Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler 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.

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 (Hofoper). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler–who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post–experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Nevertheless, his 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 and Mozart. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Mahler's Å“uvre is relatively small; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. 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.

Scholars have 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, all of which he later repudiated. He devised, but did not publish, titles for each of the movements for the Fourth Symphony; from these titles the German music critic Paul Bekker conjectured a programme in which Death appears in the Scherzo "in the friendly, legendary guise of the fiddler tempting his flock to follow him out of this world".

The middle period comprises a triptych of purely instrumental symphonies (the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh), the Rí¼ckert songs and the Kindertotenlieder, two final Wunderhorn settings and, in some reckonings, Mahler's last great affirmative statement, the choral Eighth Symphony. Cooke 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 "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, 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 loving (rather than a bitter) farewell to life; the composer Alban Berg called the Ninth "the most marvellous thing that Mahler ever wrote". None of these final works were performed in Mahler's lifetime.