Gustav Mahler


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: Symphony No. 3 / Haitink, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 01/06/2017   Label: Br Klassik  
Catalog: 900149   Number of Discs: 2
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Faure, Strauss, Mahler, Copland, Ives, Canteloube: Lieder / Von Stade, Katz
Release Date: 01/29/2013   Label: Orfeo  
Catalog: 870121   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms, Wagner, Mahler & Beethoven: Lieder / Ludwig, Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra
Release Date: 02/16/2018   Label: Warner Classics  
Catalog: 566890   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 9 / Scherchen, Vienna Symphony
Release Date: 04/20/1994   Label: Orfeo D'or  
Catalog: 228901   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler, Schumann, Martin: Orchesterlieder / Fischer-dieskau
Release Date: 06/15/1994   Label: Orfeo D'or  
Catalog: 336931   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Kindertotenlieder


Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n
Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
Wenn dein Mütterlein
Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen
In diesem Wetter
About This Work
The heartbreaking poems that Mahler used here were written by Friedrich Rückert out of grief after the loss of his own two children. Although one of Mahler's own daughters died three years after their completion, it is absurd to make any Read more connection. The songs were more likely set in memory of Mahler's beloved younger brother (lost in childhood), who shared the same name as Rückert's son -- Ernst.

These songs, unconditionally specified as a set to be performed together, are a far cry from the Wunderhorn songs of the previous decade. In anticipation of his later style, Mahler reduced the orchestral texture to thin, solo, contrapuntal lines, only rarely combining for dynamic effect. The voice part is no longer the scalar and triadic folk style, but now has become part of the contrapuntal fabric. The range of emotion is extreme, as before, but now it is distilled, becoming all the more poignant and effective. The entire cycle is almost unremitting in its anguish and darkness, relieved only twice by way of consolation.

"Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n" (Now Will the Sun Rise as Brightly). This deeply moving and bleak song tells of a sunrise that can no longer bring comfort. The barren and chromatic lines perfectly capture stunned grief, the interplay between minor and major offers only irony.

"Nun seh'ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen" (Now I See Well Why Such Dark Flames). Here, the grief-stricken father remembers his children's eyes as premonitions of their death. The bitter sadness of the opening is offset by the gentle consolation of the lush accompaniment of the central phrase, only to return to the opening music at the end.

"Wenn dein Mütterlein" (When Your Dear Mother). Set in an ironic imitation of folk song style, the large intervals and repetitive patterns of the vocal line portray the painful memories that habitual actions provoke.

"Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" (Often I Think They Have Only Gone Out). Mahler uses the subtle interplay between major and minor to illustrate the illusion that the children have only gone out for a walk. The final stanza, set to stunningly beautiful music, offers the consolation that they have gone to another place, where they will one day be reunited with their parents.

"In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus" (In This Weather, in This Torrent). Here in the final song, the father recalls the storm on the day of the funeral, set to the only fast and aggressive music of the set. This turbulence gives way in the final stanza to the realization that the children have found rest, set to the only really gentle music in the entire cycle.

-- Steven Coburn
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