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Gustav Mahler

(1860—1911) Austrian composer, conductor, and pianist


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(b Kališt, Bohemia, 1860; d Vienna, 1911).

Austrian composer, conductor, and pianist. Began to learn pf. at age 6, giving public recital in 1870. Entered Vienna Cons. 1875. Became friendly disciple, but not pupil, of Bruckner, helping to make pf. duet arr. of 3rd Sym. (1878). While at Cons. comp. and played in perfs. of his own pf. quintet and vn. sonata. On leaving Cons. in 1878 comp. cantata Das klagende Lied, entering it in 1881 for Beethoven Prize but it was rejected. Began career as cond. 1880 at Hall, Upper Austria, followed by posts at Laibach (Ljubljana), Olmütz (1883), and Kassel 1883–5. While in the Kassel post he had an unhappy love‐affair recorded in his song‐cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Moved to Prague, 1885, and the next year to Leipzig as 2nd cond. to Nikisch. While there he was invited by Weber's descendants to construct an opera from the fragments of Die drei Pintos. This, when prod. in 1888, was very successful. That year he went to Budapest Opera as chief cond. There his genius as cond. and administrator had full rein for the 1st time. In 1889 he conducted the f.p. of his 1st Sym., then simply described as ‘symphonic poem’.

In 1891 Mahler became chief cond. of Hamburg Opera, where he built up a co. of remarkable singers (whom he coached also to be singer‐actors), and introduced many new works. He took the co. to London in 1892, his only visit, for perfs. of Wagner's Ring and Tristan, and Beethoven's Fidelio. His 2nd Sym. (Resurrection) was completed 1894 and perf. in Berlin 1895. For the rest of his life Mahler divided his time between comp. in the summer and cond. in the winter. His mus. met at first with hostility, but its quality was recognized by his contemporary Richard Strauss. In 1897, having converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism, he became dir. of the Vienna Court Opera, inaugurating a glorious decade during which he set standards still scarcely surpassed and, with Alfred Roller and others, revolutionized the production, design, and lighting of operas. Built remarkable ens. of singers incl. Mildenburg, Gutheil‐Schoder, Slezak, and Mayr. In 1902 he married Alma Schindler, also a musician, by whom he had 2 daughters (the elder died in 1907, aged 4). Between 1896 and 1907, when he resigned his post after controversy, he comp. his Syms. 3 to 8, the song‐cycle Kindertotenlieder, and other songs with orch. Each of the syms. was on a huge scale, but perfs. were becoming more frequent throughout Europe, especially through the championship of Mengelberg.

Mahler made his Amer. début on 1 Jan. 1908 conducting Tristan at the NY Met. In 1909 he was appointed cond. of the reorganized NYPO. In 1910 in Munich he cond. the first 2 perfs. of his 8th Sym. (Symphony of a Thousand), returning to NY 2 months later. From 1907 he lived under the shadow of death from a heart ailment. This led in 1911 to a severe blood infection which caused his premature death on 18 May. He left 3 large posthumous works, the song‐sym. Das Lied von der Erde and Syms. 9 and 10. Das Lied and the 9th were f.p. in 1911 and 1912 respectively cond. by Bruno Walter in Munich and Vienna. The 10th was long thought to be unfinished and only 2 movts. were pubd. and played until the Eng. scholar Deryck Cooke discovered in 1960 that the work was complete in short score and made a performing version.

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