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Gustav Mahler is largely considered one of the most talented symphonic composers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. His musical output comprised mainly of symphonic and song cycles requiring mammoth orchestras and often choruses. Sadly, Mahler never experienced popularity as a composer during his lifetime, not nearly as much as Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, or even Tchaikovsky, but his talents as interpretive artist on the conductor's podium earned him many accolades and prestigious assignments as music director to famous orchestras.
Mahler was born in Kaliste, Bohemia on July 7, 1860, to a distillery manager father and a homemaker mother. Gustav was the second of twelve children, of which five died in infancy and three others did not live to mature adulthood. The constant conflicts between Gustav's domineering and abusive father and his weak mother helped to shape his compositional style, always reflecting on the struggle between good and evil, happy and sad, strong and weak, etc. Mahler showed musical talent at an early age, and by the age of eight years, he was already composing music influenced by military marches played at the nearby barracks. His parents eagerly encouraged his music studies, sending him to private tutors and ultimately to the Vienna Conservatory (1875-1878). Mahler's studies at the Conservatory got off to a slow start, but the final year at school was marked with him winning several composing awards.
After graduation, for want of paying composing work, Mahler instead started conducting, typically directing light operas at second-rate orchestras. His insistence on complete artistic control of the entire production, from the stage costumes to the dramatic routines to how each and every note in the opera was played, earned him few friends among the orchestral players and performers but many positive reviews from critics. It was during these ten years after graduation from the Conservatory in which Mahler really began serious orchestral composing. Works written during this time included Das Klagend Lied (1880), Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) (1884), and his First Symphony (1888). It must be noted that Mahler conducted the premieres of each of his orchestral works. However, the premiere of his First, in Budapest in November 1889, was deemed a critical failure, since the audience was unaccustomed to the sound of this complex, modern work. Yet the First is perhaps his most approachable symphony, containing many Austrian Lieder themes and simple melodies. And, still, with a performance time of 55 to 60 minutes, it is his shortest symphony!
Failures of Mahler the composer did not daunt Mahler the conductor, as his successes with the operas of Mozart, Wagner, and even some brand new works from Tchaikovsky earned him a reputation as a brilliant interpretive artist. Still, Mahler persevered, composing the Second Symphony (1892), a mammoth work of five movements requiring a full orchestra, female choral soloists, two choirs, an offstage brass band, and a pipe organ. His Third Symphony (1896) took this one step further, a six movement symphonic journey typically taking one hour and forty minutes to perform. During this time, Mahler was busy conducting orchestras and opera companies in Kassel (1883), Prague (1885), Leipzig (1886), Budapest (1888), Hamburg (1891), and Vienna (1894), but it was the musical director position at the Vienna Court Opera that he was aiming for. First, he had to overcome some family problems (both his parents died within months of each other, a younger brother fled to the United States, and another younger brother committed suicide), but, more importantly, Mahler's Jewish faith stood in the way of his career goal (Vienna was largely anti-Semitic during this time). To accommodate, he accepted a Roman Catholic baptism, and was promptly appointed musical director of the Vienna Hofoper Court Opera. Mahler's tenure at the Hofoper was tumultuous yet productive; he composed his Fourth Symphony (1901), thereby completing what many music historians agree wraps up his "Early Symphonies."
His Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies (1903, 1904, 1905 respectively), all purely orchestral, make up his intermediate works. Although these works are increasingly modern and complex, they still contain some wonderful lyrical passages, especially the divinely beautiful Adagio from his 5th. Also, during this time he married Alma Schindler (a composer of fair talent herself), and they had two daughters, Maria (born 1902), and Anna (born 1904). Still, as director of The Hofoper, Mahler brought new high standards of performance unmatched anywhere else in the world.
1907 brought three tragic events to Mahler's life (ironically foreshadowed by the three "hammer blows" present in the Finale of his 6th Symphony): First, he was forced to resign from the Hofoper in somewhat acrimonious circumstances (chiefly disagreements as to what artistic direction he wanted to take the Hofoper), second, the diagnosis of the valve defect in his heart, and third, the death of his elder daughter (of Scarlet Fever). But by this point in his career Mahler had reached worldwide popularity as an orchestral and operatic conductor, and new work was not difficult to find. But it was composing that fueled his passions; The Eighth Symphony (1908) began the final series of Mahler's works. The Eighth is another work of Biblical proportions; a standard performance requires a full orchestra with enlarged brass and woodwind sections, eight soloists (three sopranos, two altos, a tenor, baritone, and bass), two full mixed choirs, a children's choir, several "unconventional" orchestral instruments (guitars, a harmonium, a piano, and a celesta), and, again, a pipe organ. Mahler disliked the alternate title bestowed upon this symphony, A Symphony of a Thousand, but indeed, during the premiere (in Munich in 1910), over one thousand performers were present. Amazingly, this lengthy and difficult work (only two movements but requiring 80-90 minutes to perform), was a huge success at its premiere; in attendance were many famous musicians, businesspeople, and royal families.
Concluding Mahler's final works were Das Lied von der Erde (1908), the Ninth Symphony (1909), and an unfinished Tenth Symphony (1911), all of which he did not live to see or hear performed. The completed portions of the Tenth contain references to how Mahler lamented his crumbling marriage (by this time Alma was having an affair) yet it is considered perhaps the most pure form of Mahler's music (it contains many elements of modern 20th Century music). It was during concluding a winter season of conducting the New York Philharmonic Society in the spring of 1911 in which the heart condition diagnosed four years earlier caught up with Mahler; he traveled back to Austria to spend his final days near his family. He died late in the evening of May 18. Mahler's legacy took a long time to mature. His music, although complex and full of vivid imagery, failed to become popular in musical circles until fifty years after his death; it was primarily the efforts of Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, and, more recently, Simon Rattle , who have introduced the works of Mahler to many. Mahler himself declared, "My time will come."