Music / Gustav Mahler

"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."
Gustav Mahler

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler!?"
Trish in Educating Rita

Austrian composer and conductor (7 July 1860 - 18 May 1911), one of the last of the Romantic era.

He mostly restricted his output to symphonies and song cycles. Mahler once remarked that "the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." No wonder then that his symphonies work on a larger scale than anything previously conceived: some of them have elaborate philosophical programs, like his Symphony No. 3 which, like Richard Strauss' tone poem, is based on Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. Mahler continually specified larger orchestras and more esoteric instruments; the culmination of this is his Symphony No. 8, which requires a ridiculously large number of musicians: double orchestra, an organist, eight vocal soloists and three choirs. Not surprisingly, then, it is often called the "Symphony of a Thousand".

He seems to have been fond of complaining that people did not understand his angst, and his works can sometimes be a little obtuse.

Nonetheless, they are still considered powerful and emotionally affecting pieces of music. Many of his works, such as his Second and Fifth Symphonies, start out with a despairing and anguished tone that darkens even further throughout the work, only to work their way to a profoundly triumphant and joyous ending.

He is sometimes viewed as a transitional figure between the romantic era and the early modern era of classical music (particularly German Expressionism), much the way that Beethoven can be viewed as a transition between the classical and romantic eras. Mahler was a major influence for Arnold Schoenberg and his students. In particular, the way that Mahler begins to dissect tonality in his 9th symphony and the parts of the 10th that he did manage to finish — this leads directly to the 12 tone system that Arnold Schoenberg pioneered.

Mahler died before he could complete his Tenth Symphony. Interestingly, he had feared exactly this: he believed in the "Curse of the Ninth", which states that a composer has to die after completing his/her ninth symphony, as had happened to Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubertnote , Anton Brucknernote , and Antonin Dvoraknote , and as later happened to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mahler tried to subvert the Curse by not numbering Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). This would have been his ninth symphonynote , making the Ninth his actual 10th. It seems the Curse of the Ninth only goes after numbered symphonies...

Fans of Tom Lehrer will recognize him as the first husband of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel.

Examples of tropes used by Mahler in his work.

  • Angst: He is one of the most famous composers who expressed this feeling in his music.
  • Bigger Is Better: His symphonies became gradually larger in scale, peaking in the "Symphony of a Thousand", his 8th.
  • Bolero Effect: First Symphony "The Titan" has this in its third movement on the tune of "Frère Jacques".
  • Bookworm: Famously read all the time. He actually started the day with Goethe instead of newspapers.
  • Break the Badass: The whole point of the fourth movement of the Tragic is to send the ridiculously large orchestra through a series of twists of fate represented by hammer strokes until it gives up after the third one.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer
  • Cradle of Loneliness: "Das Lied von der Erde" ("Song of Earth") has a movement called "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn").
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Mahler didn't think much of his critics.
      Critic: I trust you weren't offended by my negative critique of your recent symphony.
      Mahler: You just don't understand my music.
      Critic: You weren't of the same opinion when I praised your previous work.
      Mahler: You are quite mistaken. You didn't understand me when you praised me, either.
    • When challenged to a duel, he declined with the words: "I do not believe in the healing powers of dueling."
  • Downer Ending:
    • The 6th symphony, so-called Tragic, ends with a massive dissonant tutti burst just to be silenced by a lonely pianissimo, representing the loss of hope.
    • His 9th symphony simply fades out, interpreted as a farewell from the composer.
  • Dramatic Timpani: Used very quietly in the third movement of his 1st Symphony (emphasizing the motif of the descending fourth interval that ties the four movements together) and to accompany the fanfares in the fourth movement, and played very slowly at the end of the 3rd Symphony.
  • Drunken Song: His "Das Lied von der Erde" ("Song of Earth") has a drinking song, but it's one for "Earth's Misery": "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde." Another one is called "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunken Man in Spring").
  • Escaped from Hell: Mahler's First Symphony details the life of a hero, including his funeral in the third movement. The final movement is him fighting his way out of Hell to ascend to Heaven.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The infamous Mahlerhammer in the 6th symphony is a large wooden hammer slammed against a wooden platform or box, used as a percussive instrument. Also needs more cowbell in the finale.
  • Expy: Gustav von Aschenbach of Death In Venice is closely modeled after Mahler. Even more so in the Film of the Book where Aschenbach is a conductor and composer instead of a writer. Movie-Aschenbach is Mahler with a moustache, really. Even Aschenbach's wife looks exactly like Alma. The soundtrack to said film also consists of Mahler.
  • Germanic Depressives: His music is very dark, moody and brooding. One of his oldest works was "Das Klagende Lied" ("The Song of Lament") and "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children") is also not exactly the happiest of subjects. "Das Lied von der Erde" also deals with tragic themes. And, of course, his famous "6th Symphony" is referred to as "Tragische" ("Tragic").
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted by "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), a song cycle based on a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The 6th ends with a massive dissonant tutti.
  • Mood-Swinger: He himself was one, and his symphonies reflect that.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: He often incorporated popular melodies and ironic elements into his music, such as "Frère Jacques" into his first symphony.
  • The Power of Love: Strong believer of this, and considered God and Love to be one and the same. With the exception of No.4 (which ends serenely), No.6 (which ends brutally), Das Lied von der Erde (which ends bleakly), and No.9 (which simply fades away), his symphonies end in a massive blaze of glory in the finale, representing the victory of love over suffering.
  • Reclusive Artist: Preferred composing when in near-total social isolation in a cabin.
  • Scare Chord: After the third movement of his 1st Symphony quietly fades out, the fourth movement starts with a rapid Crash-Screech-BOOM! to jolt the audience out of their seats and make them pay attention again, while the final movement of the 2nd Symphony starts with a quick figure in the low strings and then a shrill, dissonant chord Mahler called the Ruf des Schmerzes ("Scream of Anguish"). Both symphonies get better, though.
  • Shout-Out: Mahler's "Adagietto" from his Fifth Symphony was famously used in Death In Venice.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The third hammer stroke in his 6th symphony, after which everything dies down... until one last desperate tutti stroke ends it.
  • World of Ham: The 8th symphony with three choirs, multiple soloists, a church organ and a double orchestra.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Mahler suffered a Creator Breakdown complete with Heroic B.S.O.D. when Alma Mahler cheated on him with Walter Gropius.