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: Symphony No. 7 / Jarvi, Residentie Orchestra The Hague
Release Date: 07/27/2010   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5079   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 6, Etc / Järvi, Royal Scottish No
Release Date: 02/03/2004   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9207   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 4 / Tennstedt, SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden
Release Date: 10/18/2005   Label: Profil  
Catalog: 5039   Number of Discs: 1
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Berio: Orchestral Realisations - Schubert, Mahler, Brahms / Gardner, Bergen Philharmonic
Release Date: 02/28/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5101   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 5 / Järvi, Scottish National Orchestra
Release Date: 04/04/2006   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 8829   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor

 

About This Work
Mahler kept revising the orchestration of this work until his death. He conducted the first performance with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904. It is scored for quadruple winds, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, Read more tuba, tympani, three other drums, metal and wood percussion, harp, and string choir.

He'd begun the Fifth Symphony at Maiernegg in 1901 -- writing the third, first and second movements in that order, after a death-obsessed song, "Der Tamboursg'sell," and the Kindertotenlieder cycle ("on the death of children"). After nearly bleeding to death the previous winter (from an intestinal hemorrhage), Mahler's symphonic orientation underwent a profound change. During his recovery he immersed himself in the complete works of Bach.

A new appreciation of counterpoint was born, but not yet a mastery of orchestral balances or effects -- as subsequent events were to prove. Beginning with No. 5, he applied this new passion (which he called "intensive counterpoint") to five purely instrumental symphonies without Wunderhorn associations. Like the Resurrection Second and the first version of No. 1 (with the Blumine slow movement later abandoned) Mahler cast his Fifth Symphony in five movements that fall naturally into three parts.

The first begins in C sharp minor with a funeral march, of measured tread and austere (Movement I). A sonata-form movement follows, marked "Stormily, with greatest vehemence" (Movement II), which shares themes as well as mood with the opening.

The second part (which Mahler composed first) is a scherzo: "Vigorously, not too fast" (Movement III) -- the symphony's shortest large section, but its longest single movement. This emphatically joyous, albeit manic movement puts forward D major as the work's focal key. Although its form has remained a topic of debate since 1904, rondo and sonata-form elements are both present.

Part Three begins with a seraphic Adagietto: "Very slowly" (Movement IV). This is indubitably related to the Rückert song Mahler composed in August 1901, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I have become lost to the world...I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song). A Rondo-Finale: "Allegro giocoso, lively" (Movement V) concludes the symphony, although Mahler devised a form far removed from classic models. While sectional, in truth episodic, this too has elements of sonata form. To weld its diverse components into a unity he wrote four "fugal episodes," with a D major chorale just before the final Allegro molto.

Mahler's search for a new vocabulary caused him no end of orchestration problems. Before his death in 1911 he had made several versions, the original of which was published in 1904. C.F. Peters failed, however, to emend either mistakes or revisions in the first pocket score, although they re-engraved orchestral parts (at Mahler's expense) to include his first set of corrections. Not even Erwin Ratz's "first critical edition" of 1964 was the last word. Revisions Mahler made just before his terminal illness didn't come to light until the "second critical edition," by Karl Heinz Füssl, published just around 1989.

-- Roger Dettmer
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