top of page

Gustav Mahler

1860 - 1911

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860, Kaliště in Bohemia, now Czech Republic – 18 May 1911, Vienna in Austria-Hungary) 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. 

Gustav Mahler was born to Jewish parents in Kalist, Bohemia. He began piano lessons at the age of six, and gave his first public recital four years later. He suffered a traumatic childhood at the hands of a strict father, growing up to be a neurotic and temperamental young man. In 1875 he entered the Vienna Conservatoire, where he studied the piano, harmony, and composition. He also developed what was to be a lifelong interest in political and philosophical ideas, which led him to enrol at the university in 1878. The same year he composed his first substantial work, Das klagende Lied (The Song of Sorrow), a cantata for tour voices, chorus, and orchestra to a text by the composer himself.

Throughout his life, Mahler earned most of his income as a conductor. In 1880 he was appointed to his first conducting post in Upper Austria. During the next few years he moved around from opera house to opera house, gaining vital experience of the standard repertory. While he was at Kassel (1883—5) an unhappy love affair provided the inspiration for his first masterpiece, the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Qesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). He moved to Prague in 1885, and after spells at Leipzig, as second conductor to Artur Nikisch, and then Budapest lie went to Hamburg in 1891, undertaking the heaviest schedule of his life - conducting as many as 19 operas a month.

By 1894 Mahler had finished his gigantic Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection symphony) in five movements, which lasts for 80 minutes. He had encountered many problems during its gestation, and for a long time he was unable to begin the last movement. Then, early in 1894, Mahler attended the funeral of a friend. At the climax of the service the choir intoned the Resurrection ode by eighteenth-century German poet Friedrich Klopstock; Mahler rushed home and immediately set to work using this as the basis for the missing movement. As well as its choral finale, the Resurrection symphony includes a setting for alto voice of texts from a collection of folk poetry entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which Mahler returned to for his Third and Fourth symphonies.

By 1893 Mahler had established his lifelong pattern of composing in the summer and conducting in the winter. In 1897 he renounced his Jewish faith in order to gain the coveted post of Director of the Vienna Court Opera. His achievements there marked one of the most glorious decades in the Opera House's prestigious history. In 1898 he became conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. He attracted large audiences, but his authoritarian manner and unconventional musical views antagonized players and administrators alike. In 1902 he married Alma Schindler, with whom he had two daughters. The marriage did not always run smoothly, as Mahler demanded that his wite should arrange her life entirely around his. The problems between them came to a head in 1910 when Alma's affair with the architect Walter Gropnis led Mahler to consult Sigmund Freud.

During his time in Vienna, Mahler composed five symphonies (Nos. 4—8) and a song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (Children's Death Songs). The Sixth symphony in particular is enormously powerful and includes three massive chords which represent three hammerblows of fate, the last being fatal. The music affected Mahler so profoundly at the first performance that he was incapable of conducting properly and deleted the third blow, fearful of its prophecy of death. The Eighth symphony surpasses anything written before it in terms of the forces required, using such a massive orchestra, choir, and cast of soloists that it acquired the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand."

Key Works

Symphony No. 1 "Titan"

I. Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut - Im Anfang sehr gemächlich (00:00)
II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (16:20)
III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (23:37)
IV. Stürmisch bewegt (34:31)

Symphony No. 2 in C minor - "Resurrection"

1:18 I. Allegro maestoso (21:10)
22:26 II. Andante moderato (9:24)
32:18 III. [Scherzo] In ruhig fließender Bewegung (11:18)
43:48 IV. Urllicht. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht (5:05)
48:42 V. Im Tempo des Scherzo. Wild herausfahrend - "Auferstehn" (37:25)

Symphony No. 3

0:01:13 - 1. Kräftig entschieden
0:34:03 - 2. Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr mäßig
0:44:54 - 3. Commodo, Scherzando. Ohne Hast
1:02:14 - 4. Sehr langsam. Misterioso
1:12:46 - 5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck
1:16:56 - 6. Langsam, ruhevoll, empfunden

Symphony No. 4

1 Bedächtig, nicht eilen
2 In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast
3 Ruhevoll, poco adagio
4 Sehr behaglich

Symphony No. 5

0:00 - Opening
I. 0:55 - Traeurmarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt
13:36 - Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz
II. 28:20 - Scherzo. Kräftig, Nicht zu schnell.
III. 45:17 - Adagietto. Sehr langsam.
53:49 - Rondo-Finale. Allegro-Allegro giocoso. Frisch.
1:10:10 - Credits

Symphony No. 6

 I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig
 II. Andante moderato 
III. Scherzo. Wuchtig - (Trio) Altväterisch. Grazioso 
 IV. Finale. Allegro moderato - Allegro energico 

Symphony No. 7 in E minor

00:00 1. Langsam - Allegro
21:40 2. Nachtmusik. Allegro moderato
36:53 3. Scherzo
46:51 4. Nachtmusik. Andante amoroso
1:00:04 5. Rondo - Finale. Allegro ordinario - Allegro moderato ma energico

Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, "Symphony of a Thousand"

Rosemary Joshua soprano
Christine Brewer soprano
Simon Rattle conductor
John Relyea bass
David Wilson-Johnson baritone
Jon Villars tenor
Soile Isokoski soprano
Birgit Remmert mezzo-soprano
Jane Henschel mezzo-soprano
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus
London Symphony Chorus (pre-1976, London Symphony Orchestra Chorus)
Toronto Children's Chorus
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

Symphony No. 9 in D minor

0:40 I. Andante comodo (24:44)
25:50 II. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (15:11)
41:05 III. Rondo-Burlesque. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (12:53)
53:57 IV. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (25:41)

Mahler's grave in the Grinzing cemetery, Vienna

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

Despite these successes Mahler had to leave Vienna in the face of an increasingly virulent anti-Semitic smear campaigninitiated by the press. He accepted an offer by the New York Metropolitan Opera and left for the United States at the end of 1907. One of his daughters died that year; and it was around this time that his health began to suffer seriously, a result of the constant strain he had imposed upon himself all his life. He returned to Europe and died in 1911, leaving three unperformed masterpieces — the Ninth symphony, a work clearly preoccupied with the shadow of death; the beautiful symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth); and an unfinished Tenth symphony.

Mahler's works fell from favour after his death, but his symphonies, longer and more complex than anyone had dared to write before, are now recognized as works of genius.

Symphony No. 10 (Cooke version)

1. Adagio
2. Scherzo
3. Purgatorio (Allegretto moderato)
4. (Scherzo)

Das Lied von der Erde

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

bottom of page