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Gustav Mahler and his Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911) was a late-Romantic Austrian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. The Mahler family came from eastern Bohemia and were of humble circumstances, belonging to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and being Jewish. The composer’s grandmother had been a street peddler. Bernhard Mahler, the peddler’s son, elevated himself to the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie by becoming a coachman and later an innkeeper, and his wife, Marie, was the daughter of a soap maker.. He bought a modest house in the village of Kalischt (Kaliště), Bohemia, halfway between Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia in what was then the Austrian Empire, now in the Czech Republic, where his second son of fourteen children, Gustav, was born on July 7, 1860. The Mahler’s first son Isidor had died in infancy. In December of 1860, Bernhard moved with his wife, Marie, and infant son, Gustav, to the town of Iglau (now Jihlava), to the south-east, where he built up a distillery and tavern business. Iglau was then a thriving commercial town of 20,000 people where Gustav was introduced to music through street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies, and the trumpet calls and marches of the local military band. All of these elements would later contribute to his mature musical vocabulary.

When he was four years old, Gustav discovered his grandparents’ piano and took to it immediately. Bernhard, open to his son’s talent, began paying for piano lessons. Gustav developed his performing skills sufficiently to be considered a local Wunderkind and gave his first public performance at the Iglau town theatre when he was ten years old. In 1871, his father sent him to the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, but Gustav was unhappy there and soon returned to Iglau. In 1874 he suffered a bitter personal loss when his younger brother Ernst died after a long illness. Mahler sought to express his feelings in music. With the help of a friend, Josef Steiner, he began work on an opera, Herzog Ernst von Schwaben (“Duke Ernest of Swabia”) as a memorial to his lost brother. Neither the music nor the libretto of this work has survived. Bernhard Mahler was supportive of his son’s ambitions for a music career, and agreed that the boy should try for a place at the Vienna Conservatory. The young Mahler was auditioned by the renowned pianist Julius Epstein, and accepted for 1875–76. He made good progress in his piano studies with Epstein and won prizes at the end of each of his first two years. For his final year, 1877–78, he concentrated on composition and harmony under Robert Fuchs and Franz Krenn. Few of Mahler’s student compositions have survived. Mahler may have gained his first conducting experience with the Conservatory’s student orchestra, in rehearsals and performances, although it appears that his main role in this orchestra was as a percussionist.

Among Mahler’s fellow students at the Conservatory was the future song composer Hugo Wolf, with whom he formed a close friendship. Mahler attended occasional lectures by Anton Bruckner and, though never formally his pupil, was influenced by him. Along with many music students of his generation, Mahler fell under the spell of Richard Wagner, though his chief interest was the sound of the music rather than the staging. Mahler left the Conservatory in 1878 with a diploma but without the prestigious silver medal given for outstanding achievement. He then enrolled at the University of Vienna and followed courses which reflected his developing interests in literature and philosophy. After leaving the University in 1879, Mahler made some money as a piano teacher, continued to compose, and in 1880 finished a dramatic cantata, Das klagende Lied (“The Song of Lamentation”). This, his first substantial composition, shows traces of Wagnerian and Brucknerian influences. Mahler developed interests in German philosophy, and was introduced by his friend Siegfried Lipiner to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Fechner and Hermann Lotze. These thinkers continued to influence Mahler and his music long after his student days were over.

In the summer of 1880, Mahler took his first professional conducting job, in a small wooden theatre in the spa town of Bad Hall, south of Linz. The repertory was exclusively operetta. In 1881, he was engaged at the Landestheater in Laibach (now Ljubljana, in Slovenia), where the small but resourceful company was prepared to attempt more ambitious works. Here, Mahler conducted his first full-scale opera, Verdi’s Il trovatore, one of more than fifty that he presented during his time in Laibach. After completing his six-month engagement, Mahler returned to Vienna and worked part-time as chorus-master at the Vienna Carltheater. In January 1883, Mahler became conductor at a run-down theatre in Olmütz (now Olomouc) and brought five new operas to the theatre, including Bizet’s Carmen. After a week’s trial at the Royal Theatre in the Hessian town of Kassel, Mahler became the theatre’s “Musical and Choral Director” from August 1883. He directed a performance of his favorite opera, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and, on June 23, 1884, conducted his own incidental music to Joseph Victor von Scheffel’s play Der Trompeter von Säkkingen (“The Trumpeter of Säkkingen”), the first professional public performance of a Mahler work. In July 1885, he was offered a standby appointment as an assistant conductor at the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague was offered a six-year contract with the prestigious Leipzig Opera at the Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig, to begin in 1886.

In Leipzig, Mahler befriended Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer, and agreed to prepare a performing version of Carl Maria von Weber’s unfinished opera Die drei Pintos (“The Three Pintos”). At around this time Mahler discovered the German folk-poem collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), which would dominate much of his compositional output for the following twelve years. In May 1888, Mahler’s new-found financial security enabled him to resign his Leipzig position and he returned to Prague to work on a revival of Die drei Pintos and a production of Peter Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. Through the efforts of an old Viennese friend, Guido Adler, Mahler’s name went forward as a potential director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest. He was interviewed, made a good impression, and was offered the post to begin in October 1888. Mahler finished the First Symphony in 1888. In January 1889, he conducted Hungarian language performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre to initial public acclaim. In February 1889, Bernhard Mahler died; this was followed later in the year by the deaths both of Mahler’s sister Leopoldine and his mother. Mahler began negotiating with the director of the Hamburg Stadttheater. In May 1891, having agreed to a contract there, he resigned his Budapest post. His final Budapest triumph was a performance of Don Giovanni which won him praise from Brahms, who was present.

Mahler’s Hamburg post was as chief conductor, subordinate to the director, Bernhard Pohl. Mahler conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the first time and gave acclaimed performances of the same composer’s Tannhäuser and Siegfried. Another triumph was the German premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in the presence of the composer. In the summer of 1892 Mahler took the Hamburg singers to London to participate in a six-week season of German opera—his only visit to Britain. In 1893 he acquired a retreat at Steinbach, on the banks of Lake Attersee in Upper Austria, and established a pattern that persisted for the rest of his life; summers would henceforth be dedicated to composition, at Steinbach or its successor retreats. Mahler achieved his first relative success as a composer when the Second Symphony was well-received on its premiere in Berlin, under his own baton, on December 13,1895. At the Stadttheater Mahler introduced numerous new operas: Verdi’s Falstaff, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and works by Smetana. In February 1897 Mahler made a conversion to Roman Catholicism. Two months later Mahler was appointed to the Vienna Hofoper, provisionally as a staff conductor with the title of Kapellmeister.

As he waited for the Emperor’s confirmation of his directorship, Mahler shared duties as a resident conductor with Joseph Hellmesberger Jr,, son of the former conservatory director and Hans Richter, an internationally renowned interpreter of Wagner and the conductor of the original Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. He made his initial mark in May 1897 with much-praised performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. In early August Mahler prepared for Vienna’s first uncut version of the Ring cycle. This performance took place on August 24–27, attracting critical praise and public enthusiasm. On October 8 Mahler was formally appointed to succeed Jahn as the Hofoper’s director. His first production in his new office was Smetana’s Czech nationalist opera Dalibor, with a reconstituted finale that left the hero Dalibor alive. During Mahler’s tenure a total of 33 new operas were introduced to the Hofoper; a further 55 were new or totally revamped productions. When Richter resigned as head of the Vienna Philharmonic subscription concerts in September 1898, the concerts committee had unanimously chosen Mahler as his successor. In April 1901, dogged by a recurrence of ill-health and wearied by more complaints from the orchestra, Mahler relinquished the Philharmonic concerts conductorship. In November 1901, he met Alma Schindler, the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll, at a social gathering that included the theatre director Max Burckhard. Mahler and Alma were married at a private ceremony on March 9, 1902. The couple had two daughters, Maria and Anna.

Early in 1902 Mahler met Alfred Roller, an artist and designer associated with the Vienna Secession movement. A year later, Mahler appointed him chief stage designer to the Hofoper, where Roller’s debut was a new production of Tristan und Isolde. The collaboration between Mahler and Roller created more than 20 celebrated productions of, among other operas, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In spite of numerous theatrical triumphs, Mahler’s Vienna years were rarely smooth; his battles with singers and the house administration continued on and off for the whole of his tenure. Early in 1907 he began discussions with Heinrich Conried, director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and in June signed a contract, on very favorable terms, for four seasons’ conducting in New York. The demands of his twin appointments in Vienna initially absorbed all Mahler’s time and energy, but by 1899 he had resumed composing. The remaining Vienna years were to prove particularly fruitful. While working on the last of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings he started his Fourth Symphony, which he completed in 1900. By this time he had abandoned the composing hut at Steinbach and had acquired another, at Maiernigg on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia, where he later built a villa. The trilogy of orchestral symphonies, the Fifth, the Sixth and the Seventh were composed at Maiernigg between 1901 and 1905, and the Eighth Symphony written there in 1906, in eight weeks of furious activity.

In the summer of 1907 Mahler, exhausted from the effects of the campaign against him in Vienna, took his family to Maiernigg. Soon after their arrival both daughters fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria. Anna recovered, but after a fortnight’s struggle Maria died. Immediately following this devastating loss, Mahler learned that his heart was defective, a diagnosis subsequently confirmed by a Vienna specialist, who ordered a curtailment of all forms of vigorous exercise. After conducting the Hofoper orchestra in a farewell concert performance of his Second Symphony on November 24, Mahler left Vienna for New York in early December. Mahler made his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on January 1, 1908, when he conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the cut version still standard in New York. For its 1908–09 season the Metropolitan management brought in the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini to share duties with Mahler, who made only 19 appearances in the entire season. One of these was a much-praised performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride on February 19, 1909. Back in Europe for the summer of 1909, Mahler worked on his Ninth Symphony and made a conducting tour of the Netherlands.

In the early part of the season Mahler conducted three concerts with the New York Symphony Orchestra. This renewed experience of orchestral conducting inspired him to resign his position with the opera house and accept the conductorship of the re-formed New York Philharmonic. The 1909–10 New York Philharmonic season was long and taxing; Mahler rehearsed and conducted 46 concerts, but his programs were often too demanding for popular tastes. His own First Symphony, given its American debut on December 16, 1909, was one of the pieces that failed with critics and public, and the season ended with heavy financial losses. The highlight of Mahler’s 1910 summer was the first performance of the Eighth Symphony at Munich on September 12, the last of his works to be premiered in his lifetime. The occasion was a triumph. During the summer of 1910 Mahler worked on his Tenth Symphony, completing the Adagio and drafting four more movements. He and Alma returned to New York in November 1910, where Mahler threw himself into a busy Philharmonic season of concerts and tours. Around Christmas 1910 he began suffering from a sore throat, which persisted. On February 21, 1911, with a temperature of 40 °C (104 °F), Mahler insisted on fulfilling an engagement at Carnegie Hall, with a program of mainly new Italian music, including the world premiere of Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque. This was Mahler’s last concert. After weeks confined to bed he was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis, a disease to which sufferers from defective heart valves were particularly prone, and for which the survival rate in pre-antibiotic days was almost zero.

Mahler did not give up hope; he talked of resuming the concert season, and took a keen interest when one of Alma’s compositions was sung at a public recital by the soprano Frances Alda, on March 3. On April 8 the Mahler family and a permanent nurse left New York on board SS Amerika bound for Europe. They reached Paris ten days later, where Mahler entered a clinic at Neuilly, but there was no improvement; on May 11, he was taken by train to the Lŏw sanatorium in Vienna, where he died of a blood infection on May 18. The New York Times, reporting Mahler’s death, called him “one of the towering musical figures of his day.” The International Gustav Mahler Society was founded in 1955 in Vienna, with Bruno Walter as its first president and Alma Mahler as an honorary member. The Society aims to create a complete critical edition of Mahler’s works, and to commemorate all aspects of the composer’s life. Mahler’s compositional output is almost entirely of nine completed symphonies and several lieder. He never wrote a complete opera, despite making such a large contribution to operatic design and presentation The style of Mahler is late- or post-Romantic, along the lines of Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. The conductors Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, and Maurice Abravanel kept Mahler’s legacy alive, and Mahler’s are now among the most recorded of any symphonies. Some of Mahler’s immediate musical successors included the composers of the Second Viennese School, notably Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler.

The following works by Gustav Mahler are included in my collection:

Five Lieder (for mezzo-soprano and orchestra).
Symphony No. 1 in DM, Titan (1896).
Symphony No. 4 in GM (1900).
Symphony No. 5 in c#m (1902).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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