Gustav Mahler: a short bio


Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860 and died in Vienna in 1911.  He was the second of 12 children but only six of them survived to maturity.  Whilst his childhood was difficult, he did receive a good education and showed musical promise from an early age.  

In his home town of Iglau, a military depot, Mahler grew up surrounded by the music of bands, trumpet calls and marches as well as the sounds of folk groups gathered in the town square. He learnt a large repertoire of folksongs and these elements, together with the sounds of nature, remained central to his later composition.

He gave his first piano recital at 10 and at 15 was accepted as a pupil at the Vienna Conservatory where he excelled and won piano and composition prizes.

Mahler was an uncompromising perfectionist whose great career was dogged by controversies.  He made enemies with his insensitive handling of people. He fought against “slovenly” traditions and often fell out with his superiors. His decade in Vienna was plagued by increasing anti-Semitism and his subsequent years in New York with the Met and the New York Philharmonic also ended in conflict with the orchestra trustees.

Mahler had numerous love affairs, often with young talented singers. In 1902 he married the beautiful and talented Alma Schindler, 20 years his junior.  While the first five years of the marriage saw Mahler at his happiest and at the height of his powers, his insistence that Alma subordinate herself and her considerable musical talents to him took its toll on the relationship.  His last years were blighted by the breakdown between them and the death of his eldest daughter. He died of heart disease, not yet 51.

Many of his own compositions were slow to receive critical and popular approval and were often controversial when first performed, but there were two triumphs: his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in 1894 and the 8th Symphony in 1910.