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Gustav Mahler

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Gustav Mahler


(born: Kaliste, Bohemia, 7 July 1860; died: Vienna, 18 May 1911).
Bohemian-Austrian composer. In autumn 1883, he became music director at Kassel; an unhappy love affair with one of the singers led to the composition of his first masterpiece, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the inception of the closely related First Symphony.
Early in 1885 Mahler secured the post of second conductor at the Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig. In January 1887 he took over the Ring cycle from Arthur Nikisch, who fell ill, and convincingly established among critics and public his genius as an interpretative artist. The following year he completed Weber's unfinished comic opera Die drei Pintos and fell in love with the wife of Weber's grandson. Another consequence of his friendship with the Webers was the discovery in 1887 of the musical potential of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk-like texts by Arnim and Brentano which provided Mahler with words for all but one of his songs for the next 14 years.
Disagreements with colleagues led to Mahler's resignation at Leipzig in May 1888; he secured a far more important appointment at the Royal Opera in Budapest. Though he was successful in bringing the opera house into profit and improving standards and repertory, he resigned and became first conductor at the Stadttheater, Hamburg. Mahler returned to composition and completed the Second and Third Symphonies. Now a conductor of international stature and a composer of growing reputation, he turned his attention to the Vienna Hofoper. The main obstacle was his Jewish origins; so he accepted Catholic baptism in February 1897 and was appointed Kapellmeister at Vienna two months later.
At Vienna Mahler brought a stagnating opera house to a position of unrivalled brilliance. Mahler was surrounded by radical young composers, including Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky, whose work he supported and encouraged. His propagation of his own music, however, aroused opposition from a section of the Viennese musical establishment, and he was again forced to look elsewhere. This time he turned to New York, where he spent his last winters as conductor, first of the Metropolitan Opera and, from 1910, of the New York PO. He continued to spend the summers in Europe, where he undertook further conducting and completed the valedictory Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.
Although as a conductor Mahler achieved fame primarily in opera, his creative energies were directed almost wholly towards symphony and song. Even in the early Das klagende Lied, there are stylistic features to be found in his mature music, for example the combining of onstage and offstage orchestras, the association of high tragedy and the mundane, the drawing on folksong ideas and the dramatic-symbolic use of tonality. In the 1890s Mahler was much influenced by the Wunderhorn poems, in his symphonies as well as his songs, for he often used song to clarify an important moment in the structure of a symphony. Parody, irony and satire are important in Mahler's thinking during these years, with popular invention (like the children's round in no.1 and the march tunes of no.3) and elements of distortion.
The largest-scale of Mahler's symphonies is no.8, the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand', in which the second part is a vast synthesis of forms and media embodying the setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust as an amalgam of dramatic cantata, oratorio, song cycle, Lisztian choral symphony and instrumental symphony. Mahler's extension of symphonic form, of the symphony's expressive scope and the use of the orchestra (especially the agonized timbres he obtained by using instruments, particularly wind, at the top of their compass) represent a pained farewell to Romanticism; different aspects were followed up by the Second Viennese School, Shostakovich and Britten.
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