Composer of the month: Gustav Mahler


by Benjamin Garzia & Aurel Beaumann

Welcome to Composer of the Month!

Each month, we celebrate the anniversary of a composer by highlighting their work and history, as well as giving you nice arrangements of some of the artist’s most iconic pieces that you can download directly into your Newzik library! This time, let’s talk about the great Gustav Mahler.

We have prepared a dedicated setlist for our Premium users that contains all the scores that we will study in this article, so if you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away. If you are a free user, it’s best you download the pieces you want from our selection later in the article (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import!

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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.

After Vienna

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”

Arnold Schoenberg.

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.

And now, the music!

We selected some of our favorite pieces by Mahler and spent a little bit of time analyzing them. We also offer you free sheet music for all these works, so you can practice your instrument with Newzik!

Symphony n°5 in C sharp minor

Gustav Mahler wrote his Fifth Symphony between 1901 and 1902.

What you need to know about this piece is that for the first time it doesn’t involve any indication by the composer as to how the music should be played. At the time, the critics who loved attacking Mahler at every single one of his compositions jumped on this absence of program and stated that there was nothing understandable about this piece. On the other hand, there is no reference to religion, popular music, and no singing.

This symphony is divided in five movements:

Part I

I : Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt

II : Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz

Part II

III : Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell

Part III

IV : Adagietto. Sehr langsam

V : Rondo-Finale. Allegro — Allegro giocoso. Frisch

 The first two movements are quite funereal. Indeed, it most certainly refers to a dramatic event of Mahler’s life: in 1901, he almost died of intestinal bleeding. The symphony opens on a funeral march in 2/2 in C sharp major, with a sort of resigned and sometimes pathetic nature, where we understand that Mahler is calmly facing death, not thinking for a second about making it a ripping tragedy.

After having accepted his death, the logic for Mahler is to continue with a very joyful movement which goes every which way. It is a sort of creativity explosion, pretty hard to understand at first. Mahler says:

For 50 years conductors will play it too fast! They will make something crazy out of it! And the public, oh heaven! What face will he make when he’s in front of the chaos that keeps inventing a new world just to disaggregate a moment after?”

Gustav Mahler

After this eventful moment, Mahler must calm down before the great finale. The Adagietto is probably the most beloved movement of Mahler in all his work. At the time, when people heard this movement, everyone wondered why Mahler didn’t always write like this! It needs to be underlined that if this part is so beautiful, it is also because of the contrast with the messy movement before.

The last movement is quite optimistic and aims at defusing the whole piece. It goes back to some of the first movement’s themes but gives them little importance, so the public understands that, in the end, none of this is that serious.

2 import credits

Das Lied von der Erde

Das Lied Von der Erde or The Song of the Earth is a “symphony for tenor, alto (or baryton) and big orchestra”. Mahler writes it in 1907, inspired by Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute. The piece is a succession of six lieder sung one after the other by two soloists.

The year 1907 is very hard for Mahler (his daughter dies and he finds out about his heart malformation). He finds himself in the poems of The Chinese Flute – they provide him with some consolation in those challenging times.

The piece is structured as follows:

  • Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, poem by Li Bai
  • Der Einsame im Herbst, poem by Qian Qi
  • Von der Jugend, poem by Li Bai
  • Von der Schönheit, poem by Li Bai
  • Der Trunkene im Frühling, poem by Li Bai
  • Der Abschied, poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei 

Each movement in this piece refers directly to the poem associated with it. The Symphony opens on the theme of drunkenness: a three-note pattern of the horn proudly resonates but is quickly caught up by the sad truth “Dark is Life, dark is Death”.

The second movement is much slower, more serious and speaks about a man alone in front of his own sadness who cannot find inner security, even in Nature.

The third movement is a kind of Scherzo – it is fast, short, and describes China and its landscapes.

The fourth tells three episodes : “young girls on the shore gather lotus flowers”, “among the branches galops a young and gallant company that the young girls nostalgically follow with their eyes”, “the radiance of the big green eyes and the heat of their dark look betray the emotion of their heart.”

The fifth goes back to the theme of drunkenness with on one hand a drunk who sings too loud and on the other hand a bird announcing spring.

The last movement tells us about a poet whose friend addresses his last goodbyes. The coda superimposes tonalities of C major and A minor with lyrics excluding any earthly conclusion: “Beloved Earth, everywhere, blooms during the Spring and grows up: everywhere, forever, the blue horizon will shine! Forever… Forever…”.

1 import credit

Symphony n°2 in C minor, “Resurrection”

The Second Symphony in C minor was written between 1888 and 1994 and is named “Resurrection”. This symphony speaks about death, or more accurately about the continuity between life and death. It lasts 90 minutes and articulates around five movements:

  1. Allegro maestoso [Totenfeier]
  2. Andante moderato
  3. [Scherzo]. In ruhig fließender Bewegung — attacca
  4. « Urlicht ». Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht
  5. Im Tempo des Scherzos. Wild herausfahrend

 The first movement, Totenfeier or “Ritual of the Dead” is written in 1891 while Mahler doesn’t know the aspect of the rest of the symphony yet. He describes the movement with these words: “We are near the tomb of a loved one. For the first time we look back at his life, his pain, his ambitions…”. It is a march in C minor (like the model of this style, the Marcia Funebre of the Heroic Symphony by Beethoven), based on the model of the sonata. We can find in this movement the contrast that remains in the entire piece: brilliant moments, violent ones, and others speaking about a deep and painful renouncement.

Mahler describes the second movement as a “Nostalgia of innocent times now over”. It opens on a happy and easy-going Länder exposed in A flat major by the chords. We can also find some themes identical to the first movement accompanied by a countermelody played by the cellos.

The third movement is “chill and easy-going” but remains rather negative – it refers to doubts for example.

The end of this symphony is inspired by a poem by Klopstock that Mahler heard during the funeral of Hans von Bulow who vividly criticized the first movement when Mahler presented it to him. The last movement ends triumphally after the choir sang for thirty minutes “You will resurrect!” and the hero claimed “Resurrection! I will die so I can live!”.

1 import credit

Kindertotenlieder

The Kindertotenlieder forms a cycle of five lieder composed between 1901 and 1904. The lyrics are extracted from a collection of 428 poems written by Friedrich Rückert after two of his children died. The five parts are the following:

  1. Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn
  2. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
  3. Wenn dein Mütterlein
  4. Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen
  5. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus

 When Mahler published this piece, his wife was mad at him. Indeed, she told: “I cannot understand how he can sing the death of children while he hugged and kissed his own joyful and healthy children half-an-hour before.”

The piece complies with Mahler’s post-romantic style and, in the same way than the texts, the music transmits a wide range of emotions among which there are anxiety, denial or even the fantasized resurrection of the children. The last movement ends in major in some sort of transcendence.

The cello melody in the last movement refers to Mahler’s Third Symphony entitled “Was mir die Liebe erzählt” (“What love tells me”). The fact that this piece finishes on that makes us think that, for Mahler, even if death is powerful, so is love, maybe even more.

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We hope you liked this Composer of the Month and that you will have a great time practicing these tunes! See you next month for another episode of Composer of the Month!

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