Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt, in Bohemia on July 7th, 1860. His father was a modest and cultured Jewish merchant, who was also an art lover. Gustav was the second of twelve children, and showed from a very early age a great predisposition for music. In fact, he began to play piano at the age of 6 and two years later was already capable of teaching others how to use the instrument. Already, from when he was a baby, he demonstrated a great interest for folk songs which can be found in his works. In 1875 he went with his father to Vienna and there he was admitted to the conservatory, where he attended Julius Epstein's perfection courses in pianoforte, harmony classes with Robert Fuchs and composition classes with Theodor Krenn. At the end of the first year at the conservatory, the young Mahler obtained the first prize in pianoforte and composition. During his musical studies, he didn't neglect his literary studies and in 1878, the year in which he obtained his diploma at the conservatory with top marks, he enrolled in the university of Vienna where he attended courses in philosophy, history and history of music. He also attended harmony courses held by Bruckner and established important contacts with musicians like Adler, Rott, Löhr and Wolf, with whom, for a period, he shared lodgings and one piano.
His first compositions, which date back to the period 1876-1884, were lost or were destroyed by the composer. His first symphonic opera which reached us was Das Klagende Lied which Mahler began in 1878.
He began his career as Conductor of the orchestra in 1880, at the age of 20, at the summer theatre of Hall, where he conducted operettas and vaudeville. From 1881 to 1897 he continued his career as conductor in various European cities with increasing success: in Lubiana, in Kassel (here he was conductor of the Hoftheater for two years), in Prague, in Lipsia, in Budapest (where he directed the Teatro Reale dell'Opera from 1888 to 1891), in Hamburg (where he remained from 1891 to 1897) and in Berlin.
In 1897 he was nominated conductor of the Teatro Imperiale dell'Opera in Vienna. Here he began to implement changes in the presentation of operas which influenced theatres all over the world. On March 9th, 1902 he married the charming, cultured and lively Alma Schindler, who was a student of Alexander von Zemlinsky. They had two children, Maria Anna (1902) - who died at the age of 5 - and Anna Justine (1904).
Mahler's work at the opera began to be fruitful. In fact, during the ten years he was working in the Viennese theatre, the Opera repertoire changed noticeably: Mahler promoted all of Mozart and Wagner's operas and introduced new operas by authors like Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky, R. Strauss, Bizet, Puccini and Leoncavallo. In the opera theatre Mahler imposed an accurate revision of the scores, promoting a loyal and complete execution of them, also augmenting the rehearsals of the orchestra and carefully choosing the singers. He also got involved in the stage side of things and chose Alfred Roller as a collaborator. The latter took over the role as permanent director and scenographer at the opera. Mahler and Roller created the so called 'simultaneous theatre' which was the basis for the modern staging of operas and of the conducting of the opera: they eliminated the superfluous from the scene and reduced the decorative elements to the essential. These revolutionary criteria were looked upon badly by the public who never stopped interfering. The most important operas performed with the new criteria were Tristan and Isolda (1903), Fidelio by Beethoven, Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart, L'oro del Reno, La Walkiria and Lohengrin by Wagner, Ifigenia and Aulide by Gluck and many new operas like Corregidor by Hugo Wolf.
In 1907, after ten years of working at the Opera in Vienna, exasperated by the hostility caused by the innovations introduced and by the severely hard work that had to be carried out, Mahler decided to leave the city and indeed the continent, accepting a new job in the United States. There he conducted operas by Mozart and Wagner and in the winter of 1909-1910, as many as 46 concerts with an orchestra created especially for him by the Philharmonic Society of New York. His health, already poor due to his heart problems, obliged him to interrupt his frenetic conducting activity and return to Europe, to Vienna where he died on May 18th, 1911.
Gustav Mahler enjoyed a brilliant career as a director, but he wasn't attributed the right importance as a composer. His contemporaries considered him as 'outdated' and the Nazi regime proclaimed his work to be degenerate. The re-evaluation of Mahler as a composer began, in fact, after the second world war. His symphonies are the last great voice of the dynasty initiated by Beethoven where the dialectic opposition was verified between the subjective idea and the objective form, between the inside world of the artist and the expressive language coded by traditional laws. Mahler was the only German musician from the end of the 1800s who used an old musical language whose use had been suspended until then.
Some of Mahler's most important works were his nine symphonies (he began a 10th but it wasn't completed) to which he added numerous Lieder for voice and pianoforte among which the famous cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1888-1889), Das klagende Lied (1878-1899), Lied eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883-1885) Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder (1901-1905) and Das Lied von der Erde (1907-1908). The First Symphony, inspired by the novel Titan by Jean Paul was composed between 1884 and 1888. These were followed by the Second (1887-1894), the Third (1893-1896) and the Fourth (1899-1890), created in the spiritual form of folk music from Magyar and Austria. He continued with the compositions of works which were completely instrumental; the Fifth Symphony (1901-1902), the Sixth called Tragic (1903-1905) and the Seventh (1904-1905). The Eighth is called Goethe-Symphonie as it was made up of two fresco symphonic-choruses, the second of these illustrates the final scene of Faust. Finally, the Ninth Symphony completes this group of instrumental works.