Gustav Mahler

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Mahler, Gustav

(go͝os`täf mä`lər), 1860–1911, composer and conductor, born in Austrian Bohemia of Jewish parentage. Mahler studied at the Univ. of Vienna and the Vienna Conservatory. He was conductor of the Budapest Imperial Opera (1888–90), the Hamburg Municipal Theater (1891–97), the Vienna State Opera (1897–1907), and the New York Philharmonic (1909–11). He also conducted the Metropolitan Opera orchestra (1908–10). As a conductor Mahler was extraordinarily exacting and precise, achieving high standards of performance that have become legendary. His refusal to compromise artistic integrity aroused intense personal opposition in Vienna and New York.

Composing mainly during summers, he completed nine symphonies (the unfinished tenth has been completed by Deryck Cooke) and several songs and song cycles, mostly with orchestral accompaniment. Of the cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [songs of a wayfarer] (1883–85), Kindertotenlieder [songs on the death of children] (1901–4), and Das Lied von der Erde [song of the earth] (1907–10) are most notable. Mahler followed BrucknerBruckner, Anton
, 1824–96, Austrian composer. He was appointed organist at the Linz cathedral in 1856 before becoming court organist in Vienna in 1868, where he later taught at the conservatory and university.
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 in the Viennese symphonic tradition. He added folk elements to the symphony and expanded it in terms of length, emotional contrast, and orchestral size. He used choral or solo voices in four symphonies: the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eighth; the Eighth is known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the enormous performing forces required. The thinner texture, wide-ranging melodies, and taut, intense emotionalism of Mahler's late works strongly influenced the next generation of Austrian composers, especially Arnold SchoenbergSchoenberg, Arnold
, 1874–1951, Austrian composer, b. Vienna. Before he became a U.S. citizen in 1941 he spelled his name Schönberg. He revolutionized modern music by abandoning tonality and developing a twelve-tone, "serial" technique of composition (see serial
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 and Alban BergBerg, Alban
, 1885–1935, Austrian composer. In his youth he taught himself music but in 1904 he became the pupil and close friend of Arnold Schoenberg. Later Berg himself taught privately in Vienna.
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See his letters ed. by A. Mahler and D. Mitchell (3d ed., tr. 1973); H.-L. de La Grange and G. Weiss, ed., Gustav Mahler: Letters to His Wife (tr. 2004); N. Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (1987); biographies by B. Walter (tr. 1941, repr. 1970), K. Blaukopf (tr. 1972), H.-L. de La Grange (tr., 4. vol., 1995–2008), J. Carr (1997), and J. M. Fischer (tr. 2011); C. Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies (tr. 1994, repr. 2003); T. W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (tr. 1996).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mahler, Gustav


Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, presentday Kaliště, Bohemia; died May 18, 1911, in Vienna. Austrian composer and conductor.

Mahler spent his childhood in Jihlava (Iglau). From 1875 to 1878 he studied at the Vienna Conservatory. In 1880 he began his conducting career in small theaters of Austria-Hungary. In 1885-86 he conducted at the German Theater in Prague and from 1886 to 1888 in Leipzig. From 1888 to 1891, Mahler was director and conductor of the Budapest Opera House; from 1891 to 1897 he served as first conductor of the Hamburg Opera. From 1897 to 1907 he was artistic director and conductor at the Imperial Opera in Vienna, which flourished under his leadership. Mahler’s career as a conductor is an epoch in the history of musical theater. He was an outstanding interpreter of operas by Wagner, Mozart, and Beethoven (Fidelio) and the first to stage operas by Tchaikovsky and Smetana in Vienna. Mahler was also a symphony conductor; he was a guest conductor in Holland and Russia in 1897, 1902, and 1907. In 1907, pressured in Vienna by aristocratic opposition, Mahler left the theater. He settled in America, returning to Vienna only in the summer. In 1908-09 he was conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and from 1909 to 1911 he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mahler was an outstanding symphonist; his impressive compositions clearly reflect his desire to create a “symphonic conception” that would express philosophical questions. However, Mahler’s work is characterized by a contradiction between the programmatic ideas, which to a large extent bear the imprint of his idealistic outlook, and their musical embodiment. His works combine a humanist tendency and a striving for broad philosophical generalizations with reliance on folk music and music from everyday life (song, Ländler, march).

In the early symphonies (1888, 1894, 1896, 1901), which are thematically connected with his vocal cycles Lieder einesfahrenden Gesellen (1884) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1895), the human voice is introduced (except in Symphony No. 1; a chorus is employed in Symphonies No. 2 and 3). The symphonies of his middle period (Symphonies No. 5, 6, and 7) are entirely instrumental, related in mood to his songs with words by F. Rückert (Kindertotenlieder, 1904). In these symphonies, Mahler expressed a heroic world view; hence the increase in dramatic expressiveness (especially in Symphony No. 6; his “tragic” symphony, 1904).

In Symphony No. 8 (1906), Mahler again turned to philosophical and moral problems and the use of poetic texts (from the Catholic hymn Veni, creator spiritus and the second part of Goethe’s Faust). This symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” was composed as a large-scale musical production, calling for soloists, three choruses, and large orchestra. In his late compositions, the symphony-cantata Das Lied von der Erde, based on texts by Chinese poets (1908), Symphony No. 9 (1909), and Symphony No. 10 (unfinished), Mahler reached a crisis in his optimistic viewpoint. In his later work, the composer employed an innovative musical language—linear polyphony, expanded tonality, and the treatment of the orchestra as a chamber-music unit—features of which were later adopted by composers of various trends. Mahler exerted a noticeable influence on the composition of dramatic symphonies of a grand scale (D. D. Shostakovich and A. Honegger). Also, some aspects of Mahler’s musical language prepared the way for the stylistic upheaval that took place in the music of the expressionists A. Schonberg, A. Berg, and A. Webern.


Sollertinskii, I. I. G. Maler. Leningrad, 1932.
Gustav Maler: Pis’ma, Vospominaniia, 2nd ed. (Translated from German.) Moscow, 1968.
Bekker, P. G. Mahlers Sinfonien. Berlin, 1921.
Adorno, T. W. G. Mahler. Frankfurt am Main, 1960.
Blaukopf, K. G. Mahler, oder Der Zeitgenosse der Zukunft. Vienna, Munich, and Zurich, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.