After completing initial studies in piano, Gustav Mahler was admitted to the Vienna State Conservatory, rated on entrance as a “born musician.” At the age of twenty, he composed his first major work, Das Klagende Lied, and launched his career as a conductor at Bad Hall, near Linz. As Kappelmeister for the Prague opera, he conducted performances of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in 1885, thereby securing his solid reputation as a musician. With the weight of personal troubles heavily upon him, Mahler spent the years between 1880 and 1888 writing the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and his first symphony, which failed to captivate audiences at its 1889 premiere in Budapest.
Three years later, he accepted a position as principal conductor of the Hambourg opera, which he held for the next six years. During this period, from his retreat at Atersee near Salzburg, Mahler composed his second and third symphonies, as well as most of the Wunderhorn Lieder. With the help of Johannes Brahms, he was appointed director of the Vienna opera, and later mounted Tristan und Isolde (1903), Fidelio (1904), Don Giovanni (1905), and Le Nozze di Figaro (1906) with great success. But his true personal accomplishment came in 1901, with his marriage to Alma Schindler, and his befriending of Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander von Zemlinski, and secessionist painters Gustav Klimt and Karl Moll.
Between 1901 and 1910, he composed his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh symphonies. This period of artistic fruition was, nonetheless, also one of great sadness, brought on by various racially-motivated attacks on his music, and the tragic death of his daughter in 1907. He left Vienna for the United States the same year, returning to Tyrol to work on Das Lied von der Erde, the ninth symphony, and fragments of the tenth. In all, Mahler remained in New York some two years. However, in the course of a tour, he was forced to abandon his second season with the city’s Philharmonic for health reasons. Knowing his days were numbered, Mahler returned to Europe, stopping first in Paris, and eventually reaching Vienna where he died at the age of 51 years.