Short biography: Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 as the son of the innkeeper Bernhard Mahler and his wife Marie (born Hermann) in Kalischt (Bohemia). His musical talent was recognized early on. Gustav himself gave piano lessons at the age of 6 and composed pieces that have not survived. In 1875 Mahler began studying music at the Vienna Conservatory. His career unfolded in several phases: music and choir director at the royal theater in Kassel, opera conductor at the German state theater in Prague and at the city theater in Leipzig, director of the royal Opera House Budapest, conductor at the Hamburg city theater, conductor, and later artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera. Here he tried to realize his ideas for a reform, while also conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1907, Mahler resigned as director of the Vienna Court Opera due to family problems and frequent anti-semitic attacks. In his words: "As things are now in the world, my Jewishness prevents me from entering any court theater. Neither Vienna, nor Berlin, nor Dresden, nor Munich is open to me. The same wind is blowing everywhere." With that, he accepted a position as guest conductor with the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra in New York. It was only during the summer months that Gustav Mahler composed in his famous composing huts in Maiernigg, Attersee, and Toblach. Mahler was married to Alma Schindler, who was likewise a composer, writer, intellectual, and socialite. On May 18, 1911, Gustav Mahler died of bacterial endocarditis in Vienna.
Recollections by Mahler's contemporaries
Natalie Bauer-Lechner (1858-1921, violist and longtime confidante of Gustav Mahler) described Gustav Mahler in 1923 as follows:
"Mahler, who had an average height, a seemingly delicate frame, was light and of slender build. But some more powerful might envy his exceptional and suppleness. For example, he displayed great skill and endurance in athletics; he was an excellent swimmer, cyclist and climber.
His small brown eyes were fantastically vibrant and fiery. I can well believe that a poor devil of a player or a singer might be ready to sink through the floor when Mahler turned his keen gaze on him.
I must not fail to mention a peculiarity in the shape of his head: the straight line from the back of the head to the nape of the neck, reminiscent of an otter's head. Imperious was the hooked nose with its finely sensitive nostrils and the energetic, fairly wide and tight-fitting mouth that hide a row of irregular but healthy snow-white teeth. However, the delicate, rather thin lips were intended to indicate a lack of sensuality.
Mahler, whose outward appearance gave so much cause for criticism, responded to the allegations: "I cannot lead an aesthetic life; my personality and temperament are otherwise inclined. And if I were not what I am, I could not write the symphonies.”
He was extremely forgetful and absent because he was busy and distracted inside. Once he drank black coffee at a party. Without thinking, he stirred the cup with his cigarette instead of his spoon and then, imagining he had smoke in his mouth, blew coffee across the table straight into his hostess' face!
Needless to say, the cleanliness of his dress left everything to be desired. His boot straps were always sticking up or a bit of shoelace was hanging out. If he went out in the morning without being looked at, he often came back at noon with white marks of tooth powder or shaving soap on his mouth or cheeks.
Most notable about Mahler was his gait. It drew attention everywhere—even the kids made fun of it. As he stomped along, he twitched with every step he took, impatient like a stepping horse or a blind man feeling his way. When he was engaged in lively conversation with someone, he grabbed his hand or lapel and forced him to stand his ground. Meanwhile, he himself, getting more and more agitated, would stamp his feet on the ground like a wild boar."