Gustav Mahler was an Austrian late Romantic composer and conductor, noted for his 10 symphonies and various songs with orchestra. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century.
At the age of 4, having discovered his grandparents' piano, he immediately started playing it. Later he began reproducing at both the accordion and on the piano the folk music that was being sung by the local working people. He even engaged in composition. The military and popular styles, together with the sounds of nature, became main sources of his mature inspiration.
Mahler gave his first public performance at the age of 10 at the town theater, at that time he was already considered a child prodigy. Although he had great success in music, he wasn't doing so good in school, as his school reports from the Iglau Gymnasium portrayed him as absent-minded and unreliable in academic work. In 1871, hoping to improve his son's results, his father sent him to the New Town Gymnasium in Prague, but that didn't last and soon after, young Gustav returned to Iglau.
Deeply affected by his younger brother's death (1874) he sought to express his feelings in music and so he began work on his first opera, Herzog Ernst von Schwaben (Duke Ernest of Swabia) as a memorial to his brother. Neither the music nor the libretto of this work has survived.
At the age of 15 he was accepted as a pupil at the Vienna Conservatory under the renowned pianist Julius Epstein. He made good progress in his piano studies with Epstein and won prizes at the end of each of his first two years. In his final years at the Conservatory he focused on composition and harmony under Robert Fuchs and Franz Krenn. When he failed to win the Conservatory’s Beethoven Prize for composition with his first significant work, the cantata Das klagende Lied (completed 1880; The Song of Complaint), he turned to conducting for a more secure livelihood, reserving composition for the lengthy summer vacations.
In the next 17 years, Mahler made a name for himself as a conductor. From conducting musical farces in Austria, he rose through various provincial opera houses, including important engagements at Budapest and Hamburg, to become artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 and then, a year later, of the Vienna Philharmonic. He completed his first symphony in 1888, but wasn't well received by the public. The public's lack of comprehension of his works confronted him for most of his career.
Looking back at Mahler's works, they can easily be divided into 3 periods. His first period of creation extends from 1880 to 1901. The main works of this period include the cantata Das klagende Lied (1880), the first four symphonies, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen song cycle and various song collections in which the Wunderhorn songs predominate. His first 3 symphonies were conceived on a programmatic basis, meaning that they were founded on a non musical story or idea.
The program of the purely orchestral Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1888;
one of its five movements was later discarded) is autobiographical of
his youth: the joy of life becomes clouded over by an obsession with
death in the macabre “
Funeral March in the Manner of Callot” (basically a parody of popular music), which is eventually routed in the arduous and brilliant finale. The five-movement Symphony No. 2 (1894; popular title Resurrection)
begins with the death obsession (the first movement’s “funeral
ceremony”) and culminates in an avowal of the Christian belief in
immortality (a huge finale portraying the Day of Judgment and ending
with a setting of the 18th-century German writer Friedrich Klopstock’s “
Resurrection” ode involving soloists and chorus). The even vaster Symphony No. 3 in D Major
(1896), also including a soloist and chorus, presents in six movements a
Dionysiac vision of a great chain of being, moving from inanimate
nature to human consciousness and the redeeming love of God.
His middle creation period (1901-1907), more concentrated than the previous one, comprises a triptych of purely instrumental symphonies (the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh), the Rückert songs and the Kindertotenlieder, two final Wunderhorn settings and, in some reckonings, Mahler's last great affirmative statement, the choral Eighth Symphony.
The last period and the shortest of all three (1907-1911) consists of his main works, the trilogy comprised of Das Lied von der Erde (1908; The Song of the Earth), Symphony No. 9 (1910), and Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp Major, which was left unfinished.
Mahler was a "late Romantic", part of an ideal that placed Austro-German classical music on a higher plane than other types, through its supposed possession of particular spiritual and philosophical significance. Deeply influenced by Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms he developed his own style in which he unified song and symphonic form.
While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.
Here you can find a list of Gustav Mahler's works.