Gustav Mahler



Mahler was born in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian empire, into a poor Jewish family who spoke German. This unusual, mixed background fed Mahler’s lifelong feeling of being an outsider – ‘an intruder, never welcomed’.

The streets in his home-town were filled with songs, dance tunes, folk melodies, and the trumpet calls and marches of the local military band. When he grew up and became a composer, it seems he remembered those sounds: they pop up regularly in his music. He was a superb conductor – for most of his life he was more famous for conducting than composing – though he often fell out with his players because he was so demanding. He was demanding in his compositions, too: his song cycles (sets of songs) are intense and his symphonies are huge. He said to the composer Sibelius: ‘The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ He certainly tried that with his own: No. 8 has an orchestra and choir so enormous that it’s nicknamed ‘Symphony of 1,000’.

Mahler’s life was not easy. Some people disliked him for being born Jewish – the Nazis later banned performances of his music for this reason. He lost a much-loved daughter to diphtheria. He didn’t let his wife compose music, even though she was a good composer too, and this led to unhappiness between them. He was a difficult man – serious and sometimes quite sad.

Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a ninth symphony, which made Mahler rather nervous about producing his own. So instead he wrote The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), which is a cross between a symphony and a song cycle. It has a beautiful, magical kind of sound. After that he did write a Symphony No. 9 – well, in a way it was No. 10 but he called it No. 9 – and then he died before he could complete another one. He had been diagnosed with heart disease but had continued to work extremely hard, and it killed him at the age of 51.

For a long time people couldn’t make up their minds about Mahler’s music, but today his symphonies are almost as popular as Beethoven’s.

Gustav Mahler, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Choose some of Mahler’s music...

Symphony No. 4: IV. Sehr behaglich

The final movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is an orchestral song for soprano presenting a child’s vision of heaven. By Mahler’s standards the orchestra for the symphony is small, with neither trombones nor tubas.

Performers: Lynda Russell, soprano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550527

Piano Quartet in A minor

Mahler is not known for his chamber music, but this is a lovely, sombre piece. It is a single movement, originally meant to be part of a larger work; Mahler started it as a boy of 16.

Performers: Anton Barakhovsky, violin; Alexander Zemtsov, viola; Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cello; Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572799

Symphony No. 8, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Part 2. Sehr langsam beginnend. Chorus mysticus: ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’

Mahler’s colossal ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ is in two parts. Part 1 sets the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus; Part 2 sets words from Goethe’s Faust. This is the final track, with a massive climax – just before 5:00 it sounds as if half the population of Poland is singing!

Performers: Barbara Kubiak, soprano; Izabela Kłosińska, soprano; Jadwiga Rappé, alto; Ewa Marciniec, alto; Timothy Bentch, tenor; Wojciech Drabowicz, baritone; Piotr Nowacki, bass; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Polish Radio Choir in Kraków; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University Choir; Warsaw Boys’ Choir; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550533-34

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Mahler was born what?

a. A Jew
b. A Christian
c. A Muslim

 Mahler was frightened to write a symphony with which number?

a. One
b. Ten
c. Nine

 Which of the following names was given to Mahler’s Second Symphony?

a. Resurrection
b. Motivation
c. Unfinished

 Which foreign city did Mahler visit and enjoy a great success?

a. Athens
b. Sydney
c. New York

 Mahler wrote a song cycle which upset his wife because she thought he was tempting fate. What was it called?

a. Schwanengesang
b. Frauenliebe und -leben
c. Kindertotenlieder

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Great 20th-century conductors who loved Mahler’s music helped it to become more popular – Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Simon Rattle, amongst others.
  2. Mahler converted to Roman Catholicism, which enabled his appointment as director of the Vienna Hofoper, but it didn’t prevent the later ban on his music by the Nazis.
  3. Mahler’s wife, Alma, was a good composer herself, though for a long time Mahler stopped her composing.
  4. Mahler was a superb conductor. He conducted some of the world’s greatest orchestras.
  5. Eight of Mahler’s brothers and sisters died in childhood.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Symphonies (Big Ones!)

Symphony No. 1 in D major, ‘Titan’

Mahler included in his music lots of ideas and snippets of things he’d heard, choosing carefully which instruments in the orchestra to play them, and often producing an atmospheric mix of joy and sadness. Listen to track 3 of this First Symphony. There’s a well-known tune here, but it seems to have been poisoned… Can you hear that it is Frère Jacques? It is in a minor key instead of a major key. Timpani begin, then double basses introduce the tune, then bassoon, then tuba… Then at 1:08 the oboe seems to observe everything and laugh meanly.

Performers: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.572207

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

This vast, magnificent symphony lasts 85 minutes. It shows how music can express the big concerns and questions of life. With massive orchestra, a choir, a solo soprano and a solo alto, it explores what happens to us when we die. Sometimes the music is quite scary, but it finally ends with a message of love and forgiveness. Listen to the beginning of the final movement (track 5): there is an extraordinary crashing, clashing sound but it quickly gives way to harmony and peace.

Performers: Hanna Lisowska, soprano; Jadwiga Rappé, alto; Kraków Radio and Television Choir; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550523-24

Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

If ever you need a good example of a trumpet fanfare, you have it right here. Begin track 1: what a way to start a symphony! It is actually introducing a funeral march. This beloved Fifth Symphony contains what is possibly Mahler’s most famous music: the heavenly Adagietto (track 4). It was played at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, the American senator and brother of JFK.

Performers: Maurice Murphy, solo trumpet; London Symphony Orchestra; James DePreist

Taken from Naxos 8.557990

Symphony No. 6 in A minor, ‘Tragic’

The nickname ‘Tragic’ was based on how Mahler himself described his symphony. So it’s not full of sunshine… but it is well worth listening to. Gigantic and dramatic, its most famous ingredient is a hammer! In the final movement, a percussionist has to take an enormous hammer and strike it on an even more enormous block. It’s harder than going to the gym! Sometimes people use a bass drum and a beater instead. You can hear the first blow at 13:07, and a second at 18:00.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550529-30

Symphony No. 9 in D major

Mahler’s Ninth was the last symphony he completed – he began a tenth but it remained unfinished. He started the Ninth in his summer composing hut in the beautiful Austrian countryside in 1908 and finished it in New York in 1910. The first and last movements are slow – unusual for a symphony. Just listen to the aching string melody at the beginning of the final movement (track 4); many people think this movement was Mahler’s farewell to the world. He never heard the symphony performed before he died in 1911.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550535-36


Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) (arr. A. Schoenberg for voice and ensemble)

These beautiful songs set Mahler’s own poems. He wrote them after the failure of a love affair. The first is called ‘When My Sweetheart is Married’. The second song is full of joy; the third is full of despair. The final song ends with the composer convinced that, no matter what, all is well.

Performers: Hidenori Komatsu, baritone; Radio-Philharmonie Hannover; Cord Garben

Taken from Naxos 8.554164


These settings of the poet Rückert contain what is perhaps the most beautiful song Mahler ever wrote, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’).

Performers: Bernadette Greevy, mezzo-soprano; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Franz-Paul Decker

Taken from Naxos 8.554156

Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Death of Children’)

The song cycle’s title means ‘Songs on the Death of Children’. Mahler’s wife Alma worried that it was bad luck for Mahler to write such a work when they had a young daughter of their own called Maria. Maria indeed died, four years later, of scarlet fever. The songs are, as usual with Mahler, beautiful and expressive.

Performers: Hidenori Komatsu, baritone; Radio-Philharmonie Hannover; Cord Garben

Taken from Naxos 8.554164

Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’)

Mahler’s final song cycle is set for two voices and orchestra. He wrote it at a time of great unhappiness. His daughter, Maria, had just died and he had also just learnt that he had a fatal heart condition. He came across some ancient Chinese poems and set them to music. The result was a masterpiece. Mahler’s greatest? Some think so.

Performers: Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Kunde, tenor; Houston Symphony; Hans Graf

Taken from Naxos 8.572498