salome’ in 1905 was (not surprisingly) rejected by the Viennese censors.
|Alfred Roller – ‘Tristan und Isolde’|
Early in 1902 Mahler met Alfred Roller, an artist and designer associated with the Wiener Secession movement.
A year later, Mahler appointed him chief stage designer to the Hofoper, where Roller’s début was a magnificent new production of ‘Tristan und Isolde’.
The collaboration between Mahler and Roller created more than 20 celebrated productions of, among other operas, Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’, Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Aulide’ and Mozart’s ‘Le nozze di Figaro’.
In the Figaro production, Mahler offended some purists by adding and composing a short recitative scene to Act III.
In spite of numerous theatrical triumphs, Mahler’s Vienna years were rarely smooth; his battles with singers and the house administration continued on and off for the whole of his tenure.
While Mahler’s methods improved standards, his histrionic and dictatorial conducting style was resented by orchestra members and singers alike.
In December 1903 Mahler faced a revolt by stage-hands, whose demands for better conditions he rejected in the belief that extremists were manipulating his staff.
By that time he was at odds with the opera house’s administration over the amount of time he was spending on his own music, and was preparing to leave.
Early in 1907 he began discussions with Heinrich Conried, director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and in June signed a contract, on very favourable terms, for four seasons’ conducting in New York.
At the end of the summer he submitted his resignation to the Hofoper, and on 15 October 1907 conducted ‘Fidelio’, his 648th and final performance there.
During his ten years in Vienna Mahler had brought new life to the opera house and cleared its debts, but had won few friends – it was said that he treated his musicians in the way a lion tamer treated his animals.
His departing message to the company, which he pinned to a notice board, was later torn down and scattered over the floor.
After conducting the Hofoper orchestra in a farewell concert performance of his Second Symphony on 24 November, Mahler left Vienna for New York in early December.
Marriage and Family
During his second season in Vienna, Mahler acquired a spacious modern apartment on the Auenbruggerstrasse, and built a summer villa on land he had acquired next to his new composing studio at Maiernigg.
In November 1901, he met Alma Schindler, the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll, at a social gathering that included the theatre director Max Burckhard.
Alma was not initially keen to meet Mahler, on account of “the scandals about him and every young woman who aspired to sing in opera“.
The two engaged in a lively disagreement about a ballet by Alexander von Zemlinsky (Alma was one of Zemlinsky’s pupils), but agreed to meet at the Hofoper the following day.
This meeting led to a rapid courtship; Mahler and Alma were married at a private ceremony on 9 March 1902.
Alma was by then pregnant with her first child, a daughter Maria Anna, who was born on 3 November 1902. A second daughter, Anna, was born in 1904.
Friends of the couple were surprised by the marriage and dubious of its wisdom.
Mahler’s family considered Alma to be flirtatious, unreliable, and too fond of seeing young men fall for her charms.
Mahler was by nature moody and authoritarian – Natalie Bauer-Lechner, his earlier partner, said that living with him was “like being on a boat that is ceaselessly rocked to and fro by the waves“.
Alma soon became resentful that, on Mahler’s insistence that there could only be one composer in the family, she had given up her music studies.
She wrote in her diary: “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart“.
Mahler’s requirement that their married life be organised around his creative activities imposed strains, and precipitated rebellion on Alma’s part; the marriage was nevertheless marked at times by expressions of considerable passion, particularly from Mahler.
In the summer of 1907 Mahler, exhausted from the effects of the campaign against him in Vienna, took his family to Maiernigg.
Soon after their arrival both daughters fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria.
Anna recovered, but after a fortnight’s struggle Maria died on 12 July.
Immediately following this devastating loss, Mahler learned that his heart was defective, a diagnosis subsequently confirmed by a Vienna specialist, who ordered a curtailment of all forms of vigorous exercise.
The extent to which Mahler’s condition disabled him is unclear; Alma wrote of it as a virtual death sentence, though Mahler himself, in a letter written to her on 30 August 1907, said that he would be able to live a normal life, apart from avoiding over-fatigue.
The illness was, however, a further depressing factor; at the end of the summer the villa at Maiernigg was closed, and never revisited.
Last Years – 1908 -11
Mahler made his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 1 January 1908, when he conducted Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in the cut version still standard in New York, though long since superseded in Vienna.
In a busy first season Mahler’s performances were widely praised, especially his ‘Fidelio’ on 20 March 1908, in which he insisted on using replicas being made of Roller’s Vienna sets.
On his return to Austria for the summer of 1908, Mahler established himself in the third and last of his composing studios, in the pine forests close to Toblach in Tyrol.
Here, using a text by Hans Bethge based on ancient Chinese poems, he composed ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (“The Song of the Earth”).
Despite the symphonic nature of the work, Mahler refused to number it, hoping thereby to escape the “curse of the Ninth Symphony” that he believed had affected fellow-composers Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner.
On 19 September 1908 the première of the Seventh Symphony, in Prague, was deemed by Alma Mahler a critical rather than a popular success.
For its 1908–09 season the Metropolitan management brought in the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini to share duties with Mahler, who made only 19 appearances in the entire season.
One of these was a much-praised performance of Smetana’s ‘The Bartered Bride’ on 19 February 1909.
In the early part of the season Mahler conducted three concerts with the New York Symphony Orchestra.
This renewed experience of orchestral conducting inspired him to resign his position with the opera house and accept the conductor-ship of the re-formed New York Philharmonic.
He continued to make occasional guest appearances at the Met, his last performance being Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ on 5 March 1910.
Back in Europe for the summer of 1909, Mahler worked on his Ninth Symphony and made a conducting tour of the Netherlands.
The 1909–10 New York Philharmonic season was long and taxing; Mahler rehearsed and conducted 46 concerts, but his programmes were often too demanding for popular tastes.
His own First Symphony, given its American début on 16 December 1909, was one of the pieces that failed with critics and public, and the season ended with heavy financial losses.
The highlight of Mahler’s 1910 summer was the first performance of the stupendous Eighth Symphony ‘Sinfonie der Tausendat’ in Munich on 12 September, the last of his works to be premièred in his lifetime.
The occasion was a triumph – “easily Mahler’s biggest lifetime success“, – but was overshadowed by the composer’s discovery, before the event, that Alma had begun an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.
Greatly distressed, Mahler sought advice from Sigmund Freud, and appeared to gain some comfort from his meeting with the psychoanalyst. Alma agreed to remain with Mahler, although the relationship with Gropius continued surreptitiously.
In a gesture of love, Mahler foolishly dedicated his Eighth Symphony to her.
Illness and Death
In spite of the emotional distractions, during the summer of 1910 Mahler worked on his Tenth Symphony, completing the Adagio and drafting four more movements.
He and Alma returned to New York in November 1910, where Mahler threw himself into a busy Philharmonic season of concerts and tours.
Around Christmas 1910 he began suffering from a sore throat, which persisted.
On 21 February 1911, with a temperature of 40 °C (104 °F), Mahler insisted on fulfilling an engagement at Carnegie Hall, with a program of mainly new Italian music, including the world premiere of Busoni’s ‘Berceuse élégiaque’.
This was Mahler’s last concert.
After weeks confined to bed he was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis, a disease to which sufferers from defective heart valves were particularly prone, and for which the survival rate in pre-antibiotic days was almost zero.
Mahler did not give up hope; he talked of resuming the concert season, and took a keen interest when one of Alma’s compositions was sung at a public recital by the soprano Frances Alda, on 3 March.
On 8 April the Mahler family and a permanent nurse left New York on board SS Amerika bound for Europe.
They reached Paris ten days later, where Mahler entered a clinic at Neuilly, but there was no improvement; on 11 May he was taken by train to the Lŏw sanatorium in Vienna, where he died on 18 May.
On 22 May 1911 Mahler was buried in the Grinzing cemetery, as he had requested.
Alma, on doctors’ orders, was absent, but among the mourners at a relatively pomp-free funeral were Arnold Schoenberg (whose wreath described Mahler as “the holy Gustav Mahler” ?), Bruno Walter, Alfred Roller, the Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, and representatives from many of the great European opera houses.
Alma Mahler survived her husband by more than 50 years, dying in 1964.
Unsurprisingly, she married Walter Gropius in 1915, and then divorced him five years later, and married the writer Franz Werfel in 1929.
The composer’s daughter Anna Mahler became a well-known sculptor; she died in 1988.
Deryck Cooke divided Mahler’s composing life into three distinct phases: a long “first period”, extending from ‘Das klagende Lied’ in 1880 to the end of the ‘Wunderhorn’ phase in 1901; a “middle period” of more concentrated composition ending with Mahler’s departure for New York in 1907; and a brief “late period” of elegiac works before his death in 1911.
The main works of the first period are the first four symphonies, the ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ song cycle, and various song collections in which the ‘Wunderhorn’ songs predominate.
In this period songs and symphonies are closely related, and the symphonic works are programmatic.
Mahler initially gave the first three symphonies full descriptive programmes.
The middle period comprises a triptych of purely instrumental symphonies (the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh), the ‘Rückert’ songs and the ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (Songs for Dead Children), two final ‘Wunderhorn’ settings and, in some reckonings, Mahler’s last great affirmative statement, the choral Eighth Symphony.
Cooke, more correctly, believes that the Eighth stands on its own, between the middle and final periods.
Mahler had by now abandoned all explicit programmes and descriptive titles; he wanted to write so-called “absolute” music that spoke for itself.
Cooke refers to “a new granite-like hardness of orchestration” in the middle-period symphonies, while the songs have lost most of their folk character, and cease to fertilise the symphonies as explicitly as before.
The works of the brief final period – ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (Song of the Earth), the Ninth and (incomplete) Tenth Symphonies – are expressions of personal experience, as Mahler faced death.
Each of the pieces ends quietly, signifying that aspiration has now given way to resignation.
Cooke considers these works to be a farewell to life.
None of these final works was performed in Mahler’s lifetime.
The union of song and symphonic form in Mahler’s music is, in Cooke’s view, organic; “his songs flower naturally into symphonic movements, being already symphonic in cast.“
To Sibelius, Mahler expressed the belief that “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.“
True to this belief, Mahler drew material from many sources into his songs and symphonic works: bird calls and cow-bells to evoke nature and the countryside, bugle fanfares, street melodies and country dances to summon the lost world of his childhood.
Life’s struggles are represented in contrasting moods: the yearning for fulfilment by soaring melodies and chromatic harmony, suffering and despair by discord, distortion and grotesquerie.
The range of musical moods, Cooke maintains, comes from Mahler’s “amazing orchestration” which, in the writer’s view, “speaks for itself“.
In addition there are specific features which are basic to Mahler’s style: extremes of volume, the use of off-stage ensembles, unconventional arrangement of orchestral forces, and frequent recourse to popular music and dance forms such as the ländler and the waltz.
The supposed ‘Jewish’ elements in Mahler’s works are attempts by Jewish commentators and their supporters to corral Mahler into the Jewish cultural ghetto.
In fact the so-called ‘Jewish’ elements are simply examples of popular Central European music of the time, included usually to indicate reminiscences of the composers youthful experiences.
A technical device much used by Mahler is that of “progressive tonality“, which Deryck Cooke describes as “the procedure of resolving a symphonic conflict in a different key from that in which it was stated”, and which is often used “to symbolise the gradual ascendancy of a certain value by progress from one key to another over the whole course of a symphony“.
Mahler first employed the device in an early song, ‘Erinnerung’ (“Memory”), and thereafter used it freely in his symphonies.
For example, the predominant key of the First Symphony is D major; at the beginning of the Finale, the “conflict” movement, the key switches to F minor, and only after a lengthy battle gets back to D, near the end.
The Second Symphony begins in C minor and ends in E flat.
The movements of the Fifth Symphony progress successively from C-sharp minor to A minor, then D major, F major and finally to D major.
The Sixth Symphony, unusually for Mahler, begins and ends in the same key, A minor, signifying that in this case the conflict is unresolved.