Βοrn in 1860, Mahler grew up about halfway between Prague and Brno, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a distiller and innkeeper, and Mahler grew up loving the sound of village bands and other popular music. His talent was recognized early. At four, he could play on the accordion folk songs he heard Czech servants singing. At six he composed a polka that had a funeral march as an introduction, a foretaste of incongruities to come. Synagogue chants and other Jewish music quite probably left a mark too, though specific influences are elusive. Adorno argued that “what is Jewish in Mahler does not participate directly in the folk element, but speaks through all its mediation as an intellectual voice”—a sense of instability and otherness permeating the work.
At fifteen, Mahler went to Vienna, entering the conservatory—his teachers included Bruckner—and taking an eclectic variety of courses at the university. Like just about every other young man of the era, he read Schopenhauer, became obsessed with Wagner, and thought he might become a poet. His friends included the composer Hugo Wolf but the pair fell out over an opera they both wanted to write. Another friend was Hans Rott, a composer who is one of the great what-ifs of music history. He died insane at twenty-six—he had tuberculosis and probably syphilis—leaving a single remarkably Mahlerian symphony that predates all of Mahler’s and that contains several themes that later appeared in Mahler’s Second Symphony.
As a student, Mahler was known mostly as a song composer. Friends called him “another Schubert.” But his ambitions went beyond small forms and he looked for ways to turn this talent to greater account. It’s no accident that songs provide fodder for his first four symphonies—that is, for the first two decades of his composing career. The First Symphony is largely built around the early song cycle Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and songs constitute entire movements of the next three symphonies.
Given Mahler’s interest in narrative and in vocal writing, it’s surprising that he never attempted an opera—the more so since opera became the focus of his conducting career. In his mid-thirties, with three symphonies written, he told a friend that “we are now standing—I am sure of it—at the great crossroads that will soon separate forever the two diverging paths of symphonic and dramatic music.” His ambition, he explained, was to enrich symphonies with the innovations of Wagner, just as Wagner had enriched opera with “the means of expression of symphonic music.”
But this is a retrospective rationalization, and the early years reveal him struggling to decide what combination of the vocal and symphonic would suit him best. In its astounding intensity the third song of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen is effectively a Wagner opera condensed into three short minutes. Parts of the first two symphonies were performed as tone poems and, before them, his first piece of note was a dramatic cantata, Das Klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation), completed when he was twenty. The cantata, a revenge story with a fairy-tale setting, is full of undigested influences but extremely impressive. Mahler’s voice is already completely distinctive—with pulverizing climaxes, passages of otherworldly softness, and dizzying contrasts of earnestness and kitsch.
Pleased with Das Klagende Lied, Mahler entered it for a prestigious award presented by Vienna’s leading music association. The jury was conservative—Brahms was a member—and the piece didn’t win. Mahler took the setback better than Rott had done in the same circumstances a year before; Rott had been committed to an asylum after brandishing a gun on a train and saying that Brahms had packed the carriages with dynamite. Still, Mahler was deeply marked by the failure and later claimed that, had he won, “my whole life would have taken a different turn.” Winning, he believed, might have let him devote himself exclusively to composing instead of to conducting. This isn’t strictly true. Mahler had embarked on his conducting path before the great disappointment; after years as an impoverished student, he knew he had to earn a living. But the sense of a missed opportunity haunted him.
Mahler began his conducting career in a series of provincial opera houses. The musicians were so bad that he preferred to conduct music he disliked, rather than defile masterworks. But his perfectionism got results and he quickly progressed to larger cities—Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg. His ambition was the directorship of the Vienna State Opera, the most important musical post in Europe. He eventually got this job in 1897 and stayed for a decade amid ever-escalating political and administrative squabbles. (Taking up the post required baptism, which doesn’t particularly seem to have bothered him.)