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About Gustav Mahler

Learn about the composer, Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler: Overview

  • Born: 1860 - Bohemia, Austria
  • Died: 1911 - Vienna, Austria
  • Historical Period: The late romantic era
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, songs, choral

Gustav Mahler, born in 1860, in Bohemia, Austrian Empire, was a much underrated and underestimated maestro in his time. Although he did enjoy periods of success and acclaim, he didn’t receive his deserving appreciation until long after his passing. He died in 1911 in Vienna, Austria. As a composer of Jewish origin, Mahler is well-remembered for his orchestral pieces and symphonies, that appealed to the idea of Romanticism. Today, he is considered as a worthy precursor of 20th-century musical styles who inspired a number of excellent prospects such as Benjamin Britten and Arnold Schoenberg.

Dive deeper into Gustav Mahler's life and works: The Unforgettable Austrian Charisma

Mahler’s family was an Ashkenazic Jewish family, who spoke German, but lived in a region in the Austrian Empire that is today known as the Czech Republic. He was the second oldest child among his siblings, his talents surfacing from a rather early age. Heeding this, his parents enrolled him for piano lessons at the delicate age of 6. Such was his early musical prowess, that when he was only 4, he was able to reproduce a piece of music that he heard at a military barracks, both on the piano and the accordion. This inspiration continued on to his adulthood, where we can find much of his pieces with a distinct military style. Mahler was racially affected from an early age, belonging to a minority of German speakers in his area.

Mahler became a pianist at the age of 15, in Jihlava, and was subsequently accepted into the Vienna Conservatory. He won many accolades there and received a diploma, and then went on to teach for a short while to both support himself and earn some recognition. After one of his most important works, Das klagende Lied (1878-1880), didn’t win the Beethoven Prize at the Conservatory, he started to reserve his compositions for specific occasions. The jury for the prize competition was headed by Johannes Brahms himself.

The song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1896) is one of his most renowned works, also remembered as “Songs of a Wayfarer”. This was followed by his appointment as Vienna Court Opera’s artistic director in the year 1897. This brought him both added self-esteem and fame and he also married Alma Maria Schindler in 1902. However, even though he was very well received as a conductor, acclaimed on all levels of society, he failed miserably as a composer, primarily due to the public’s inability to fully understand his work.

This was a big shock to Mahler, and the critical campaign against him, led to him moving in 1907 to Maiernigg. There, he lost one of his two daughters, Maria, to disease, adding to his already growing misery. Despite all these, he started drawing inspiration from “Symphony No. 6 in F Major” by Beethoven and “Symphonie fantastique” by Hector Berlioz, to be able to go on and write symphonies that weren’t constrained within traditional limits. He was also an avid admirer of Wagner’s music that was characteristic of unbounded emotional expression and also of Schubert’s own work. The latter was especially true when adding music to his pieces, notably for his Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1905).

Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1888) is a completely orchestral piece, and is considered as an autobiography of his youth, marked by the deathly tone of the grim “Funeral March in the Manner of Callot”, and a striking finale with the “Dall'inferno al Paradiso”. 1894’s Symphony No. 2, also called the Resurrection Symphony, has five movements and initiates with an obsession with death and demise, ending with an eventual declaration of immortality. Next, Mahler wrote the Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1896), which is quite extensive and involves both a chorus and a soloist, with six movements explaining a Dionysian philosophy of existence, from an inanimate being to consciousness to God’s grace. Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (1900) comprises of six movements and possesses a Wunderhorn song finale, previously meant to be a movement for Symphony No. 3. The feeling that goes with this is a serene imagery of the Christian heaven.

Symphony No. 5, written in 1902, also called Giant and Symphony No. 7, written in 1905, are both made up of five individual movements. Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (1904), also known as Tragic Symphony, is composed of four movements. Additionally, he also wrote Kindertotenlieder, between 1901 and 1904, a song cycle that was also known as Songs on the Death of Children. One of his most exceptional works was 1907’s Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major, commonly known as Symphony of a Thousand, a name assigned to it due to the enormous resources required to perform it. This piece is widely accepted to be the very first orchestral and choral symphony of a continuous nature. It is divided into two parts, with the first symbolizing a hymn for the Christian holiday Pentecost, titled “Veni Creator Spiritus” and the second demonstrating the ultimate scene of J.W. von Goethe’s play “Faust”.

Mahler lived much of his final years in the United States of America as a conductor, associated with both the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society of New York. The last three works that he composed were written in the Austrian countryside, which he visited intermittently. These were the six-movement Das Lied von der Erde (1908), the orchestral four-movement Symphony No. 9 (1909), and Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp Major (1910) which was incomplete when he passed. In the last year of his life, 1910, Mahler returned to America with his wife Alma to fulfill his responsibilities at the Philharmonic society.

When studied carefully, typical 20th-century elements are present in his work, such as progressive tonality, which is essentially concluding a piece on a different key than the starting one, dissolution of tonality, which is making it hard to recognize the key via the utilization of chromaticism of a different key, and more.

Suffering from bacterial endocarditis, the master was bedridden for many weeks and although he put up a courageous fight against the affliction, he didn’t live long and was interred at the Grinzing cemetery as per his wishes.

 

References

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