Gustav Mahler Biography

Gustav Mahler was a celebrated Austrian composer and conductor. Read on to know more on the alluring childhood, life and timeline in this biography.

Gustav Mahler

Quick Facts

Gender: Male
Birthday: 07 July 1860
Died: 18 May 1911
Nationality: Austrian
Sun Sign: Cancer
Spouse/Ex-: Alma Mahler
Father: Bernhard Mahler
Children: Anna Mahler
Education: University of Vienna, University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna

Gustav Maher was born in early Bohemia and was an Austrian by birth. He had composed and conducted at various levels and was best known as one of the pioneer, orchestral and artistic conductors of his era. His music embodied tinges of the late-Romanticism period and also bore hues of the early twentieth century with modernistic notations. Although Mahler was faced with innumerable problems and some of his most famous works were never accepted in Vienna, he continued to create, compose and perform symphonies and songs that continue to captivate audiences and other musical parties worldwide. Mahler started gaining popularity and acceptance only after long periods of neglect and one of these periods was during the Nazi occupation in Europe. His music was slowly re-established and championed by a new generation of music songsters who were moved and influenced by Mahler’s creations. His music was of great intensity, transparency and emotional contrasts that awakened a wide array of music composers of his age. He also went on to becoming a conductor of international standards of repute in an age where music was relatively under strain. Some of his notable symphonies were the third symphony, which was also the longest symphony ever created and ‘Das lied von der erde’ that went on to become immensely popular.

Childhood And Early Life

Gustav Mahler was born on 7th July 1860, to a German-speaking, Jewish family in Kaliste, Bohemia. Gustav was the second of the army of 14 children born to innkeeper Bernhard Mahler and his wife. Out of the fourteen, only six survived infancy. Along with Gustav, who survived after the death of the first born, the parents of this famous composer moved to ‘Jihlava’ where Mahler spent most of his childhood. As a toddler and then as a young boy, Mahler was swayed by street music, folk songs and the sounds of trumpets and percussion instruments. Seeing an old piano in his grandparent’s possession, Gustav Mahler decided to take it immediately.
His parents realized his passion for listening and creating music and observed young Mahler as he went on to experimenting with music, took piano lessons at six and even encouraged him at his first, amateur performance in a local theater when he was ten years old. Mahler continued to play the piano and grew to become a spectacular, proficient pianist at his age. Seeing his inherent talent for music, his parents decided to take the next step.


As a young boy, Mahler was not very inclined towards academics. His grades at school were average and his father realized that his true calling lay elsewhere. As Bernhard Mahler was very supportive of his son’s musical career, he decided to enroll him at the Vienna Conservatory to refine his musical skills. Young Mahler was accepted into the conservatory for the years 1875-1876 after being auditioned by the renowned Julius Epstein. Mahler made good progression in piano music and concentrated on composition and harmony in the final year. A few of his compositions as a student have survived, and the rest have were either washed out or never recorded during his early years.
His main role in the conservatory’s orchestra was as a percussionist and never actually completed his end of term symphonies and compositions as it was accused of being plagiarized by the young Mahler. Mahler grew close with future composer Hugo Wolf during his tenure at the conservatory and was also influenced by Richard Wagner’s music. He left the conservatory in the year 1978 with a musical diploma. As he was a mischievous student, he failed to receive the medal given by the Conservatory during graduation. Under his father’s insistence, Mahler joined Vienna University to pursue his interests in literature and philosophy as academic subjects.

Personal Life

In the year of 1880, Mahler took up a professional job as a conductor in the town of Bad hall that was geographically south of Linz. This theatre focused mainly on producing operettas. He then moved on to a more ambitious theater where he was engaged as conductor that presented more works than just operettas. It was here that Mahler produced and composed his first, full scale opera ‘Trovatore’ which went on to becoming one of his most celebrated works in the history of his opera productions. After leaving Slovenia, he went back to becoming chorus-master in Vienna at the Carltheater. After a brief sojourn with this theater, in the year 1883, Mahler became conductor at the run-down theater in Olomouc, after which he composed five novel operas that made him a star in the piercing eyes of the media. He was later appointed as the Musical and Choral director in August 1883. It was here, Mahler had his grand moments of success and went on to conduct and direct operas such as ‘Der Freischutz’ and a wide array of love poems that were build ups for his famous song cycle, ‘Songs of Wayfarer’.

Musical Successes

In the following years, his efforts paid off and he ended up signing a contract with the Leipzig opera and was also given an offer to hold an assistant conductor’s position at the New German Theater in Prague from the years 1885 to 1891. It was here; he started presenting noble works of Wagner and Mozart and went on to conducting ‘Wagner’s ring cycle’ that led to grand success. Mahler went on to befriending Carl Weber and completed the unfinished opera of “The three Pintos”. He even premiered with his own compositions in Stadttheatre in 1888, where renowned faces such as Tchaikovsky were present, that eventually went on to being well-received and brought him great financial returns. His growing affiliations with the Weber family brought him laurels and it was around this time he got romantically involved with Weber’s wife Marion and also discovered the German folkloric poem collection ‘The youth’s magic horn’ that would dominate and influence the rest of his works for another decade or so.
In the summer of 1888, Mahler resigned from the Leipzig position and went on to being appointed at the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest the same year. After delicate appearances and cautioned performances due to the conservative nature of Hungarian nationalists, he came up with Hungarian productions that were initially acclaimed but soon faded away with the plans to stage the ‘Ring’ cycle. In the following year Mahler’s father, Bernhard Mahler perished. A series of deaths followed, with the sad news of his sister’s death and then his mother. At this stage, Mahler himself was a victim of repeated migraine and Hemorrhoids attacks. Shortly after these depressing moments, the first symphony staged by Mahler in Budapest in the year 1889, was criticized and failed miserably. He was even questioned about his abilities of being a composer. The only time he did receive positive acclaim was a performance based on “Don Giovanni’ though other compositions were fairly limited.

Final Years

In the year of 1891, Mahler moved from Budapest and became the chief conductor at Hamburg. Finally, he managed to complete his second symphony in the year 1895. His sisters were protected by Mahler as they were the only ones left, after his brother committed suicide shortly after the death of the parents. He brought his sisters to Hamburg and protected them under his wing till he could. He later moved to Vienna and was accorded the title of ‘Kapellmeister’ to the acclaimed Vienna Philharmonic. After a short period of being appointed, he was promoted to director where he brought about traditional, emotional, daring performances that attracted the media and audiences in masses.
In the year 1902, Mahler met his future wife ‘Alma Schindler’ and married her in a private ceremony after a hustled courtship period. His wife soon became pregnant with their first child who was born in 1902 and the second daughter who was born in 1904. In the years 1907 to 1910, he was the official conductor at the Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Mahler also worked on his third symphony and performed it on a tour to the Netherlands. The Philharmonic concerts were taxing and led to a long string of over 40 concerts which had rocky, almost mixed responses. One of the highlights of his career was the 8th Symphony he composed which was performed for the first time in Munich on 12th September 1910. Out of the love and care for his wife, he dedicated this last symphony to her and his family.

Death And Legacy

Around late 1910, Mahler began developing throat problems in addition to all the other ailments he possessed. With a temperature of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, he performed for the last time before his death in the reputed Carnegie Hall. During his final days, he insisted on not giving up and even after being diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis in a pre-antibiotic period, he decided to resume his concert season and also paved way for his wife’s compositions. He left on the ‘SS Amerika’ to Europe where they reached Paris a week later. Here, his family saw no visible signs of improvement and he finally succumbed to his ailment on 18th May 1911. He was laid to rest in the ‘Grinzing cemetery’.
The legacy he left behind was a profound one. Mahler’s music was divided into three large periods and was largely influenced by the ‘late Romantic’ period. He was one of the major composers in line with some of the biggest names such as Schubert, Brahms and Wagner. His extended-scale symphony works inspired a whole generation of budding music composers to such an extent where his music was revived once again after 50 years of neglect. Mahler’s music was finally revived in the year 1960, and his efforts were finally paid off with his music inspiring composers such as Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill.


1860: Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliste, Bohemia to a German speaking, Jewish family.
1866: Learnt to play the piano
1870: Gave his first public performance at a local theatre at the age of 10.
1875: Admitted to the Vienna conservatory.
1880: Joined as a conductor at Bad Hall and took on a series of posts with various theaters after Bad hall.
1891: He was appointed at the Hamburg Opera and his father passed away.
1897: Offered the position of a director at the Vienna Opera.
1899: Conducted revised versions of Schumanns Symphonies.
1902: Married his wife Alma Schindler
1907: Was part of the Philharmonic and the Symphony Orchestra.
1910: Performed for the last time at Carnegie hall
1911: Finished symphony no. 10 and died of bacterial endocarditis.

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Gustav Mahler Biography

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Last Updated

June 11, 2019

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