Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and conductor.

Mahler was best known during his own lifetime as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day, but he has since come to be acknowledged as among the most important post-romantic composers – a remarkable feat for a figure whose mature creativity was concentrated in just two genres: song and symphony. Besides the nine completed numbered symphonies, his principal works are the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually rendered as ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’, but literally ‘Songs of a Travelling Journeyman’) and Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Death of Children’), and the synthesis of symphony and song cycle that is Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’).

Mahler told fellow composer Jean Sibelius in 1907 that “a symphony should be like the world: it must embrace everything”; putting this philosophy into practice, he brought the genre to a new level of artistic development. Increasing the range of contrasts within and between movements necessitated an expansion of scale and scope (at around 95 minutes, his six-movement Symphony No. 3 is the longest in the general symphonic repertoire; his Symphony No. 8 premiered with some one thousand performers) – while the admission of vocal and choral elements (with texts drawn from folk-poetry, Nietzsche, Goethe, Chinese literature, and Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism) made manifest a philosophical as well as autobiographical content. Neglected for several decades after his death, Mahler’s symphonies and orchestral songs are now part of the core repertoire of major symphony orchestras worldwide.


Gustav Mahler was born into a Jewish family in Kalischt, Bohemia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second of twelve children. The source of his surname is unclear, but origins in ‘Mahl’ (‘meal’, ‘repast’ [Ger.]), ‘mahlen’ (‘to grind’ [Ger.]), ‘Müller’ (‘miller’ [Ger.]), ‘Maler’ (‘painter’ [Ger.]) and ‘Mohel’ (‘circumciser’; מוהל [Heb.]) have all been proposed. His parents soon moved to Iglau, Moravia, where Mahler spent his childhood. Having noticed the boy’s talent at an early age, his parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was six years old. In 1875, Mahler, then fifteen, was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire where he studied piano under Julius Epstein, harmony with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Franz Krenn. Three years later Mahler attended Vienna University, where Anton Bruckner was lecturing. There he studied history and philosophy as well as music. While at the university, he worked as a music teacher and made his first major attempt at composition with the cantata Das klagende Lied; the work was entered in a competition where the jury was headed by Johannes Brahms, but failed to win a prize.

In 1880, Mahler began his career as a conductor with a job at a summer theatre at Bad Hall; in the years that followed, he took posts at successively larger opera houses: in Ljubljana in 1881, Olomouc in 1882, Vienna in 1883, Kassel in 1884, Prague in 1885, Leipzig in 1886 and Budapest in 1888. In 1887, he took over conducting Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from an ill Arthur Nikisch, firmly establishing his reputation among critics and public alike. The year after, he made a complete performing edition of Carl Maria von Weber’s unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, the success of which brought financial rewards and contributed to his gradually growing fame. Brahms was greatly impressed by his conducting of “Don Giovanni”. His first long-term appointment was at the Hamburg Opera in 1891, where he stayed until 1897. From 1893 to 1896, he took summer vacations at Steinbach am Attersee in Upper Austria, where he revised his Symphony No. 1 (first heard in 1889), composed his Symphony No. 2, sketched his Symphony No. 3, and wrote most of the song collection Lieder aus ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (Songs from ‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’), based on a famous set of heavily redacted folk-poems.

In 1897, Mahler, then thirty-seven, was offered the directorship of the Vienna Opera, the most prestigious musical position in the Austrian Empire. This was an ‘Imperial’ post, and under Austro-Hungarian law no such posts could be occupied by Jews. Mahler, who was never a devout or practising Jew, had, in preparation, converted to Roman Catholicism. In ten years at the Vienna Opera, Mahler transformed the institution’s repertoire and raised its artistic standards, bending both performers and listeners to his will. When he first took over the Opera, the most popular works were Lohengrin, Manon, and Cavalleria rusticana; the new director concentrated his energies on classic operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and, in collaboration with the painter Alfred Roller, created shadowy, transfixing productions of Fidelio, Tristan und Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Mahler worked at the Opera for nine months of each year, with only his summers free for composing; these summers he spent mainly at Maiernigg, on the Wörther See. In that idyllic setting he composed his fourth through eighth symphonies, the Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), both based on poems by Friedrich Rückert, and Der Tamboursg’sell, the last of his ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ settings.

On March 9, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler (1879–1964), the stepdaughter of the noted Viennese painter Carl Moll and twenty years younger than himself. He celebrated his new domesticity by building a fine villa on the lake in Maiernigg. Alma was a musician and an aspiring composer, but Mahler forbade her from engaging in creative work. Their paths did not cross in their creative lives. Mahler seemed to communicate more with his friend Nathalie Bauer-Lechner, two years his elder, whom he had met while studying in Vienna. Alma Mahler bore two daughters, Maria Anna (‘Putzi’; 1902–1907), who died of either scarlet fever or diphtheria at the age of only five, and Anna (‘Gucki’; 1904–1988), who later became a sculptor.

The death of his older daughter left him grief-stricken; but further blows were to come. That same year he discovered he had a heart disease (infective endocarditis), and was forced to limit his exercising and count his steps with a pedometer. At the Opera his stubborn obstinacy in artistic matters had created enemies; and he was also increasingly subject to attacks in anti-Semitic portions of the press. His resignation from the Opera, in 1907, was hardly unexpected.

Mahler’s own music aroused considerable opposition from music critics, who tended to hear his symphonies as ‘potpourris’ in which themes from disparate periods and traditions were indiscriminately mingled. However, he always had vociferous admirers on his side. In his last years, Mahler began to score major successes with a wider public, notably with a Munich performance of the Second Symphony in 1900, with the first complete performance of the Third in Krefeld in 1902, with a valedictory Viennese performance of the Second in 1907, and, above all, with the Munich premiere of the gargantuan Eighth in 1910. The music he wrote after that, however, was not performed during his lifetime.

The final impetus for Mahler’s departure from the Vienna Opera was a generous offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He conducted a season there in 1908, only to be set aside in favor of Arturo Toscanini; while he had been enormously popular with public and critics alike, he had fallen out of favor with the trustees of the board of the Met. Back in Europe, with his marriage in crisis and Alma’s infidelity having been revealed, Mahler, in 1910, had a single (and apparently helpful) consultation with Sigmund Freud.

Having now signed a contract to conduct the long-established New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler and his family travelled again to America. At this time, he completed his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and his Symphony No. 9, which would be his last completed work. In February 1911, during a long and demanding concert season in New York, Mahler fell seriously ill with a streptococcal blood infection, and conducted his last concert in a fever (the programme included the world premiere of Ferruccio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque). Returning to Europe, he was taken to Paris, where a new serum had recently been developed. He did not respond, however, and was taken back to Vienna at his request. He died there from his infection on May 18, 1911 at the age of 50, leaving his Symphony No. 10 unfinished. He was buried, at his request, beside his daughter, in Grinzing Cemetery outside Vienna. In obedience to his last wish, he was buried in silence, with neither a word spoken nor a note of music played. The grave-stone bears the name ‘Gustav Mahler’, but no other inscription.

Alma Mahler quotes Mahler as saying “I am thrice homeless,as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.” However this is astonishingly close to a remark written by Anton Rubinstein in the 1860s or 1870s, and may therefore have been adapted, for its appositeness, by Mahler (or indeed Alma). Alma was 19 years younger than Gustav.


Mahler was the last in a line of Viennese symphonists extending from the First Viennese School of Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Franz Schubert to Bruckner and Johannes Brahms; he also incorporated the ideas of Romantic composers like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The major influence on his work, however, was that of Richard Wagner, who was, as Mahler said, after Beethoven, the only composer to truly have “development” (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) in his music.

The spirit of the lied (German for song) constantly rests in his work. He followed Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann in developing the song cycle, but rather than write piano accompaniment, he orchestrated it instead. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is a set of four songs written as a rejected lover wandering alone along the earth; Mahler wrote the text himself, inspired by his unhappy love affair with a singer while conducting at Kassel.

Keenly aware of the colourations of the orchestra, the composer filled his symphonies with flowing melodies and expressive harmonies, achieving bright tonal qualities using the clarity of his melodic lines. Among his other innovations are expressive use of combinations of instruments in both large and small scale, increased use of percussion, as well as combining voice and chorus to symphony form, and extreme voice leading in his counterpoint. His orchestral style was based on counterpoint; two melodies would each start off the other seemingly simultaneously, choosing clarity over a mass orgy of sound.

Often, his works involved the spirit of Austrian peasant song and dance. The Ländler – the Austrian folk-dance which developed first into the minuet and then into the waltz – figures in several symphonies, as indeed do the minuet and the waltz. (All three historical stages – Ländler, minuet and waltz – are represented in the ‘dance movement’ of the Ninth Symphony).

Mahler combined the ideas of Romanticism, including the use of program music, and the use of song melodies in symphonic works, with the resources which the development of the symphony orchestra had made possible. The result was to extend, and eventually break, the understanding of symphonic form, as he searched for ways to expand his music. He stated that a symphony should be an “entire world”. As a result, he met with difficulties in presenting his works, and would continually revise the details of his orchestration until he was satisfied with the effect.

Mahler’s harmonic writing was at times highly innovative, and only long familiarity can have blunted the effect of the chords constructed in ‘perfect fourths’ which lead to the ‘first subject’ of the Seventh Symphony, or the remarkable (and unclassifiable!) 9-note ‘crisis’ sonority that erupts into the first movement of the Tenth. ‘Anti-modernist’ zeal presumably lies behind assertions to the effect that Mahler “never abandoned the principle of tonality, as those following him, in particular those of the Second Viennese School, would later do”: anyone who would deny this composer’s pre-Schoenbergian exploitation of expressive anti-tonality should be challenged to name the keys that they hear at such points as bb.385ff in the finale of the 6th Symphony or the most tonally complex areas of the Tenth.

He was deeply spiritual and described his music in terms of nature very often. This resulted in his music being viewed as extremely emotional for a long time after his death. In addition to restlessly searching for ways of extending symphonic expression, he was also an ardent craftsman, which shows both in his meticulous working methods and careful planning, and in his studies of previous composers.

In spite of this, tonality as an expressive and constructional principle was clearly of great importance to Mahler. This is shown most clearly by his approach to the issue of so-called ‘progressive tonality’. While his First Symphony is clearly a D major work, his Second ‘progresses’ from a C minor first movement to an Eb-major conclusion; his Third moves from a first movement which ends in F major to a finale which ends in D major – while his Fourth dies away in a serene E major that seemingly has no awareness of its distance from the work’s basic G major. The Fifth moves from a C# minor funeral march, through a desperately conflict-ridden A minor movement, a vigorous dance movement in D major, and a lyrical F major ‘Adagietto’, to a triumphant finale in D major – while the Sixth, very much by contrast, starts in A minor, ends in A minor, and justaposes a slow movement in Eb major with a scherzo in A minor. The Seventh is tonally highly ‘progressive’, with a first movement that moves from a (possible) B minor start to an E-major conclusion, and a finale that defines a celebratory C major. In the Eighth Symphony the composer’s expressive intentions led him to construct a work that both starts and ends in Eb – whereas the ‘valedictory’ Ninth moves from a D major first movement to a Db major finale. The Tenth, insofar as we can be sure that Mahler’s ultimate tonal intentions are discernible, was to start and end in F# major.


His symphonic output is generally divided into three ‘periods’. The ‘first period’, dominated by his reading of the Wunderhorn poems, comprises his Symphonies Nos. 1 to 4. Within this group, the cross-fertilization from the world of Mahlerian song is in fact considerable. The Symphony No. 1 uses a melodic idea from one of the Gesellen songs in its first movement, and employs a section of another in the central part of its third. The Symphony No. 2’s third movement is a voice-less orchestral amplification and extension of a Wunderhorn song, and is followed by a Wunderhorn setting incorporated whole. The Symphony No. 3’s third movement is another orchestral fantasia on a Wunderhorn song, while its fifth is a Wunderhorn setting made especially for the symphony. In the Symphony No. 4, the finale is a pre-existing Wunderhorn setting (earlier considered as a possible finale for the Symphony No. 3), elements of which are ‘prefiguringly’ inserted into the first three movements.

The symphonies of the ‘second period’, Nos. 5 to 7, manifest an increased severity of expression and reveal a growing interest in non-standard instrumentation (cowbells, ‘deep bells’ and a ‘hammer’ in the Symphony No. 6; cowbells, tenor horn, cornet, mandolin and guitar in the Symphony No. 7). Though the symphonies in this group have no vocal component, the world of Mahlerian song is hinted at in the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 and the slow movement of the Symphony No. 6, where phrases from one of the Kindertotenlieder are briefly heard, and in No.5’s finale, which incorporates material from the 1896 Wunderhorn song ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’.

Mahler’s symphonic ‘third period’ is marked by increasing polyphony and embraces Nos. 8, 9, and 10 (unfinished), as well as Das Lied von der Erde. No credible connections with free-standing songs can be demonstrated – perhaps unsurprisingly, as Mahler’s last non-symphonic songs were the Kindertotenlieder, completed in 1904.

Few composers are felt to have freely intermixed their work and their life so completely as Mahler; the impression is only strengthened by the musical connections that can be heard to exist between symphonies, seeming to bind them together into a larger ‘narrative’. Material heard in No. 3 recurs in the finale of No. 4; an idea from the first movement of No. 4 is heard to open No. 5; and a ‘tragic’ harmonic gesture that is repeatedly heard in No. 6 (a major chord declining into a minor) makes a striking reappearance in No. 7. In the unfinished draft of No. 10, furthermore, there are personal notations to his wife Alma (who was, at the time, having an affair with Walter Gropius, her future second husband) as well as other seemingly autobiographical references. (Commentators who would view these notations as the ‘out of control’ scribblings of a man ‘at the end of his tether’ should be aware, however, that when he re-wrote his draft of the symphony’s original Bb major conclusion in a version transposed so as to end the work in F#, Mahler also copied the ’emotional’ marginalia into the new score!).

Curse of the ninth

Mahler was obsessed by Beethoven’s legacy; he declared that all of his symphonies were “ninths”, having the same impact and scale as Beethoven’s famous Choral symphony. Mahler was also apparently a firm believer in the curse of the ninth and thus terrified of writing a ninth numbered symphony. This is held to be the reason why he did not give a number to the symphonic work – Das Lied von der Erde – which followed his Eighth, but instead described it merely as Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges “Die chinesische Flöte”) (A symphony for one tenor and one alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra, after Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute”). The work can be considered a combination of song cycle and symphony. As it happened, Mahler did in fact die after writing his ninth numbered symphony, leaving his tenth unfinished. There have been several attempts to complete the work (or produce ‘performing versions’ of the draft) since the 1940s.


Critics are no longer to be found who will insist that Mahler’s popularity is a fad or a craze that will shortly pass; but while his place in musical history and in the repertoire seems secure, sober assessment of his specific legacy is inhibited by several factors. For example, little common ground can be found between those who revere Mahler for his ’emotional frankness’ and ‘spiritual honesty’, and his equally vociferous detractors for whom the same music displays ‘mawkishness’, ‘tastelessness’ and ‘sentimentality’ (Franz Schmidt clearly spoke for the latter camp when he described Mahler’s symphonies as “cheap novels”). A similar divide separates those who appreciate and analyze the symphonies as conscientiously orchestrated and rigorously organised large-scale forms, and those who see merely the lavish, sprawling outpourings of a ‘self-indulgent egotist’.

Passionate admirers of Mahler, too, have sometimes muddied the waters by seeing the composer through the prism of their own preoccupations; thus the critical literature boasts manic-depressives who have insisted that Mahler’s contrast-rich work betrays a manic-depressive psychology, homosexuals who have asserted that his tender expressiveness reveals him to have been gay, and Jews who have claimed that his music exposes the cultural and social tensions that led to the Holocaust. Vehement resistance to Mahler’s expressive message sometimes has additional racial and nationalistic overtones; devoted Mahlerian Hans Keller used to quote an influential British critic as declaring: “The truth is, we just don’t want Mahler over here.”

With Mahler thus to some extent still critically embattled, a situation has developed in which his detractors attempt to minimise his legacy, and his admirers tend to respond by exaggerating it. A cautious middle ground might be pursued by noting that a combination of factors (World War I, economic depression, rising Austro-German anti-Semitism, and World War II) worked greatly to inhibit performance and understanding of Mahler’s music after 1911, and undoubtedly made his posthumous influence less than it could have been. As a result, it was principally among composers who had known Mahler or been part of his circle that his influence was first felt – even if such personal relationships often brought extra-musical factors into play.

Schoenberg, for example, almost a full generation younger than Mahler, came to venerate the older man as a “saint”: an exemplary figure, selflessly devoted to art, generous to younger composers, and badly treated in the same way he himself was badly treated; Schoenberg could still, however, display a complicated attitude to the music and even speak of having had an “aversion” to it. This ambivalence did not, however, prevent him becoming a penetrating analyst of Mahler’s irregular melodic structures, or defending the Seventh Symphony against an American critic, nor did it inhibit his adoption and even refinement of massive Mahlerian effects in his Gurrelieder or Pelleas und Melisande, or, in those same works and elsewhere, the pursuit of Mahlerian clarity through soloistic or chamber-style orchestral scoring.

For Alban Berg, younger still, Mahler was a musical influence rather than a personal one: the tragic Symphony No. 6] was “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral”), and Mahlerian elements can be heard in many of his works. For example, the two hammer blows (three in the original edition) in the finale of the Mahler Sixth find their echo in Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces which features seven hammer blows in its final movement as well as thematic material of a decisively Mahlerian cut. In the case of Webern, who, in his early professional life, had conducted performances of Mahler symphonies, one may detect a Mahlerian concern with total textural clarity, although the small scale and rhetorical sparseness of Webern’s mature pieces means that overt ‘Mahlerisms’ are hard to find outside his juvenilia.

The earliest significant non-contemporaries to register the impact of Mahler were perhaps Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom identified with elements of Mahler’s personal and creative character as well as with aspects of his musical style. Britten, who had first come to know Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 while still a student, produced a ‘reduced orchestra’ version of the second movement of Symphony No. 3 and during his life performed Mahler’s music as both a piano-accompanist and conductor. Both Britten and Shostakovich came to hold Das Lied von der Erde in special regard, and undeniable references to it are found in such works as the former’s Phaedra and the latter’s Fourth and Tenth symphonies.

Among other leading composers, an aversion to Mahler can often be attributed to radically incompatible creative goals rather than to any failure to recognise his technical skill: to Stravinsky, Mahler was “Mal-heur”, while Vaughan Williams described him as a “tolerable imitation of a composer”. By the late 20th century, however, Mahler’s kaleidoscopic scoring and motivically independent lines in intense contrapuntal combination had become staples of modernism, and formerly shocking features of his music such as his radical discontinuities, his penchant for parody and quotation (including self-quotation) and his blunt juxtaposition of ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles were prominent features of postmodernism.

The extent of Mahler’s influence on pre-1950s popular music has been widely neglected. However, the strong relationship which can be heard to exist between, for example the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal song I’ll Be Seeing You and a passage in the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 leads one to wonder whether emigre musicians from central Europe had taken memories of Mahler’s music with them to the United States. Attempts to present him as an influence upon the Hollywood style of film music, either directly or through the work such emigres as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, however, fail to take into account the necessarily un-contrapuntal nature of such film scores, or that their often intense exploitation of the ‘leitmotif’ derived from Wagner rather than Mahler.

The scale of Mahler’s interpretative legacy, likewise, should not be over-estimated. In the absence of actual recordings, his performances lived on only as fading memories and through their influence on conductors such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of whom worked with the composer and, having been assisted by him in their careers, went on to take his music to America and into the age of the LP record. His famous declaration “Tradition ist Schlamperei!” (‘Tradition is slovenliness!’), might be taken as prefiguring the late 20th-century preoccupation with ‘historically informed performance’ that claimed to be liberating familiar baroque and classical works from thoughtlessly applied performance conventions deriving from later periods; one ought to note, however, that Mahler’s own, fascinating arrangement of several movements into a ‘Bach Suite’ is, in terms of historical authenticity, massively anachronistic. In addition, while the practice (not universally celebrated) of playing Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 overture before the third act of Fidelio was Mahler’s creation (originally introduced, it appears, to cover a difficult scene change), one notes that the kind of operatic production which Mahler favoured – with a ‘stage manager’ but no ‘director’, and with staging and production being devised by the conductor in a manner designed to serve the music throughout – has not survived in an age dominated by the so-called ‘producer’s opera’.

Supporters who happily point to Mahler’s dedication to detailed and extensive rehearsal as having had an impact upon later musical practice may also be exaggerating. For example, one cannot cogently argue that Mahler himself was personally responsible for the ever-increasing ‘professionalisation’ of art-musical performance that took place throughout the 20th century. Likewise, many aspects of his rather ruthless perfectionism have not been perpetuated: in today’s musical world, with its unionized players and ‘self-governing’ orchestras), Mahler’s authoritarianism and his brow-beating of individual players would never be tolerated.

His music also influenced Richard Strauss, the early symphonies of Havergal Brian, and the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Kurt Weill, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, as well as Benjamin Britten, were also strongly influenced by Mahler, in quite different ways. Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony seems to have been inspired by ‘Das Lied von der Erde’.

Mahler’s difficulties in getting his works accepted led him to say “My time will come”; that time came in the mid 20th century, at a point when the development of the LP was allowing repeated hearings of the long and complex symphonies in competent and well-recorded performances. By 1956, every one of Mahler’s symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony) had been issued on LP – as had Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das Klagende Lied, the song cycles, and many individual songs.

Advocated by both those who had known him (prominently among them the composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg), and by a generation of conductors including the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, his works won over an audience hungry for the next wave of musical exploration. By the end of the 1960s several cycles of the nine completed Mahler symphonies (usually accompanied by the first movement of the unfinished Tenth) were available or well under way, allowing the composer’s overall achievement and stature to be more easily assessed. Since that time, Mahler’s relative popularity has seen record companies permit conductors to embark on a ‘Mahler cycle’ even at quite early stages of their careers.

In the late twentieth century, new musicological methods led to the extensive editing of his scores, leading to various attempts to complete the tenth symphony and improved version of the others. Well-known interpreters of Mahler’s work have included Oskar Fried, Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Hermann Scherchen, Rafael Kubelik, Herbert von Karajan, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Otto Klemperer, Claudio Abbado, Sir John Barbirolli, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink, Jascha Horenstein, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Georg Solti, Markus Stenz, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Benjamin Zander, Antoni Wit, and Uri Caine. Mahler’s music continues to attract interest today.



  • Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884–1888; rev. 1893–1896; 2nd rev. 1906).
    • Note: This was first called “Symphonic Poem”, later “Titan” (after Jean Paul). Originally in 5 movements; the second movement was discarded in final revision.
  • Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1888–1894; rev. 1903)
    • Note: The title “Resurrection”, while popular with listeners, does not appear on the score and is not used in works of reference (e.g. the ‘New Grove’).
  • Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893–1896, rev. 1906)
  • Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892, 1899–1900; rev. 1901–1910)
  • Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1901–1902; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: While the symphony begins in the advertised C-sharp minor, it should be noted that the composer himself wrote, in a letter to his publisher: “it is difficult to speak of a key for the whole symphony, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted.”
  • Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903–1904, rev. 1906; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: At a performance in Vienna in 1907 the title “Tragic” was attached to the symphony on posters and programs, but the word does not appear on the score and is not used in works of reference (e.g. the ‘New Grove’).
  • Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904–1905; scoring repeatedly rev.)
    • Note: The title “Song of the Night”, while popular with listeners, is not due to Mahler; does not appear on the score; and is not used in works of reference (e.g. the ‘New Grove’).
  • Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, (1906–1907)
    • Note: The title “Symphony of a Thousand”, while popular with listeners, is not due to Mahler; does not appear on the score; and is not used in works of reference (e.g. the ‘New Grove’). The composer, in fact, strongly objected to this title being applied to the eighth symphony.
  • Das Lied von der Erde (subtitled ‘A Symphony for One Tenor and One Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra, After Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute”‘; 1907–1909)
  • Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908–1909)
  • Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp minor (1910–1911) (unfinished; a continuous ‘beginning-to-end’ draft of 1,945 bars exists, but much of it is not fully elaborated and most of it not orchestrated.)
    • Various completions by:
      • + Adagio (first movement) and Purgatorio (third movement) prepared for performance by Ernst Krenek with contributions from Franz Schalk, Alban Berg and Alexander Zemlinsky (1924)
      • + Joseph Wheeler (1948–1965)
      • + Deryck Cooke, assisted by Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews (1960, 1964, 1976, 1989)
      • + Clinton Carpenter (1966)
      • + Remo Mazzetti, Jr. (1989)
      • + Rudolf Barshai (2000)
      • + The duo of Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzucca (2002)
    • Note: Several prominent Mahler conductors – notably Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink – have, for various reasons, refused to perform any of the various ‘completions’ of the Tenth that were available to them. This rejection even extended to the Cooke version – even though Cooke and his collaborators were well aware that no-one but Mahler could ever ‘complete’ the Tenth Symphony, and thus described their score (which by now has been through several revisions) as merely “A Performing Version of the Draft”, rather than as a ‘completion’ per se.

Vocal works

  • Das klagende Lied, (1880; rev. 1893, 1898)
  • Drei Lieder, three songs for tenor and piano, (1880)
  • Lieder und Gesänge, fourteen songs with piano accompaniment, (1880–1890)
  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Journeyman), for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment, (1883–1885)
  • Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn), for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment, (1888–1896, two others 1899 and 1901)
  • Rückert Lieder, for voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment, (1901–1902)
  • Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), for voice and orchestra, (1901–1904)
  • Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), song cycle-symphony (1907–1909)
    • Note: this work can be classified as both a symphony and a song cycle. Mahler avoided numbering it as a symphony due to his superstitious fear of the curse of the ninth.


On 9 November 1905 Mahler recorded for the reproducing piano Welte-Mignon four of his own compositions:

  • ‘Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld’. From: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (piano accompaniment only).
  • ‘Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald’. From: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (piano accompaniment only).
  • ‘Das himmlische Leben’. Wunderhorn setting, used as 4th movement of Symphony No. 4 (piano accompaniment only).
  • 1st movement (Trauermarsch) from Symphony No. 5 (in arrangement for solo piano).


In view of the relative infrequency of the symphonies’ early performances (partly a result of their instrumental demands), consideration of the 2-piano and piano duet arrangements that were current during Mahler’s lifetime is not without interest – especially where these were produced by outstanding musicians:

  • Symphony No.1: Arrangement for piano duet by Bruno Walter (1906)
  • Symphony No.2: Arrangement for 2 pianos (by Hermann Behn, Leipzig, 1895); for piano duet by Bruno Walter (1899)
  • Symphony No.6: Arrangement for piano duet by Alexander Zemlinsky (Leipzig, 1906)
  • Symphony No.7: Arrangement for piano duet by Alfredo Casella (Berlin, 1910)

External links


  • Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. (1996). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226007693.
  • Blaukopf, Kurt. (1973). Gustav Mahler. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane. ISBN 071390464X.
  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. (1995). Gustav Mahler: Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904) (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193151596.
  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. (2000). Gustav Mahler: Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907) (Vol. 3). Oxford University Press. ISBN 019315160X.
  • Machlis, J. and Forney, K. (1999). The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (Chronological Version) (8th ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0393972992.
  • Sadie, S. (Ed.). (1988). The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0333432363.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Gustav Mahler“.