Composer Profile: Gustav Mahler, Genius Composer & Conductor

By David Salazar

Gustav Mahler, born on July 7, 1860, is one of the greatest composers of all time. He was also one of the finest conductors the world has ever seen as well.

Mahler’s career is monumental to be sure, with the composer spending a decade at the Vienna Court Opera, where he presented 33 news operas to the repertory for the first time. He also conducted extensively at the Stadttheater Hamburg, the Royal Opera, Budapest, and the Metropolitan Opera. He was also a major conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

But he was also a great composer and that is perhaps his enduring legacy. His symphonies are among the most beloved works in the repertory.

Mahler died on May 18, 1911.

Major Works

Mahler never wrote an opera. But he did write a ton of vocal music and his major symphonies are so full of vocal segments that many have gone so far as to call them operas. Some of the symphonies to contain prominent vocal passages include the second, third, fourth, and eighth.

Then there is “Das Lied von der Erde,” which is arguably his greatest work and has been interpreted by a wide range of major opera singers over the years. The six movements feature two soloists alternating in each movement. The work was originally written for tenor and alto, though there have been instances where the baritone subs in for the alto voice. Its design and alternating emotional shifts (the tenor’s music is brighter than the low voice’s, for example) tell a rather complex story that is the closest Mahler truly came to writing an opera. Leonard Bernstein called “Das Lied von der Erde” his greatest symphony.

Read More on Mahler

Four Major Opera Moments in His Career

Watch and Listen

We could showcase a wide range of Mahler’s works, but we will focus on “Das Lied” and its two different versions.

Here is Bernstein with Christa Ludwig and René Kollo.

And here is Thomas Hampson and Peter Seiffert under Sir Simon Rattle.


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