The Tortured Gustav Mahler and His Affecting Music

The composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) suffered a tortured life of loss. His affecting music may have been the answer to fill his void and help him find his direction.

Gustav Mahler cir. 1892

He married the beautiful 22-year-old Alma Maria Schindler in 1902 four months after they learned she was pregnant with their child. The marriage was a combination of passionate mutual devotion and disappointing challenges, brought on by their unique personalities, Alma’s career sacrifices, and their significant age difference. Eight years after they married, she began an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius and nearly left her husband for him.

Alma Maria Schindler cir.1902

Mahler composed his Symphony no. 10 in F-sharp Major (“Unfinished”) for her, perhaps to rekindle their marital spark that was once a part of them, though he never lived to complete the symphony beyond the first movement (“Adagio”) and the first 28 measures of the third (“Purgatorio: Allegretto moderato”). Mahler wrote, “Für dich leben! für dich sterben!” (“To live for you! to die for you!”) within the music of this love song for Alma. There are many verbal exclamations scattered throughout the score, which reveals his intense frustrations and tribulations of his marriage.

There are three variations of the score, but the Deryck Cooke version of the “Unfinished” tenth symphony is typically performed today, although rarely in its entirety. The first movement is the most popular among many orchestras to perform.

The loss of love from his unfaithful wife was not Mahler’s only heartache. Earlier, in 1907, their five-year-old elder daughter, Maria Anna, died from a combination of scarlet fever and diphtheria.

Mahler’s compositions did not extend beyond symphonies and a few Lieder (Songs. Commonly understood to refer to nineteenth century German songs). His Second symphony, “Resurrection” (1895); Third, “Pan” (1902); and Eighth, “Symphony of a Thousand” (1910) are his most well known. The “Symphony of a Thousand” is also arguably the largest symphony ever written (although Beethoven’s Ninth, “Ode to Joy,” is close). When Mahler premiered it himself on September 12, 1910, the performance involved 858 singers and an orchestra of 171.

Mahler’s loss of self (and his desire to be appointed as director of the Vienna Hofoper) resulted in his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism and disregard his Jewish faith. His many religious questions led him on a spiritual search, but he seemed drawn to Catholic mysticism, such as the smell of incense and the Gregorian chants. His Second, Third and Fourth symphonies reveal his own belief of Catholicism. Yet he preferred to allow human sources, such as Plato and Goethe, to influence his religious views.

The composer was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis in February of 1911 and died of a blood infection in Vienna a few months later on May 18 at the age of 50.

Mahler’s works are performed extensively today and are a highlight to many symphony orchestra seasons.

What about you? What Mahler works do you enjoy?

Upcoming Performances of Gustav Mahler:
June 2 – 4, 2011
Symphony no. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”
with Soprano Janice Chandler Eteme,
and Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade
Nashville Symphony

June 2 – 5, 2011
Symphony no. 9 in D Major
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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