This day 100 years ago, on May 18th, 1911, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler died at age 50 of heart disease.
During his lifetime, Mahler was both famous and infamous as one of the most meticulous and demanding conductors of his time; when he received the prestigious post as musical director of the Vienna Opera house in 1897, he set about to turn it into one of the leading opera houses in the world; in fact, much of the reputation it has today still goes back to Mahler. His performances of Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven's Fidelio were considered revolutionary at the time. When an anti-Semitic press campaign (Mahler was born a Jew, but converted to Catholicism early on) led to his resignation in 1907, Mahler took on posts at the Met and with the New York Philharmonic.
As a composer, Mahler continued the symphonic tradition of Brahms and Bruckner, paving the way for the musical modernism of Shostakovich, Webern, or Schönberg. However, during his lifetime his symphonies were met with little acclaim, and after his death they all but disappeared from the repertoire, until their grandeur was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today, his symphonies are considered milestones of early 20th century music.
Something of an interesting sidenote, which I noticed some time back, is that Mahler's symphonic music also seems to have had quite an influence on film scores. Take for example the opening to his first symphony, which seems rather close to the original "Star Trek" theme. Or the beginning of the sixth symphony, which appears to have been an inspiration to the "Star Wars" Darth Vader theme. And there's this section, also from the sixth, which a friend of mine noticed was uncannily similar to the "Indiana Jones" theme.
Whether the influence is actually true or merely imagined, there is no doubt that Mahler's expansive soundscapes with their intense emotionality have inspired countless composers and listeners since his death and that he remains one of the most important composers of the 20th century.
- Symphony No. 2 (Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer), EMI 5 67235 2
- Symphony No. 3 (Vienna Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez), Deutsche Grammophon 474 038-2
- Symphony No. 5 (Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich/David Zinman), RCA 88697 31450 2
- Symphony No. 6 (London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev), LSO Live LSO0661
- Symphony No. 9 (Berlin Philharmonic/Sir John Barbirolli), EMI 9 18725 2