July 7, 1860. Kaliste, Czech Republic
Died: May 18, 1911. Vienna, Austria
Czech-born Austrian composer and conductor. Mahler's music stands at the point of transition between nineteenth century romanticism and twentieth century modernism.
Gustav Mahler's career reflects the artistic ambivalence of the end of the nineteenth century. As a conductor, Mahler's aim was to preserve the tradition of composers of the past, and he was a tireless champion of Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. In his composition, on the other hand, he embodied many of the new ideas of modernism and fostered the music of his more radical contemporaries, such as Arnold Schoenberg. In the end, his music was overshadowed by these new currents, but has been revived and reevaluated in the last three decades.
Mahler was born in a small Bohemian town, where he studied music with local teachers. In 1875 he went to Vienna to study at the conservatory, where he remained until 1878. Upon finishing his studies, he took a series of conducting posts throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including Budapest, Hamburg and Leipzig. It was in Leipzig that he first attracted notice with his interpretation of Wagner's Ring Cycle. He ultimately ended up in Vienna, conducting the state opera orchestra. His success in transforming the repertory and performance standards of the opera house was nothing short of remarkable, but it came at high personal cost. The constant work forced him to confine his composing to the summer months, and probably contributed to the health problems that would end his life at an early age. In addition, in order to obtain a post in Vienna -- a city with deep undercurrents of anti-Semitism -- Mahler had to renounce Judaism and convert to Catholicism. In the end it did him no good, and these same anti-Semitic forces compelled him to leave the city. He emigrated to the United States.
In New York, he was engaged as conductor for the Metropolitan Opera, and later the New York Philharmonic. When he died at the age of fifty, he was working on his tenth symphony, a work he had postponed thinking it something of a curse (pointing to Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner). His "real" tenth symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (a setting of six poems by the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po) serves as a fitting summary of his symphonic style, and one of his true masterpieces.
Mahler's music reflects the same ambiguities as his life. He was intensely tied to the past in many ways, following in the footsteps of the great Austrian symphonists. At the same time, he expanded the forms he inherited to a point that it seemed impossible to go beyond. His works are enormous, both in size and in forces. His late symphonies are often more than ninety minutes in length, and call for huge instrumental (and often choral) forces. His Symphony No.8 (called the "Symphony of a Thousand") for example, calls for five vocal soloists, a boy choir and an adult choir, along with a gigantic orchestra. He also departed from tradition in his use of tonality. His larger works often ended in a different tonality than they began in, weakening the structural role of tonality at the same time that Schoenberg and his contemporaries were moving toward a purely atonal style. The final element we can note in Mahler's music is its wit, often tinged with irony and parody. This often occurs by means of the juxtaposition of incongruous elements to create a jarring, often seemingly banal mix.
Symphony No.1 "Titan"
Symphony No. 5 (C# minor), 1st movement: "Trauermarsch: In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt"
Das Lied Von der Erde
Mahler is known for the length, depth, and painful emotions of his works. He loved nature and life and, based on early childhood experiences, feared death (family deaths, a suicide, and a brutal rape he witnessed). This duality appears in almost all his compositions, especially in the Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Deaths of Children"), which are actually about the loss of an innocent view of life.
Mahler's orchestral music is clear, complex, and full of musical imagery, from the heavenly to the banal (the family lived near a military barracks, so march tunes sometimes appear; an argument was associated with the sound of a hurdy-gurdy outside the window). The "program" in the incredible symphonies is therefore that of personal tragedy and hope projected onto a universal scale.
Mahler was one of the most important and influential conductors of the period. Although Mahler had originally studied piano and composition, he was not a virtuoso pianist and his student and youthful works were already too forward looking for him to win the conservative judged composition contests of the time. As a result, Mahler was forced into a conducting career.
Mahler's early career was spent at a serious of regional opera houses (Hall in 1880, Laibach in 1881, Olmutz in 1882, Kassel in 1883, Prague in 1885, Liepzig in 1886-8, Budapest from 1886-8, and Hamburg from 1891-7), a normal career path, until he arrived as head of the Vienna Opera in 1897. Mahler ended some of the more slovenly performance practices of the past; he removed significant cuts that had been "traditionally" made in performances of Wagner's operas, significantly upgraded the expected level of performance for both vocalists and instrumentalists, expanded the repertoire and introduced many new works.
He also ruled with an iron fist, helping create the image of conductor as dictator. This was not, however, the result of simple ego, but rather of Mahler's artistic honesty and desire. When members of the opera orchestra complained that one or another lazy practice was tradition, Mahler's favorite reply was that "[t]radition is laziness." Mahler believed that opera was the highest form of art, not mere entertainment. A classic example is when Mahler decided to give the Vienna premiere of Charpentier's Louise. Charpentier came to the dress rehearsal and criticized the sets, the costumes and Mahler's conducting. Mahler's reaction was to cancel the premier and redo the costumes and set to Charpentier's specifications and studied the score with the composer so that his conducting, too, would be to Charpentier's satisfaction.
Another demonstrative incident during his leadership of the Vienna Opera was his attempts to present Richard Strauss' opera, Salome. Mahler was a basically prudish man, and his wife, Alma Mahler, later stated that he had argued against Strauss setting Wilde's Salome. Strauss, of course, went ahead and composed the piece, submitted it for production by the Vienna Opera, and was informed that the Censorship Board had banned the work due to Strauss' references to Christ and "the representation of events which belong to the realm of sexual pathology..." Rather than agree with the Censor, Mahler instead argued to "...in matters of art only the form and never the content is relevant, or at least should be relevant, from a serious viewpoint. How the subject matter is treated and carried out, not what the subject matter consists of to begin with-that is the only thing that matters. A work of art is to be considered as serious if the artist's dominant objective is to master the subject matter exclusively by artists means and resolve it perfectly to the 'form...'".
Mahler's reign lasted until 1907. He then accepted an offer to conduct the Metropolitan Opera. He conducted two seasons, and then accepted a two-year contrat from the Philharmonic Society (now the New York Philharmonic.) Mahler's time in New York was not positive--he had a low opinion of American concertgoers and musicians, did not get along with the New York critics, and fought with the management of both the Met and the Society. Mahler died in 1911, in poor health and exhausted from his New York battles.
As Mahler was forced to spend most of the year conducting, he was, throughout his career, a summer composer. He conducted fall through spring, and then retreated to the country to compose. Mahler thus limited his composing to only two genres--the symphony and lieder. Mahler's chamber music composition was limited to his student days, and the closest he came to composing an opera was Rubezahl, for which he prepared a libretto in manuscript (in 1880 or 1881), sketched some music (1882), and then abandoned. He did, however, play a significant role assembling existing material and adding his own connecting material to create a performable version of Weber's Die Drei Pintos, at the request of Weber's family. Although Mahler had a thirty year long composing career, his complete works could be assembled on fifteen or sixteen CDs.
Mahler also showed great enthusiasm for new works and new composers. Although his own compositions were grounded in late romantic post-Wagnerism, the younger composers in Vienna's composition circle (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, etc.) had a great appreciation for his music (Schoenberg, at least, taking a while to do so), and Mahler in turn encouraged their work.
Mahler's music drew heavily on Bach, Beethoven and Wagner (all three having more influence, most likely, than Bruckner, who is most consistently cited as being Mahler's main influence.) The article that follows describes Mahler's music in greater detail.
Even Mahler's closest friends, people of high musical culture, were frequently amazed by the utter strangeness of his attitude toward the art. He would stand outside the grounds of a country fair completely fascinated by the babel of tones issuing simultaneously from human throats, hurdy-gurdies, carousels and a brass band. In the confusion of these many tunes accidentally mingled, he claimed, lay the essence of true polyphony, which is an ensemble of independent voices, each singing in the manner best suited to it.
In the light of this Mahler's symphony orchestra is really a community of independent soloists ideally cast, who perform in some wordless drama of absolute music various roles created for them by a serious composer whose freedom of expression recognizes no limitation save that imposed by the great, utterly human soul of true art. Paradoxical as it may sound, Maker's scores, thoroughly modern though they be, are as transparent and simple as those of Mozart. There is in his music a total absence of that prevalent vice, the padding of parts to obtain increased fullness or richness of orchestral sound. Where other composers instinctively surround dissonant voices with soothing harmonic accompaniments Mahler resorts to the extreme of ascetic scoring) intentionally laying bare pointedly discordant parts by the exclusion of all others. In melodic polyphony alone lay the heart of music for him; and in order to keep as dose as possible to it he unhesitatingly braved the perils to his popularity involved in the many unpleasant surprises of his "discordant" scores for the average ear. Not that harmony as a basic influence is absent from his music. It is present, but its importance is enormously reduced by the incessant claims of the intricate melodic "web upon the listener's attention. Mahler asks us not to hear vertically, as harmonies are written, but horizontally, as the lines of themes progress.
And these are great themes, suited to the colossal structure of the forms he chose. Great themes, though perhaps not in the same, simple, pure, austere sense characterizing the immortal themes of the classic symphonists of the past; but song-like themes of broad and daring outline, themes unprecedentedly rich in fantasy, and completely free from the restraining shackles of triads grouped according to age-old formulas of melodic construction. Above all Mahler is the "song" symphonist. His most intricate polyphony only reflects to what degree his soul is a "singing" soul, thoroughly saturated with melody. When he conducted an orchestra even the heavy-voiced tuba was compelled to "sing". To obtain enhanced songlike eloquence Mahler almost revolutionized the symphonic idiom of each instrument.
He exploited each instrument not merely for the clearest musical effect of which it was capable, but even more for its most striking emotional accents, thus endowing the orchestral language with a psychological power it had never possessed before. The prodigal profusion of his unexpected usages in instrumentation was the strange feature that amounted in a great measure for the public's misunderstanding of his music.
Solo flutes which the habit of masters had made the vehicles of sweet melodies were now suddenly heard sounding ethereally, totally bereft of expression, as if issuing out of infinite distances. The brilliant little E-flat clarinet, newly abducted by Mahler from the military band, now invaded the proud precincts of the symphony orchestra and was heard to burst forth in mockery, grotesque to the point of scurrility. Owing to the parodistic gifts of this reclaimed instrument not even the gloomy atmosphere of a funeral march would be safe from an interruption of ribald merriment. The spell of most tender moments would be rudely broken by an instrumental sneer. The oboe. no longer the accustomed high-pitched voice of poignantly sweet pathos, was now heard singing comfortably in its natural, middle register. The bassoon, suddenly become most eloquent of repressed pain, would en' out, most convincing in its highest tones. The contrabassoon would have a coarse grotesque remark to make all alone.
The horn (in the treatment of which most authorities agree Mahler was the greatest master of all time) had never had so much to say. To the noble level of expressiveness it had attained in Bruckner's hands Mahler added a new power, enabling it by means of dying echoes to carry smoothly an idea already exploited into a changed musical atmosphere. Sometimes a solo horn would issue with overwhelming effect from a whole chorus of horns among which it had been concealed; or singing in its deepest tones it would lend a passage an air of tragic gloom. In Mahler's resourceful use of the horn every register seemed possessed of a different psychological significance.
Those short, sharp, fanfaresque trumpet 'motives' so characteristic of Wagner and so effectively transplanted by Bruckner into the symphony attain new life with Mahler; but either disappearing gently in a soft cadence, or singing bravely on, they soar with ever increasing intensity and breadth to a powerful dynamic climax, to be finally crowned with the triumphant din of massed brass and percussion. Or where usage had led to the belief that the intensification of a melodic line was the peculiar task of many instruments in unison, Mahler would save the clarity of this line from the covering danger of massed voices by asking a single trumpet to take up the theme with intense passion. Above a sombre rhythm powerfully marked by a chorus of trombones over percussion he would set a solitary trombone to pour out grief in noble, poignant recitative. Never had such significance been given the percussion group as Mahler gave it. His mastery of this section was doubtless a heritage of the fascination with which he had in infant days listened to the martial strains issuing from the Iglau* barracks. Often he would even combine various percussion instruments, giving them amazing contrapuntal treatment, much as though they were true solo instruments.
"Tradition is slovenly" was his oft-repeated motto. He rejected every stereotyped means of obtaining a desired effect; and it was often the utter originality of his solution to an instrumental problem which while carrying richer meaning was yet regarded by the misunderstanding listener, fed on conventional combinations, as merely grotesque. In this intensified and clarified musical idiom, however, there was nothing actually revolutionary. It signified nothing more than that the inevitable development of the orchestral language had been sent forward a whole generation by the genius of one man.
His great mastery of the "color" possibilities of each instrument kept Mahler, the absolute symphonist, thoroughly modern in a musical world gone "program" made. With this ability he could afford to stand aside from those who blindly risked the sacrifice of musical content to the sensational effect of trick instrumental combinations. There was no emotion he could not give clear expression without abandoning a pure, "linear" method as essentially legitimate as that of Bach. Through orderly contrapuntal "line" scored in Ills eloquent idiom, he achieved "color", and yet retained that transparent clarity of expression which in the higher orchestral world has become synonymous with the name Mahler.
So striking and vital was the originality of his method that it speedily evoked a "school" of emulators but little concerned with the real content of his symphonies. A generation went by; meanwhile the latest offspring of major music came into existence, the "chamber-symphony", over whose many exclusively solo voices the "lineo-coloristic" method of Mahler holds paternal sway. And above this spirit hovers that of the Wagner of the "Siegfried Idyll", the accidental forerunner of all this "modernism". whispering. "Create something new, children,always something new."
Copyright, such as it is, ©1996-2000 Jason Greshes. This site includes a section written by me, sections based on and using material originally by Charles Cave, and material from the Mahler-list. Individual sections contain author credits, and a large amount of material is presented from Chord and Discord, used with permission and with no claim of copyright or any other rights to Chord and Discord material. Copyright for same is held by the Bruckner Society of America, Inc. and the individual authors. It can be assumed that these pages may be freely used for noncommercial purposes, and may not be used for any commercial purpose. http://www.netaxs.com/~jgreshes/mahler/