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Music / Gustav Mahler

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"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, 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 10th Symphony. Interestingly, he had feared exactly this: he believed in the "Curse of the Ninth", which states that a composer has to die either while working on or after completing his/her ninth symphony, as had happened to Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubertnote , Anton Brucknernote , and Antonín Dvořáknote , and as later happened to Alexander Glazunov and 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...That being said, Dmitri Shostakovich managed to write fifteen symphonies, although he had other things to worry about.

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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Symphony No. 9 simply fades out, interpreted as a farewell from the composer.
  • Boléro Effect: Symphony No. 1 (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.
  • Call-Back: Some material from earlier symphonies can be heard in later ones. For example, a horn call from Symphony No. 5 returns in Symphony No. 6.
  • 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."
  • Death of a Child: The theme of "Kindertotenlieder" (meaning "Songs on the Death of Children".) Each song explores a different aspect of the grief that follows losing a child.
  • Downer Ending: Symphony No. 6 (Tragic), ends with a massive dissonant tutti burst just to be silenced by a lonely pianissimo, representing the loss of hope.
  • 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.
    • In the 2nd, after the soft pizzicato chords at the end of the second movement, the audience is jolted back to attention by a sudden BA-DUM! from the timpani to introduce the third movement.
    • Played very slowly at the end of Symphony No. 3.
    • Also in the 6th, in the first movement just before A major-minor chord. The same rhythm comes back over the final chord.
  • Drunken Song: His Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the 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:
    • Symphony No. 1 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.
    • Symphony No. 2 opens once again with the funeral rites of the hero from the previous symphony, while the finale is a depiction of the Last Judgement. The first ten minutes depict the angelic summons (Mahler subtitled the initial offstage horn call "a voice calling in the wilderness"), then a thundering drum roll represents the ground tearing wide open as the dead rise from their graves and march off to be judged. The triumphant final minutes suggest that even the condemned souls have been redeemed and restored by The Power of Love.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The infamous Mahlerhammer in Symphony No. 6 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 mustache, really. Even Aschenbach's wife looks exactly like Alma. The soundtrack to said film also consists of Mahler.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Mahler had a sister, Justine. Mahler's wife Alma hated her and accused her of being exploitative of her brother's naivete.
  • Friendly Rivalry: With Richard Strauss. Mahler said they were digging towards the same summit from different sides of a mountain.
  • 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").
  • Ill Boy: Like his siblings, he inherited a weak heart from his mother.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted by "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), a song cycle based on a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert.
  • Kavorka Man: Described as this by Alma Mahler-Werfel. Also had the (unjust) reputation of being The Casanova.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The 6th ends with a massive dissonant tutti.
  • The Mentor: To Arnold Schoenberg and like-minded. He actually was friends with Schoenberg. But since Mahler had shades of Drill Sergeant Nasty, they had hot-headed arguments. According to Alma, Mahler was Genre Savvy enough to know that Schoenberg will eventually build on Mahler's innovations and herald a new age of classical music. During Schoenberg's "Skandalkonzerte" he always defended his friend. Keep in mind, these arguments sometimes ended in fistfights of pro and contra-Schoenberg.
  • 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.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The theme of Kindertotenlieder, mentioned above. Mahler's wife Alma was upset that he would write on this subject, believing it to be Tempting Fate. Tragically, her fears proved prescient a few years laterinvoked when the couple lost their own four-year-old daughter to scarlet fever.
  • The Perfectionist: Mahler was meticulous in marking the scores of his symphonies with precise performance instructions for both the musicians and the conductor; he was adamant that the performance should reflect the vision in his mind to the letter.
  • 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: The "Adagietto" from Symphony No. 5 was famously used in Death In Venice.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The third hammer stroke in Symphony No. 6, after which everything dies down... until one last desperate tutti stroke ends it.
  • World of Ham: Symphony No. 8 with three choirs, multiple soloists, a church organ and a double orchestra.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Mahler suffered a Creator Breakdown complete with Heroic BSoD when Alma Mahler cheated on him with Walter Gropius.


Example of: