A few words about Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler, the prodigy
Marie et Bernhard Mahler, who are two Jewish innkeepers, live in poverty in Kaliště (a small village in Boheme) at the time under Austrian domination. On the 7th of July 1860, their second child is born – Gustav. At the end of the same year, the family moves to Moravia, in the town of Iglau where Gustav grows up.
At the age of four, he discovers a piano in his grand-parents’ house. As soon as he starts playing, his family incites him to follow a musical career. The child quickly acquires the reputation of a prodigy in Iglau.
In 1871, his father sends him to Prague so he can pursue higher education. However, that is a huge failure. Mahler says: “I spent my youth in high school – I learned nothing”.
In 1875, even if his father was originally against him pursuing a career in music, Gustav is finally allowed to move to Vienna. He focuses on his piano lessons with Julius Epstein but also takes classes with Robert Fuchs (harmony) and Franz Krenn (composition and counterpoint).
During his first year at the conservatory he wins the school’s piano competition and finishes his curriculum in 1878.
Beginning of his career
In 1880 he presents Das klagende Lie which is his first important composition at the Beethoven competition but does not win. This failure added to financial difficulties pushes him towards a conductor career. During the summer of 1880 he is hired in a small theatre in Hall where he is supposed to act as a conductor – he is nothing more than the director’s slave.
From 1881 to 1882 he conducts the orchestra of the Laibach Theatre, and in 1883 he is hired by the Olmütz Theatre. He works incredibly hard and conducts twelve operas in only two months, which explains the absence of personal composition in that period. Thanks to this incredible performances, he draws Karl Überhorst’s attention which allows him to be hired in the Royal Theatre in Cassel.
Unfortunately, he does not find what he was looking for there. Unable to assert his authority, Mahler is confronted to a very demanding Prussian bureaucracy and they do not give him any classics to work on. The relationship between Mahler and his employer is even more undermined when Mahler sends a passionate letter to Hans von Bülow asking him to teach him. In this period, he composes the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which are probably linked to his misfortunes with a singer from Cassel.
After leaving Cassel for Leipzig, Mahler starts composing what will be considered his first symphony which actually is a symphonic poem inspired by Titan. He wishes for his symphony to be a turning point in his career and he knows that that was unlikely to happen if he were to stay in Leipzig. In 1888 he quits his job and joins the Hungarian Royal Opera in Budapest where he creates his first Symphony. During his time there, he starts writing his Second Symphony. In 1891 and until 1897, Mahler works at Hambourg’s city theatre. He writes his Third Symphony there – which will only be created in 1902.
The Vienna State Opera
At the end of the 19th century, Vienna awaits the name of the person who will replace Wilhelm Jahn (the Vienna Opera’s director) who is dying. Mahler wishes more than anything to be his replacement. He gets support from various famous artists and politicians, such as Brahms. At the time, Austria was a very antisemitic country, so Mahler converted to Catholicism as he knew that being Jewish could be an obstacle. In October 1897 he is finally hired at the Vienna State Opera.
Consequently, he works directly under the authority of the Montenuevo Prince. The Emperor and his family are valuable allies that protect him from the press’ bad reviews and harsh critics: that was for him the opportunity to modernize the institution.
Unfortunately, the critics get rougher and rougher, for instance when he tries to modify orchestrations of Mozart or Beethoven. He also has his first disagreements with the Prince. As other musicians misunderstand and criticize his music and as his health isn’t good, Mahler quits the direction of the Symphonic Orchestra of Vienna in 1901.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the composer moves into his villa in Maiernigg, where he writes most of his work. Through his symphonies, Mahler always proposes weirder sonorities. He is castigated by the critics but keeps working. He finally finds his equilibrium between his work as the Vienna Opera’s director and his taste for composition. He also marries Alma Schindler, the daughter of a great Viennese painter and a famous member of Vienna’s artistic community. The beginning of the century is certainly a major turning point in Mahler’s life.
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is somehow premonitory as it announces the very hard year of 1907. His daughter dies, he becomes aware of his heart malformation and he starts caring less and less for his life at the Opera. Besides, he is very aware of his own condition : he knows that he will never be understood during his own life, he knows that he possesses a ground-breaking work – in a nutshell, he knows that he will never live long enough to witness his own success.
During 1907, Mahler and his wife leave Europe and move to New York where he is supposed to work three months a year at the Metropolitan Opera. The notoriousness of the conductor attracts many people: his beginnings in New York are glorious. When he goes back to Europe, he can focus entirely on the distribution of his music and on composition. He finishes his Eighth Symphony in 1910 and quickly starts The Song of the Earth (which is actually his ninth symphony) which will be the last work he will ever finish.
The creation of his Eighth Symphony in September of 1910 is probably the biggest success of his career: the performance is praised by the audience and the musical critics alike, something he thought would never happen during his lifetime.
Mahler and the malediction of the Ninth Symphony
Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak and Beethoven all have one thing in common: none of them was able to write more than nine symphonies.
“It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to cross it must die. As if the Tenth had something that we should not know about, something that we are not ready for. Those who wrote a Ninth symphony came too close to the beyond”
Mahler tried to trick death by naming his Ninth Symphony The Song of the Earth. However, when he wrote his Tenth, Mahler went crazy. As he was eaten by jealousy after having heard that his wife cheated on him, he wrote in the margin “madness is taking over me, destroying me” and further “Madness, cease the damned that I am! Destroy me before I forget that I exist, that I stop being.”
He died on May 18th 1911, leaving nothing more of his final work than an unfinished manuscript.