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Gustav Mahler

Biography

Born: July 7, 1860; Czech Republic   Died: May 18, 1911; Austria   Period: Romantic
"Imagine the universe beginning to sing and resound," Mahler wrote of his Symphony No. 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand." "It is no longer human voices; it is planets and suns revolving." Mahler was late Romantic music's ultimate big thinker. In his own lifetime he was generally regarded as a conductor who composed on the side, producing huge, bizarre symphonies accepted only by a cult following.
Born in 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia, he came
Read more from a middle-class family. He entered the Vienna Conservatory in 1875, studying piano, harmony, and composition in a musically conservative atmosphere. Nevertheless, he became a supporter of Wagner and Bruckner, both of whose works he would later conduct frequently, and became part of a social circle interested in socialism, Nietzschean philosophy, and pan-Germanism. Around 1880, he began conducting and wrote his first mature work, Das klagende Lied. Mahler's conducting career advanced rapidly, moving him from Kassel to Prague to Leipzig to Budapest; he was usually either greatly respected or thoroughly despised by the performers for his exacting rehearsals and perfectionism. In 1897 he became music director of the Vienna Court Opera and then, a year later, of the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler's conducting career permitted composition only during the summers, in a series of "composing huts" he had built in picturesque rural locations. He completed his first symphony in 1888, but it met with utter audience incomprehension. He reserved this time for symphonies, all of them large-scale works, and song cycles. In Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), he merged the two forms into an immense song-symphony. The Viennese public largely failed to understand his music, but Mahler took their reactions calmly, accurately predicting that "My time will yet come." Meanwhile, his autocratic ways as a conductor alienated musicians. In 1901, the press and the musicians essentially forced his resignation from the Philharmonic. He married a young composition student, Alma Schindler in 1902, and they soon had two daughters. By 1907 Mahler was increasingly away from Vienna, conducting his own works, and thus he resigned from the opera as well. Just after accepting the position of principal conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera, but before leaving Vienna, Mahler's older daughter, age 4, died from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he learned he himself had a defective heart valve. In New York, he was impressed by the caliber of talent and quickly gained audience approval. In 1909 he became conductor of the New York Philharmonic, which he found much more agreeable than the opera work by this time. The following year, he had a triumphant premiere of his massive Symphony No. 8 in Munich. Despite the professional successes, his personal life suffered another blow when his and Alma's marriage began having problems. They stayed together, and after he became ill in February 1911, she saw to it that he made it back to Vienna, where he died on May 18.
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. His frequent incorporation of vocal elements into symphonic writing brought to full fruition a process that had begun with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, demonstrating his music's firm roots in the Germanic classical tradition. However, it was his huge tapestries of shifting moods and tones, ranging from tragedy to bitter irony (often explicitly indicated in performance directions), from café music to evocations of the sublime, that portended a century in which multiplicity ruled. Read less
Mahler: Das Lied Von Der Erde / Kleiber, Ludwig, Kmentt
Release Date: 10/14/2014   Label: Wiener Symphoniker  
Catalog: 7   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 7 / Dudamel, Simon Bolivar SO
Release Date: 10/07/2014   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 002155002   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 8 / Wit, Warsaw National Po, Et Al
Release Date: 04/18/2006   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550533   Number of Discs: 2
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Mahler: Symphony No 7 / Michael Halász, Polish National So
Release Date: 07/18/1995   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550531   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 3, Etc / Wit, Polish Radio Symphony
Release Date: 10/24/1995   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550525-26   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Das Lied von der Erde

 

About This Work
Although seemingly a set of songs with orchestra, this is for all intents and purposes Mahler's ninth symphony. Das Lied represents a refinement and concentration of the means and expression of the Eighth Symphony. In Das Lied, the same Read more contrapuntally oriented style prevails, but the thinner textures make it seem more pronounced. Also, the more intimate and personal nature of much of the writing is a direct response to the private musings of the Chinese poems rather than a major stylistic upheaval.

Das Lied is an integrated symphonic whole, as the six songs are organized into four parts analogous to symphonic movements. Mahler's harmonic and expressive language is so powerful that he was able to create a progressive effect that unite these songs into a single semantic and artistic entity.

"Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow). The first song is a hybrid of strophic song and sonata form. It stands by itself, not only formally, but in its black, uncompromising defiance of grief in the face of mortality. The powerfully sweeping opening is contrasted with an ethereal central section, but eventually culminates in a weird and shrieking evocation of Man's fate.

"Der Einsame im Herbst" (The Lonely One in Autumn). This resigned song evokes the mists of Fall as the poet grieves over the loss of summer and life. The thin textures and wandering lines perfectly capture bitter loneliness.

"Von der Jugend" (Of Youth). This and the next two songs comprise the "scherzo" of the symphonic structure. They are all shorter, lighter in tone, and nostalgic in mood. Here, memories of young people drinking tea is captured with light and airy pentatonic lines, invoking the innocence and carefree attitude of youth.

"Von der Schönheit" (Of Beauty). A romantic scene. The gentle innocence of the girls is depicted with a delicately moving Andante. At the appearance of the horsemen there is a sudden military outburst in the orchestra, while the voice accelerates into a breathless melody, effectively portraying the maidens' fluttering hearts.

"Der Trunkene im Frühling" (The Drunk in Spring). In spite of a longing central passage, this song is mostly comic in its evocations of nature and a young man's drunken reeling. Mahler here uses an astonishing variety of harmonic and orchestral effects.

"Der Abschied" (The Farewell). There are two separate poems here. The first depicts a solitary figure waiting for a friend to come for a last farewell, the second is the farewell itself. By far the longest movement of the work, Mahler precedes each poem with a lengthy orchestral section, also making this the most instrumentally oriented movement. The first is longing and plaintive, repeated in part after the voice finally enters. The second is a long and moving funeral march, culminating in a huge and tragic climax. In the final stanza, as the poet looks back at life, Mahler composed a resigned and expansive coda.

-- Steven Coburn
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