Gustav Mahler Gains Musical Heights

Composer Gustav Mahler (pictured alongside) was appointed 120 years ago today, i.e., on October the 8th, 1897 as the director of the Vienna Court Opera. That was after a series of increasingly important appointments that brought him to Europe’s leading opera houses in Prague, Leipzig and Budapest. Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper).

During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky.

Late in his life he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Mahler’s œuvre is relatively limited; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are generally designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists.

Those works were frequently controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Second Symphony, Third Symphony, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910. Some of Mahler’s immediate musical successors included the composers of the Second Viennese School, notably Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler.

The International Gustav Mahler Institute was established in 1955 to honour the composer’s life and work.

Afterword: I had the distinct pleasure on four occasions to visit each of the opera houses, which fell under what some described as Mahler’s autocratic rule of their musical destiny. In the case of the Vienna Opera he lifted that company to an imperial position among Europe’s opera houses. During that period, he also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, proving himself no less remarkable as an interpreter of symphonic music than of opera – and just as intransigent in his demand for ideal performances!

As to his own symphonic creations, the most frequently performed are the first, second, fourth, fifth and ninth. But who cannot be moved by the sheer eloquence and deeply moving pages of the Adagio of his Symphony No.9 in D minor.

References: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewens

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