Gustav Mahler - Famous Composers in History

A stamp from China showing Gustav Mahler. Editorial credit: Joinmepic /
A stamp from China showing Gustav Mahler. Editorial credit: Joinmepic /

Gustav Mahler was an Austrian-Jewish composer of the late romantic era and one of the leading conductors of his time. He was born on July 7, 1860, in Bohemia which was part of Austrian Empire at the time. He displayed his musical talents at a young age and in 1878 after graduating from Vienna Conservatory, he went on to conduct in opera houses in Europe. He was later appointed as director of Vienna Court Opera in 1897. In his late years, he was a director of New York Philharmonic and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.Mahler composed ten symphonies and many songs with orchestra. He died at the age of 51 in Vienna Austria.

Early Life

Mahler and his siblings spent their lives in the then Austrian empire in Jihlava, the present-day Czech Republic, where their parents relocated to when they were young. Discovering his talent at a tender age, Gustav’s parents took him for piano lessons when he was barely six years old. Gustav learned the piano so quickly that he staged his first performance at the age of ten. Realizing that he was not as good in school as he was in piano, his parents took him to Vienna Conservatory where he enrolled in music and piano classes. When he was fifteen years old, Gustav attended Vienna University to study History, Philosophy, and Music.While at the University, Mahler was also teaching music. His first attempt was the composition of Das klagende Lied which he presented in competitions although it never won a price.


Mahler began his career in 1880 working as a conductor at a summer theatre at Band Hall and in the subsequent years, he was engaged in the larger opera house in Europe starting in Ljubljana in 1881, the following year he was engaged in Olomouc and Vienna in 1883. The same year he was working in Kassel, in 1885 he was working in Prague and Leipzig in 1886. In 1887 he replaced Arthur Nikisch who was ill to conduct Wagner’ Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he established himself as a respected conductor.In 1897, Mahler was 37 years old, and he was offered the job as a director of Vienna Opera. It was the most prestigious position in music in the whole of Austrian Empire, it was an imperial position, and according to the Austro-Hungarian laws, such a position could not be occupied by a Jew. However, Mahler had earlier converted to Roman Catholicism

Major Contributions

During the ten years that Mahler spent at Vienna Opera, he transformed the repertoire of the institution and significantly raised its artistic standards. Mahler composed mainly symphonies as opposed to operas, and he had ten symphonies, and each was highly emotional. He also composed many song cycles that had folk influences. Most of his works were associated in part to Romanticism movement, which focused on death and afterlife.


Mahler was a Jew and Jews at the time were facing discrimination in Europe. The Austro-Hungarian laws did not allow Jews to hold imperial positions within the empire; however, Mahler had converted to Roman Catholic. Gustav Mahler’s first born daughter died, which struck a big blow to his work. Besides, he was also diagnosed with a heart condition when he was in New York, a condition that doctors described as infective endocarditis. The illness forced him to limit exercising, and he was to use a pedometer to count his steps. His obstinacy at the opera in artistic issues created enemies from different quarters, and he became a target of anti-Semitic attacks from some of the press. He resigned in 1907 from the Opera in Vienna which came as a surprise to many.

Legacy and Death

Mahler had taken a position as the director of Metropolitan Opera of New York in January 1908 and the following year he was conducting for New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He returned to Vienna and died on May 18th, 1911 before he had completed his 10th symphony. Now he is considered the pioneer of the progressive tonality as a composition technique of the 20th Century. His work has been regarded as an inspiration for other composers like Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, and Arnold Schoenberg.

Gustav Mahler - Famous Composers in History

RankPeople in History
1Early Life
3Major Contributions
5Death and Legacy

More in Society