Mahler was a composer of symphonies and lieder cycles. However, during his lifetime, he was known, for the most part, as one of the world's greatest conductors. Mahler rose to prominence as musical director of the Vienna Opera, and under his leadership the VO experienced its golden age. Mahler finished his conducting career in the United States, serving with Toscanini as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and solely as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Mahler completed ten symphonies (nine numbered works and Das Lied von der Erde) and died leaving sketches and two completed movements of a tenth numbered symphony.
Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia, on July 7, 1860. At the time, Bohemia (later to form a major component of Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic) was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then enduring its final crumbling decades, and the region where Mahler spent his youth was strongly associate with the Czech independence movement. However, Mahler also was a Jew, and Jews in the region were associated by ethnic Czechs with Germans. Mahler famous quote is: "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." Then add to that the fact that the public considered Mahler to be a gifted conductor with a habit of writing over_long symphonies, while Mahler considered himself to a composer forced to spend most of his year conducting.
Mahler is known for the length, depth, and painful emotions of his works. He loved nature and life and, based on early childhood experiences, feared death (family deaths, a suicide, and a brutal rape he witnessed). This duality appears in almost all his compositions, especially in the Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Deaths of Children"), which are actually about the loss of an innocent view of life.
Mahler's orchestral music is clear, complex, and full of musical imagery, from the heavenly to the banal (the family lived near a military barracks, so march tunes sometimes appear; an argument was associated with the sound of a hurdy-gurdy outside the window). The "program" in the incredible symphonies is therefore that of personal tragedy and hope projected onto a universal scale.
Mahler was one of the most important and influential conductors of the period. Although Mahler had originally studied piano and composition, he was not a virtuoso pianist and his student and youthful works were already too forward looking for him to win the conservative judged composition contests of the time. As a result, Mahler was forced into a conducting career.
Mahler's early career was spent at a serious of regional opera houses (Hall in 1880, Laibach in 1881, Olmutz in 1882, Kassel in 1883, Prague in 1885, Liepzig in 1886/8, Budapest from 1886/8, and Hamburg from 1891/7), a normal career path, until he arrived as head of the Vienna Opera in 1897. Mahler ended some of the more slovenly performance practices of the past; he removed significant cuts that had been "traditionally" made in performances of Wagner's operas, significantly upgraded the expected level of performance for both vocalists and instrumentalists, expanded the repertoire and introduced many new works.
He also ruled with an iron fist, helping create the image of conductor as dictator. This was not, however, the result of simple ego, but rather of Mahler's artistic honesty and desire. When members of the opera orchestra complained that one or another lazy practice was tradition, Mahler's favorite reply was that "[t]radition is laziness." Mahler believed that opera was the highest form of art, not mere entertainment. A classic example is when Mahler decided to give the Vienna premiere of Charpentier's Louise. Charpentier came to the dress rehearsal and criticized the sets, the costumes and Mahler's conducting. Mahler's reaction was to cancel the premier and redo the costumes and set to Charpentier's specifications and studied the score with the composer so that his conducting, too, would be to Charpentier's satisfaction.
Another demonstrative incident during his leadership of the Vienna Opera was his attempts to present Richard Strauss' opera, Salome. Mahler was a basically prudish man, and his wife, Alma Mahler, later stated that he had argued against Strauss setting Wilde's Salome. Strauss, of course, went ahead and composed the piece, submitted it for production by the Vienna Opera, and was informed that the Censorship Board had banned the work due to Strauss' references to Christ and "the representation of events which belong to the realm of sexual pathology..." Rather than agree with the Censor, Mahler instead argued to "...in matters of art only the form and never the content is relevant, or at least should be relevant, from a serious viewpoint. How the subject matter is treated and carried out, not what the subject matter consists of to begin with -- that is the only thing that matters. A work of art is to be considered as serious if the artist's dominant objective is to master the subject matter exclusively by artists means and resolve it perfectly to the 'form...'".
Mahler's reign lasted until 1907. He then accepted an offer to conduct the Metropolitan Opera. He conducted two seasons, and then accepted a two-year contract from the Philharmonic Society (now the New York Philharmonic.) Mahler's time in New York was not positive -- he had a low opinion of American concertgoers and musicians, did not get along with the New York critics, and fought with the management of both the Met and the Society. Mahler died in 1911, in poor health and exhausted from his New York battles.
As Mahler was forced to spend most of the year conducting, he was, throughout his career, a summer composer. He conducted fall through spring, and then retreated to the country to compose. Mahler thus limited his composing to only two genres -- the symphony and lieder. Mahler's chamber music composition was limited to his student days, and the closest he came to composing an opera was Rubezahl, for which he prepared a libretto in manuscript (in 1880 or 1881), sketched some music (1882), and then abandoned. He did, however, play a significant role assembling existing material and adding his own connecting material to create a performable version of Weber's Die Drei Pintos, at the request of Weber's family. Although Mahler had a thirty year long composing career, his complete works could be assembled on fifteen or sixteen CDs.
Mahler also showed great enthusiasm for new works and new composers. Although his own compositions were grounded in late romantic post-Wagnerism, the younger composers in Vienna's composition circle (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, etc.) had a great appreciation for his music (Schoenberg, at least, taking a while to do so), and Mahler in turn encouraged their work. Mahler's music drew heavily on Bach, Beethoven and Wagner (all three having more influence, most likely, than Bruckner, who is most consistently cited as being Mahler's main influence.)