Gustav Mahler

You're now entering the world of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a very industrious musician: not only a successful conductor and Court Opera Director, but also a successful composer.

You may be wondering why you can see trees everywhere... These represent forests and nature as a retreat and energy centre – and were the source of inspiration for Mahler's musical works. For this reason, he built his own composing houses surrounded by nature at each of his summer residences – as you can see on the tree trunk in front of you: in Steinbach am Attersee, Maiernigg am Wörthersee and Toblach in Southern Tyrol. Nature, lakes and forests were his homeland and refuge. He was in his element when surrounded only by flowers and birds, isolated yet happy, alone with himself and his music, which he wrote from the heart. Mahler once said that the lake had its own language and spoke to him: "If I can listen to it, then the compositions simply flow from my head."

He also tried to incorporate this feeling in his symphonies. He wanted us to "try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving". At least that's what Mahler expressed in his Symphony No. 8, a large-scale work also known as the "Symphony of a Thousand", because a total of 858 singers and 171 orchestra members performed at its premiere in 1910. Mahler's symphonies were unprecedented in the truest sense of the word, yet his music also seemed revolutionary. He didn't abandon the compositional style of the 19th century, but simply pushed it beyond its outermost limits.

What he did change, however, were certain operatic business practices. Mahler put a stop to the 19th century custom of having to deal with arrogant singers and pleasure-seeking audiences. Inspired by Wagner's Bayreuth Festival, Mahler made it his job to transfer the festival spirit to the day-to-day repertoire of an opera house, and to educate his audience: from now on, late-comers were only admitted during the interval, the auditorium was darkened and the orchestra lights dimmed, in order to focus attention on the stage, and the celebrity culture was also stopped in favour of the music - all performers had to act in the interests of the music. The musical work took centre stage, "from now on, the music must no longer be a distraction, but the focus".

Gustav Mahler was therefore one of the most important Directors of the Vienna Opera - probably the most important ever. Mahler really wanted the job, and not only strategically used all his connections to get it, but even converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He began his conducting career at the age of 20. After a couple of years in the provinces, this took him via Prague, Budapest – where he was able to prove himself as an Opera Director – and Hamburg to Vienna and the highlight of his career as Director of the Court Opera. In Vienna, he also gained recognition as a concert conductor, leading the Vienna Philharmonic Subscription Concerts from 1898. But unfortunately, he never developed a good relationship with the orchestra and was honourably discharged after three years.

The loss of his job at the Court Opera was surrounded by intrigue: resistance to his pioneering opera reforms and the not entirely unjustified criticism that he was rarely in Vienna. Afterwards, he wanted nothing more to do with opera; he went to America and only worked as an orchestral conductor.

Did you know that…

Mahler was married to an "It-Girl" of his day? Her name was Alma Schindler, 19 years his junior and the step-daughter of the famous painter, Carl Moll. Alma was an extremely talented woman, idolised and loved, and had already gained a reputation as a "femme fatale" as a young woman, following an affair with Gustav Klimt at the age of 16.

Symphony No. 4 in G major – 1. Movement: Bedächtig. Nicht eilen – Moderately, not rushed, Sonata Form

Performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.