Gustav Mahler was born on 7 July 1860 in Bohemia and died on 18 May 1911 aged 50. His father was an innkeeper, and Gustav was the second of 14 children, though many of his siblings died as children, and his musical gifted brother Otto committed suicide in 1895.
In 1901 he married Alma Schindler and they had two daughters together, Anna and Maria. His early marriage seemed to be happy, and some love themes in his works depict Alma or his relationship with her. Strains began to show in their marriage after the tragic death of Maria, aged four, following completion of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. On top of this he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and subject not just to musical criticism but also public expressions of anti-Semitism. Some years later, when Mahler's works were beginning to receive a certain recognition, Alma had succumbed to alcoholism. At the sanatorium where she was treated she met and had an affair with Walter Gropius.
A life so full of tragic events clearly had a major influence on much of Mahler's output, though there is also much in his music which expresses joy and hope. Mahler has said that his music is about life, and there is clearly an autobiographical aspect to his works, where a "hero" struggles with the meaning of life, death, love and disappointment. However, Mahler withdrew any programmatic comments he had previously made about his compositions saying that they should be appreciated as pure music and this is indeed the best approach.
As a child, Mahler was exposed to many musical influences including military music in a local barracks, folk music of various forms at various events, local musicians playing in his father's tavern and Jewish bands. Although his family were Jewish he was a chorister in a Catholic Church where he also learned piano from the choir master. He won prizes as a pianist and obtained a place in the Vienna Conservatory.
Although always interested in composing, and having composed a number of works before the age of 20 (most now lost), he pursued a successful career as a concert or opera conductor, including posts at Kassel, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg, Leipzig, Vienna, and latterly regular visits to New York. The hugely successful Vienna post, at the height of his conducting career, he secured by converting to Catholicism, and held for 10 years. To the outside world, composing was a sideline and his works frequently being met with disbelief from critics and public alike. His success as a conductor was without doubt and, in that occupation, he also had a reputation for being uncompromising. However, composing was his first love and he developed a routine for composing first at Steinbach during the summer, then at Carinthia at a retreat specially built for that purpose, and later at Tobalch in the Tyrol.
Mahler's major works are his symphonies and song-cycles, though these two genres overlap. Several of his symphonies having voices and choruses and Das Lied von der Erde can be considered to be a hybrid work, which Mahler did not want to overtly call a Symphony because of the superstitious observation that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner died after completing their 9th symphony. For many years his symphonies had a reputation for being difficult, by virtue not only of their technical demands, but also because of their length and need for considerable resources. However, most major orchestras play Mahler works these days, even including many youth and amateur orchestras.
His Symphonies are often divided into 3 or more groupings, although with differing opinions on the boundaries between these groupings. The first 4 or 5 symphonies are referred to as the Wunderhorn symphonies because of the use of thematic material which appears in the Wunderhorn song cycle. The 5th through 7th come from a mature middle period with interleaving tragic and optimistic elements. Das Lied von der Erde, the 9th and 10th are the late period exhibiting greater complexity, modernistic trends and with increasing thoughts of death. The 8th can be grouped both ways or considered as a stand-alone work. Perhaps the most well-known work of Mahler's is the Adagietto to his 5th symphony which was used in Visconti's film "Death in Venice".
(The score on the right shows the first page of his 6th Symphony.)
Symphony No.1 in D (1884-1888) [originally "Titan" with an additional movement called Blumine]
(Extract of 2nd movement: Play, MIDI or MP3 - Star Trek: Voyager)
(Extract of 3rd movement: Play, MIDI or MP3 - Frere Jaques)
Symphony No.2 in Cm (1888-1894) ["Resurrection" from the text by Friedrich Klopstock, with solo voices and chorus]
Symphony No.3 in Dm (1895-1896) [with solo contralto and boys and female choirs]
Symphony No.4 in G (1899-1900) [with solo soprano]
Symphony No.5 in C#m (1901-1902)
(Extract of 4th movement: Play, MIDI or MP3 - Death in Venice)
Symphony No.6 in Am (1903-1905)
Symphony No.7 in Bm (1904-1905)
(Extract of 2nd movement: Play, MIDI or MP3 - Castrol commercial)
Symphony No.8 in Eb (1906-1907) ["Symphony of a Thousand" or at least several hundred including solo voices and several choirs]
Symphony No.9 in D (1909-1910)
Symphony No.10 in F#m (1910 unfinished)
[The first movement of this last symphony was completed but the remainder was reconstructed by Deryck Cooke in 1964 from extensive sketches left by the composer. Other alternative reconstructions exist.]
Cantata - Das Klagende Lied (1878-1880)
Song Cycle - Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a Wayfarer] (1884)
Song Cycle - Des Knaben Wunderhorn [Youth's Magic Horn] (1888-99)
Song Cycle - Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children] (1901-1904)
Song Cycle - Funf Lieder nach Ruckert [Five Ruckert Songs] (1905)
Song-Symphony - Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Earth] (1907-1909)
It is worth noting that Mahler revised some of his works to improve things which he wasn't entirely happy with, so some of these works are available in different versions. Unless you're a musicologist or a "Mahlerite" (as his most ardent fans are sometimes called), this generally won't affect your listening and the differences won't be apparent.
The complete box-set of Mahler Symphonies with Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra can be recommended as an excellent and good value place to start. More in depth reviews by Tony Duggan of alternative recordings can be found at Classical Music on the Web and there is a summary and additional links at www.zzsounds.com. Better still, a live concert can be quite an experience.
The peace of his summer retreats allowed Mahler to concentrate on composing, and sounds invoking nature in various ways can be found in many of his works including birdcalls, hunting horns and cowbells. He also used a variety of military and band music styles which presumably the young Mahler picked up from the local barracks and his father's tavern among other sources.
Mahler is labelled a late Romantic composer denoting the freer type of music which developed after the stricter Classical period. He produced large-scale dramatic works with enormous contrasts in sounds and moods, and has been quoted as saying that his music is "about life". This is evident from the juxtaposition of tragedy, humour, love, and other extremes of emotion, conveying melancholy and pathos amid joy, strength and consolation within tragedy, and the knowing use of self-mocking irony and sarcasm. Mahler's music can certainly have much going on simultaneously at various levels, sometimes making it complex and difficult to understand on first hearing but the persistent listener is amply rewarded with some of the most sublime music ever written.
Mahler has clearly been influenced by a number of other composers such as Beethoven for his large-scale symphonic construction, and use of voices within symphonic form, and after a study of the music of J. S. Bach has incorporated elements of counterpoint into his works. Berlioz also seems to have been an influence especially the use of material and its ironic treatment in the Symphonie Fantastique, and perhaps Franz Liszt in terms of thematic development. Mahler has also learned much on symphonic form from his one-time teacher, Bruckner, and through him the work of Richard Wagner in conveying grand emotional dramas. Although not mentioned as a specific influence, the works of Antonin Dvorak and Pyotr Tchaikovsky would also have been known by Mahler and have surely had an influence on his symphonic output, particularly the latter's use of marches and waltzes in his symphonies and the concluding adagio of his 6th symphony "the Pathetique".
Mahler's contemporaries included Richard Strauss, with whom he is sometimes linked as a late romantic, the tragic song writer Hugo Wolf, and Hans Rott. Johannes Brahms was a friend and advisor to Mahler, although musically they shared little beyond the romantic expression within classical forms. Mahler in turn has also had a significant influence on Arnold Schonberg, Webern and Berg to whom he has perhaps given some early pointers to new musical directions, including a degree of atonality, and the use of off-stage musicians or separate ensembles to add to the normal orchestral sounds. Mahler's music has continued to influence composers well into the 20th century including Honegger, Britten, Sibelius, Boulez, Stockhausen and especially the soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who adopted Mahler's taste for martial music and further developed his use of satire to sometimes bizarre and grotesque extremes. Indeed upon inspection there are connections between Mahler's 1st and Shostakovich's 4th symphonies. The film composer John Williams has stated that he adopted the late romantic orchestral sound of composers such as Mahler, including most obviously the use of fanfares and marches.
There is no doubt that Mahler was musically the linchpin between the 19th and 20th centuries, at the pinnacle of the romantic era, yet setting the scene for many modern movements and styles. Although generally not understood in his lifetime, his music now receives the recognition it deserves.