Music Stories: May 18th (1911)

A post mortem Discovery: The Composer Gustav Mahler

Lisa Günster
Lisa Günster

When Gustav Mahler left Vienna with his wife in December 1907 to take up a post at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the couple were given an impressive send-off. More than two hundred people gathered to bid farewell to the famous musician. There were garlands of flowers, and even a few tears were shed.

Gustav Mahler profil 16 9

Gustav Mahler.

(Image: Public Domain)

After completing his studies in composition at the age of twenty, Mahler began his career by making a name for himself as a conductor. His success was finally crowned when he was named conductor of the Court Opera in Vienna in 1897. By this stage, his first forays into composition already lay twenty-one years behind him – the Czech-born composer composed one of his first works at the age of sixteen.

Mahler committed his only work of chamber music to paper at the age of sixteen.

This early work shows almost nothing of the love of experimentation so evident in Mahler's later works. As a young director of music, his mind was on other things. Above all, he wanted to modernize the performances at the court opera house – which for him meant more elaborate stagings. Mahler did most of his composing in his holidays, withdrawing to the Austrian lakes Attersee or Wörthersee, or further afield to South Tyrol.

Mahlers Komponierhaeuschen

Custom made: one of Mahler's "composing huts". (Photo:  FurukamaCC BY-SA 3.0)

It was in his various "composing huts" that he wrote his famous collection of songs Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Miraculous Horn).

"Who thought up this pretty, pretty little song?"

Alongside his composing and his regular duties at the Court Opera house, Mahler tirelessly pursued his plans for modernization. As a result, he constantly found himself at loggerheads with the management of the opera house, and he was eventually forced to leave Vienna. New York turned out to be a big success. Mahler was welcomed by the city's wealthiest residents, and the great American metropolis soon fell at the tireless composer's feet. 

Like his departure from Vienna in 1907 and his arrival in New York in 1908, his funeral in 1911 drew a vast crowd. A year before to his untimely death, Mahler had begun composing his Symphony no. 10, a work that remained incomplete on his death. 

By the time Gustav Mahler died, he was a highly respected conductor. Yet his stature as a composer only became clear with the "Mahler Renaissance" of the 1960s. His symphonies in particular were esteemed for their modern musical ideas, and soon became audience favorites. Perhaps Mahler was right when he once said: 

"the time for my music will come yet". 

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