July 7 marks the birthday of one of the giants of the classical music world, Gustav Mahler. More than any other composer, Mahler understood the orchestra, most musicologists contend, and focused his creative energies in writing for that realm. He also was revered as a conductor. “Mahler was the greatest performing musician I ever met, without any exception," another legendary maestro, Bruno Walter, once observed.
Mahler (1860-1911) lived only a single decade in the 20th century, and his music clearly speaks the language of 19th-century romanticism. But his symphonies transcend historical periods. They appeal to us in the 21st century because they are so unabashedly ambitious. His sprawling canvases portray the sum of human experience: abandonment, despair, joy and redemption — “the whole world,” as the composer often said.
To celebrate Mahler's enduring legacy, here some pertinent facts and a playlist featuring memorable CSO performances of his works.
A son of summer: Mahler composed only in the summer months and conducted the rest of the year. He once told a visitor to his summer cottage, “Don’t bother looking at the view, I have already composed it.”
His bond to the CSO: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a special connection to Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, a five-movement work composed in 1904-05. The orchestra gave the U.S. premiere under music director Frederick Stock in 1921.
Belated recognition: During his life, Mahler was known primarily as a conductor. His works were rediscovered after World War II, after being shunned by the Nazi regime.
His time in New York: Mahler was briefly a director of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society of New York (forerunner of the New York Philharmonic) at the turn of the 20th century.
A man of tragedy: He dealt with great sorrow throughout his life. Eight of his 14 siblings did not live into adulthood. He suffered from depression and poor health. He stated that the hammer blows of his Sixth Symphony reflect the three major tragedies of his personal life: his wife Alma’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius, the death of his young daughter and the discovery of his heart ailment.