Gustav Mahler 1860 – 1911, was an Austrian composer/conductor who was actually better known during his lifetime as a conductor. Few know that toward the end of his life he was the head conductor of the NY Philharmonic. Mahler is chiefly known for his 10 symphonies, the last of which was never finished. For nearly 50 years after his death his music was forgotten and suppressed - the Nazi's forbid any performance of his music because of his Jewish heritage. In 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic re-introduced the world to his music and since then it has become exceedingly popular. (More info below)
Mahler's life was full of tragedy and that is portrayed with great sincerity in his music. 8 of his 14 siblings died before their teens and he lost a daughter at age 3. One of his most famous pieces is a song cycle entitled Kindertotenlieder, which is about the death of children. His wife Alma, began an affair with the great architect Walter Gropius and this event was thought to impact the end of his life in a major way. He even met with Sigmond Freud about all his troubles. Apparently the great Freud was not of much help.
Mahler is known for creating the autobiographical symphony. He claimed: “a symphony should be the world, it must embrace everything.” Listening to one of his symphonies is like living an hour (or more) of Mahler’s life. His first symphony is credited by many as the greatest first symphony ever written. He also was in love with nature and spent an incredible amount of time orchestrating nature sounds into his works. In his first symphony one can hear hundreds of tiny little creatures of the woods collectively carrying a slain hunter’s body out of the forest.
And symphonies are huge – the 8th Symphony, later dubbed: The Symphony of a Thousand, calls for over 20 brass players, 2 Piccolos, 5 flutes, one mandolin (several mandolins are preferred), harmonium, glockenspiel, 2 choirs, a Children’s Choir and 8 voice soloists...and a chorus of 800! Also the 3rdsymphony is the longest of any symphony ever written, at 95 minutes.
In 1897, in order to secure a position as the artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera (known today as the Vienna State Opera), Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism as the opera company would not hire Jews.
Great Mahler quotes -
“It is always the same with me; only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience! After all, a musician's nature can hardly be expressed in words.”
“I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way.”
“All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish.”