His Times: Mahler said, ‘I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way,’ a quote that aptly captures the musical world that Mahler and his contemporaries were creating in 19th century Austria and-Germany. Mahler began to push the boundaries of tonality, harmony and symphonic form in order to create music that was modern and progressive and yet simultaneously reminiscent and familiar to his audiences. His works form a bridge between late 19th-Century compositions by composers such as Wagner, Brahms or Liszt and eases us into the diverse and progressive musical world of 20th-century composition, with his works strongly influencing the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg.
His Music: Mahler’s compositions can generally be categorised into three groups reflecting the development of his musical style. The early songs and symphonies, up to Symphony No.4, are commonly termed as ‘programme music’ as he incorporated an extra-musical narrative through song texts and programme notes to guide the audience through his works. Between Symphonies 5 and 8 however, Mahler started composing ‘absolute music,’ allowing his compositions to no longer be spoken for through programme notes, but rather enabling the listener to feel the music and hear a meaning for themselves. Das Lied von der Erde and Symphonies 9 and 10 are considerably more progressive in their musical style, and lead the way into more advanced and abstract 20th-century ideals. Mahler was praised for his skills as an orchestrator, and he often integrates popular melodies and musical styles making his works very accessible to new listeners, yet they maintain a profound emotional and technical depth that enables faithful Mahler fans to always hear something new.
Himself: From an early age Mahler demonstrated great promise in music and originally gained his reputation as a conductor, rather than as a composer. He was passionately moved by nature, art, philosophy and literature, and during his student days he joined many societies that introduced him to the works of Schopenhauer, Goethe, Wagner and Nietzsche – influences that permeate his works through to his last symphony. Born into a Jewish family, Mahler occasionally encountered opposition in his career in response to his faith, a conflict that later forced him to change religion to Christianity. Devoted and sincere, Mahler continued composing into the end of his life, but sadly didn’t live to complete his Tenth Symphony. Yet his perseverance and modern ideals shine through even in this incomplete score. As Schoenberg said ‘Mahler wanted to reveal so much of this future…when he wanted to say more, he was called away…But we must fight on, since the Tenth has not yet been revealed to us.’