Music History 102

The Twentieth Century

Gustav Mahler

Born: Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860
Died: Vienna, May 18, 1911

Born in Bohemia, the sensitive and musically talented Mahler entered the Vienna Conservatory to study music at the age of fifteen. Encouraged to compose, Mahler’s greatest successes in life nevertheless came as a conductor of symphonies and operas. In 1897, he became the director of the Vienna Opera, a post he held for ten years. During this period, he not only built up the quality and prestige of the Opera, but found time to compose eight large symphonies and four collections of songs. In 1907, Mahler became the new director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the next year conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He completed his ninth symphony and the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde during this time, but due to failing health, returned to Vienna in 1911, where he died on May 18.

Mahler’s music found little critical support during his lifetime, and he was regarded mostly as a pretentious failure as a composer for many years after his death. Yet he remained convinced that his “time would come,” and indeed, it has. Thanks to the support and performances of his works by such conductors as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and, in recent times, Leonard Bernstein, Mahler’s music is now regarded as the great summation of late Romantic traditions, while at the same time opening the gates for the music of the twentieth century.

Mahler’s earliest works are song collections, including the Songs of a Wayfarer. In his first four symphonies, Mahler utilized themes from these songs, and this melody becomes the main theme of the first movement of his first symphony. The Symphony no. 2 “Resurection” finds Mahler adding the human voice to his symphonies, in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth. It was Mahler’s conception that a symphony should be an “entire world,” and thus his symphonic endeavors run the gamut from the sublime to the banal, the spiritual to the earth-bound, often with the presence of death hovering in the background. The final movement of the second symphony is intended to depict the Final Judgement and the resurection of souls borne to heaven. Mahler often employed immense forces in the scoring of his symphonies, as the nickname to his Symphony no. 8 alludes, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” The first movement is a setting of the Latin hymn, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” while the huge second movement is a setting of the final part of Goethe’s “Faust”. But even though enormous instrumental and vocal forces are called for in these works, Mahler very often scores pages of almost chamber-music intimacy in his symphonies, revealing another aspect of his “symphony-as-world” view.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane