Gustav Mahler

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  • Mahler: Symphony No. 5

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About Gustav Mahler

It wasn’t easy for a Jew to rise socially in Austria, especially one from a humble family in a remote outpost of the Empire. But in his short life, Gustav Mahler (born in 1860) was hailed firstly as one of the greatest conductors of all time, then eventually as one of the most original, impassioned, prophet-like composers in the classical tradition. Though Mahler was hugely successful as an opera conductor, he chose to express his thoughts and feelings in a remarkable series of songs and song cycles, and particularly in symphonies. For Mahler, the symphony had to “embrace everything,” and his ambitious orchestral canvases, sometimes including solo or massed voices, strain the bounds of what was previously thought expressible in music. Mahler also hugely enriched the symphony’s capacity to unfold narratives, and even convey philosophical messages, as in the death-to-life Resurrection Symphony (No. 2) and the “Tragic” Sixth. His Eighth, nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand,” was a colossal hit at its premiere in 1910, bringing Mahler the acclaim he had long craved. After his death the following year, just short of his 51st birthday, it looked as though Mahler the composer had at last arrived, but resistance to his music abroad, and the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis in his homeland, set his cause back considerably. It was only in the 1950s and ’60s that audiences and critics across the world began to recognize Mahler for the truly revolutionary force he was.

Kalischt, Czech Republic
July 7, 1860

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