In 1907, composer Gustav Mahler was diagnosed with an infection of the inner lining of the heart. He died four years later, 100 years ago last month, at the age of fifty. The Mahler death centennial is being commemorated throughout 2011 across the music world, including at this week’s season-finale concerts of the CSO.
Death was a constant companion to Mahler throughout his short life. The tavern owned by his father was adjacent to a funeral parlor and marches and dirges were his childhood aural wallpaper. In addition to the constant funeral processions in and out of the compound which Mahler’s music would often go on to emulate, Mahler lost eight of his fourteen siblings before reaching adulthood.
When Mahler set to work on the song cycle “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) set to haunting poems of Friedrich Rückert, his oldest daughter died in what his wife Alma took as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This capped a series of unrelenting tragedies for the composer that included the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition which actually drove Mahler to work harder rather than rest, in order to finish as much work as possible before his untimely demise.
Mahler composed the orchestral song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) after his mammoth Eighth Symphony (“of a Thousand”) and subtitled the work a symphony. However, given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he superstitiously refused to place that ominous number—or any number—on the work and felt that he could somehow cheat fate as a result. Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete. Read the rest of this entry »