Musical composer and conductor, 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 is based on 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".
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 Schubert, Anton Bruckner, and Antonin Dvorak, and as later happened to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Turns out he was right... Interestingly enough, Mahler tried to subvert the Curse of the Ninth by not numbering Das Lied von der Erde (The Songs of the Earth). This would have been his ninth symphony, 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.
- ↑ sort of; in Mahler's lifetime, Schubert was only seen as having written eight symphonies, as the symphony now known as No.7 only exists in sketch form
- ↑ if one ignores two early symphonies, now known as No.00 and No.0
- ↑ except that the symphonies now known as Nos.1-4 were not published until after Mahler (and, more importantly, Dvorak himself) had died
- ↑ although the use of the term "symphony" to refer to the work is somewhat contentious