Classical Composer Biography: Gustav Mahler
by Betty Fry
Gustav Mahler was born in 1860 of Jewish parents, and was one of fourteen children. His father was a small town brewer, running the equivalent of today’s off-licence. Although something of a bully – he is known to have mistreated his wife – he appears to have encouraged his son’s evident musical gifts and, at ten, Gustav Mahler was giving his first recital.
My present feelings of frustration with things that are not going well prompted me to put the Third Movement of his ‘Symphony No.1 in D Major’ on to my Disc player, because there is more than a hint of irony in this parody of a funeral march, with snatches of folk tunes and a distinctly Yiddish melody blended in.
The mood is set with the round-song ‘Freres Jacques’ made deeply somber; a double bass ponderously intones the usually jolly music in a minor key, and muffled drum beats add to the funereal air. Other themes intervene, including a lilting Jewish dance, both sad yet sprightly. Another more touching interlude is one of Mahler’s own songs. Then the march returns before finally dying away to soft cymbal strokes. The echoes of Jewish music in this movement recall his childhood in the small town of Iglau, now known as Jihlava in the Czech Republic.
Mahler finished this symphony in 1888, the year in which he became musical director of the Royal Opera in Budapest. This was a first step in his meteoric rise as a conductor, which culminated in his appointment in 1897 to the post of Musical Director of the Vienna Court Opera – one of the most coveted positions in the world of music, but only at the expense of converting from Judaism to Catholicism. This may also explain why he often juxtaposed music of sorrow or anguish, with music from everyday life, as he does in this symphony.
In this capital of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, most government and other important public posts were open only to Roman Catholics. Mahler was born a Jew, so in order to secure the coveted post he became a convert.
But there remained a conflict in his mind between the faith he was born into, and the one he adopted for the sake of his career. Almost certainly this contributed to the emotional struggles that Mahler expressed so passionately through his music.
In 1901 the 41 year old Mahler met the lovely young music student Alma Schindler, and married her the following year. At the time he was working on his ‘Fifth Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor’, the fourth movement of which I am playing now, and I hear the lovely adagietto as his declaration of love for Alma.
Scored for just strings and harp this is one of Mahler’s sweetest melodies. The music seems to progress like a series of deep breaths rising to one great yearning sigh before subsiding again at the very end. This piece is a deeply reflective interlude in an otherwise stormy and dramatic symphony that bursts with the exhilaration of life.
The middle aged Mahler might have thought that the prospect of family life had passed him by when he met and married Alma. He was certainly overjoyed when she bore him two children. But tragedy soon struck when the elder child died from diphtheria. Then Mahler himself was told he had an incurable heart condition, and his unrelenting work rate no doubt hastened his own death at the age of 51.
Gustav Mahler was once quoted as saying ‘The symphony must be like a world; it should contain everything’. To achieve this, he wrote music for huge orchestras, which sometimes had voices added as well. The second movement from his ‘Symphony No.3 in D minor’ he called ‘What the Flowers Tell me‘ and is my final choice from the symphony which Mahler called ‘my great nature symphony’ and titled every movement accordingly. The remaining movements are thus ‘Pan Awakes’, ‘Summer Marches In’, ‘What the animals in the Wood Tell Me’, ‘What the Night Tells Me’, ‘What the Morning Bells Tell Me’, and ‘What Love Tells Me’.
‘What the Flowers Tell Me’ is indeed written for a very large orchestra, but the composer uses the instruments sparingly, as though each were the bloom of some wildflower. It opens with a solo oboe playing a simple, peasant like tune. Violins then take over, making the movement sound more romantic.
Then there are some rapid restless passages, as if a sudden breeze were scattering blossom from the trees, before the piece ends as quietly and peacefully as it began.
Mahler’s life and career spanned the end of one era and the beginning of another. The degree of personal expression and descriptive content of many of his works represent the last word, or perhaps I should say note, of the 19th Century Romantic musical world of Liszt, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. But as his own style developed, so his harmonies, and the sounds he drew from the orchestra pointed the way for such 20th Century masters as Schoenberg and Webern.
But he was also a great conductor, and here again he was a pivotal figure. He outshone all other conductors before him, and those of his own time too, in his fierce dedication to the task. He spared neither himself, nor anybody else, in his desire to raise the standards of performance to new heights. He was the first all-powerful maestro, and the model for many other famous conductors of our century.
This man who composed ten huge and complex symphonies, plus a massive song cycle called ‘The Song of the Earth’ , described himself mockingly as ‘a summertime composer’.
In fact this was true. For almost the whole of his working life, Mahler was in charge of an opera house. Only during summer vacations did he get a chance to compose. At these times he would retreat to his country home and shut himself away in a small summer hut to work in peace on his gigantic projects.
In the music of his symphonies and song cycles Mahler encompassed every kind of human experience, from child-like innocence and wonder to anguish and despair, and at the same time pushed musical form or construction to new limits. Listening to his music can be a truly overwhelming experience.