Gustav Mahler


Born: July 7th, 1860 in Kaliste, Czech Republic
Died: May 18th, 1911 (at age 51) in Veinna, Austria
Nationality: Austrian
Fields: Late Romantic era compositions
Famous For: Being a top conductor and leading composer of the late Romantic period
Awards: Several composing awards from the Vienna Conservatory

Mahler was born in the Bohemian village of Kalischt, then an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now part of the Czech Republic. When he was still a young child, his family moved to a new home in Iglad, a few miles away, and it was here that the young Gustav grew up. His family was by no means rich, but they were still able to secure their son a place at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. The boy’s special musical talents were already evident by this stage, and by the time he graduated in 1878 he was already in demand as a conductor.

Mahler took on conducting roles in a number of Europe’s opera houses and as his reputation increased, so did the importance of the jobs in which he served. By 1897, he held the role of director in the highly prestigious Vienna Court Opera, and he stayed in the city for a decade. The press was often anti-Semitic, and Mahler encountered frequently hostile opposition to his work. Despite this, he maintained superbly high standards as a conductor, and this – combined with the spirit of innovation he brought to his productions – brought him a reputation as a true success in his field.

Notable Works

Mahler was influenced by Mozart and Wagner, both of whose works he produced to great acclaim on the stage. His commitments meant that he was rarely able to compose full-time, but instead had to fit in writing music where he could. When it was practical, he devoted entire summers to concentrating intensely on the creation of music, which he then edited and orchestrated during the short sections of free time he enjoyed during the concert season. His earliest works are often unrepresentative of the large-scale pieces for which he became best known. Although, even as a student in Vienna, he produced a fine piano quartet.

For the most part, Mahler’s major contributions to music came with symphonic and orchestral works produced on a grand scale, with large orchestras often augmented by the voices of solo opera singers. He wrote 12 symphonies. Some of these pieces were slow to be accepted by critics and the public, and this controversy often led Mahler’s compositions to be initially controversial.

Popularity and Legacy

Three of Mahler’s symphonies bucked the trend of slow acceptance, being popular from the start. These were his second, third, and eighth symphonies. The last of these, which was premiered in 1910 – just a year before the composer’s death – was rapturously received, and became Mahler’s biggest success during his lifetime. By this stage, he was famous throughout the world, even holding the post of director at the New York Philharmonic for a short time. His health began to fail in late 1910, and he died in May of the following year. Mahler was admired by composers such as Britten and Shostakovich, who incorporated elements of his style into some of their own pieces.