Gustav Mahler: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Gustav Mahler was an Austrian composer of large symphonies and song cycles. His troubled life led to great depth of musical expression. In this lesson we will learn about his life and his contributions to the symphonic repertoire.

Small in Stature, Large in Life

His symphonies are anywhere from an hour to an hour and 40 minutes long. His orchestrations demand hundreds of players and singers. His influence has spread throughout the musical world to composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Jean Sibelius, and Benjamin Britten. Even the film composer John Williams pays him homage. It is ironic that the composer of the world's largest pieces, who has had the largest influence, is the smallest in stature. Meet Gustav Mahler, the five-foot-four inch Titan of music.

Mahler's Family Life

It's fitting that this composer of tempestuous, difficult, passionate music was born into a tempestuous and difficult family life. Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia on July 7, 1860 to Bernard and Marie Mahler. He was the second of fourteen children, six of whom died very young and one, the musically talented Otto, who committed suicide in 1895.

Gustav Mahler as a child
Photo of Mahler as a child

Mahler's musical gifts were manifested early. He began playing the piano and composing his own songs at age four. At age ten he gave his first concert, and at age 15 was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory for music study. Upon graduation he began conducting to earn a better living.

Mahler's parents were tavern owners. His father was a self-made man who became jealous of his wife's higher social standing. He physically abused his wife, which estranged Gustav. In addition to the family tensions, the Mahlers were German speaking Austrian Jews living among a Czech majority. All these factors combined to give Gustav a life-long feeling of alienation, of being a permanent outsider.

Mahler's own marriage was fraught with difficulties. In 1901 he married Alma Schindler, a talented pianist and student of composition nineteen years his junior. Her parents considered it to be an unsuitable match due to Mahler's age, position in society, and his Jewish background. Mahler had converted to Catholicism in Vienna to secure a conducting position, but this did not appease the in-laws. His marriage was rocky, with Alma having an affair. When their oldest daughter, Maria, died at age five, the relationship barely escaped a divorce.

Alma Mahler with their daughters, Maria Anna and Anna Justine
Photo of Alma Mahler and her daughters

Mahler's Music

The tumultuous private life of Gustav Mahler expressed itself in his music. Everything he composed was on a titanic scale, with larger-than-life emotions and and tremendous forces required for performance. His output consisted of ten symphonies, the last left unfinished, and five song-cycles. Song-cycles are multi-movement works for voice and accompaniment in which all the movements share a common theme or tell a story. The accompaniment may be just a piano, a small group of instruments, or in the case of Mahler's masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), an entire orchestra.

Autograph manuscript of Symphony No. 8
Autograph manuscript of Symphony No. 8

Mahler's symphonies followed the Romantic period traditions harmonically and used the classical forms, such as sonata. Yet in mood and theme he was firmly in the 20th century. Symphony No. 2, The Resurrection Symphony, composed in 1894, was about an obsession with death, portrayed a funeral ceremony musically, and culminated with the hope of Christian immortality. To convey this message Mahler used not only a full, large orchestra, but a choir and soloists as well.

The demands for performers in Mahler's symphonies only continued to grow. Symphony No. 8, known as The Symphony of a Thousand due to the number of performers, composed in 1907, required in addition to the orchestra, adult and children's choirs, eight vocal soloists, two harps, quadruple winds, large percussion section, and organ. This symphony borrows thematic material from the Catholic hymn Veni Creator Spiritus as well as text from Goethe's Faust. It is full of musical symbolism concerning life, the search for illumination, and the role of fate.

A 2009 performance of Symphony No. 8 in Germany
Photo of a performance of Symphony No. 8

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