Great Masters: Mahler—His Life and Music

Course No. 756
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 756
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Course Overview

"I am thrice homeless, as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world—everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." Thus spoke Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), composer, conductor, symphonist. More than many other composers, Gustav Mahler's works are highly personal expressions of his inner world, a world characterized by an overwhelming alienation and loneliness.

Some of this feeling can be attributed to Mahler's Jewish heritage and his critics' response to it. Part of his isolation began in childhood, a reaction to a brutal father and the loss of eight siblings, including his beloved brother Ernst.

The tensions created by the mix of Czech, Germanic, and Jewish cultures Mahler was raised in is one of the elements that makes his work so striking and powerful.

Incredibly, Mahler was able to unite the diversity of his world and his often tortured emotional makeup into rich and original music.

The First Generation of Expressionism

This course offers a biographical and musical study of Mahler, who, along with being a composer, was the greatest opera conductor of his time.

Mahler was a titan of post-Romantic musical history. His symphonies are vast musical repositories of his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual expression. His work constitutes the first generation of Expressionism, the early 20th-century art movement that celebrates inner reality as the only reality.

Unlike other Expressionist composers, however, Mahler used the musical language of the 19th century to explore expressive themes very "20th century" in their nature.

These lectures on Mahler bring to life this complex, anxiety-bound visionary, whose continual search for perfection and the answers to life's mysteries is profoundly reflected in his symphonies and songs. These lectures also include more than a dozen excerpts from Mahler's symphonies and other works.

Passion Tempered by Artistic Control

"I might suggest that we find Mahler's music so unbelievably moving today because of its angst. Its uncontrollable extroversion, optimism, and pessimism; its sheer power and often schizophrenic emotional progressions are even more relevant to us than to the music's original audience," states Professor Robert Greenberg.

"Mahler's music is a mixture of brilliant, rich, irregularly changing harmonies; of extraordinary, often grotesque, juxtapositions of moods: tragedy, humor, farce, irony; constant, almost obsessive melodic activity; sudden, unexpected explosions of passion or rage that disappear as quickly as they come; strutting march music heard back-to-back with Viennese love music; and a pure, crystalline, overwhelming passion untempered by the 'civilizing' effect of artistic control and manipulation."

Mahler's Inner Landscape

As a child, Mahler built a fantasy world to retreat to as a defense against abuse and loneliness. This ability to retreat reveals itself in the highly personal inner landscapes of Mahler's music. From the time he was quite young, he was entranced by music and became devoted to the piano from about the age of five.

From the beginning of his compositional career to its end, from Songs of a Wayfarer (1885) to The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde) (1909), Mahler's music is about himself, the lonely, isolated individual. He used his compositions as an outlet, a coping tool. Through his music, Mahler coped with some of the deepest issues of life:

  • Romantic rejection (Songs of a Wayfarer, 1885)
  • The struggle between hope and despair (Symphony no. 1, 1888)
  • Questions raised by death and redemption (Symphony no. 2, 1894)
  • Relationships between an individual and nature (Symphony no. 3, 1896)
  • The death of children (Kindertotenlieder, 1904)
  • Grief (Symphony no. 5, 1902).

He Never Heard His Masterpiece Performed

In later life, the death of Mahler's elder daughter, Maria, in 1907—along with his resignation from the Royal Viennese Opera and the diagnosis of heart disease—was the beginning of the end for him. Maria, Mahler's favorite, lingered for two weeks. The pain of her illness was almost unbearable for him. Apparently, Mahler never spoke to anyone about the death of his daughter. He even forbade his wife from wearing mourning clothes.

However, in 1908, Mahler threw himself into composing Das Lied von der Erde as his only solace from the grief of his daughter's death. Das Lied von der Erde is a symphonic song cycle, consisting of six songs. Mahler arranged the songs to create a progressive drama about loss, grief, memory, disintegration, and, ultimately, transfiguration.

Das Lied von der Erde tells—from an idealized past in which all things are possible, back to the deadened emotions of the present, and beyond—the bittersweet realization that although life is reborn endlessly, there is no rebirth for the individual.

This song cycle doesn't really end. It expires. It hangs on a dissonance that never resolves. All pain is gone, all individuality is lost, and we are left with a feeling of awesome, profound acceptance and resignation to the inevitable.

Das Lied von der Erde is considered one of Mahler's great masterpieces, but he did not live to hear it performed. It was premiered seven months after his death.

Not a Composer of Operas, but a Brilliant Conductor of Them

Although we know him for his compositions, Mahler first made a name for himself first as a conductor. He started out conducting operettas and worked his way up to conducting at the Royal Vienna Opera, the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic.

His performances were almost magical for his audiences and he ultimately achieved critical acclaim as one of the greatest conductors in musical history.

His conducting career was nevertheless marked by difficulties. He tyrannized the performers and fought with theater management. The anti-Semitic press—particularly in Vienna—continued to attack him with ferocity.

And, Mahler, the greatest opera conductor of his time—perhaps the greatest of all time—wrote no operas.

"His symphonies are his operas," says Professor Greenberg. "They are his all-inclusive art works; his universal statements about life, death, love, redemption, religion, God, nature, resignation, and the human condition in all its glory and folly."

Experience Music that Defines Its Creator

"As you follow these lectures, you'll find yourself using not only the facts you learn but your own powers of imagination, intuition, and instinct to uncover this music's inner workings," says Professor Greenberg.

"You will find Mahler's symphonies are unique. No other body of work, by any composer, traverses such expressive range, so brilliantly combines absolute orchestral/symphonic music with vocal music, so clearly and profoundly define their creator, and are so honestly and deeply felt."

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Das klagende Lied (1878)
Symphony no. 1 (1888)
St. Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fishes, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1893)
Symphony no. 2 (1894)
Songs of a Wayfarer, no. 2: Ging heut` Morgen übers Feld (1884; orchestrated 1896)
Symphony no. 3 (1896)
Symphony no. 4 (1900)
Symphony no. 5 (1902)
Symphony no. 6 (1904)
Symphony no. 7 (1905)
Symphony no. 8 (1907)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909)
Symphony no. 9 (1910)

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8 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction and Childhood
    From the time he was quite young, Mahler was entranced by music and became devoted to the piano from about the age of five. One of the most significant aspects of his life was his sense of alienation, brought on largely by his Jewish heritage. Tensions created by the Czech, Germanic, and Jewish culture of which Mahler was a part may be one of the elements that makes his work so striking and fascinating. x
  • 2
    Mahler the Conductor
    Mahler's early life was deeply affected by the death of his brother and influenced by the work of Richard Wagner. He studied, composed, and became a conductor at the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest. x
  • 3
    Early Songs and Symphony No. 1
    Mahler's years in Budapest were quite successful. He composed many lieder, German romantic songs. In 1887, Mahler discovered a poetic anthology, Des knaben Wunderhorn, or The Youth's Magic Horn, which became one of his greatest inspirations. Later that year he began composing his Symphony no. 1, which focuses on the struggle between hope and despair. x
  • 4
    The Wunderhorn Symphonies
    In 1893 Mahler returned to composing, beginning with Symphony no. 2, the first of the so-called Wunderhorn symphonies. Symphony no. 3, written almost immediately after the second, is a natural companion piece. The Symphony no. 4 is Mahler's "classical" symphony, addressing a child's innocent view of life and heaven without the intervening step of death. x
  • 5
    Alma and Vienna
    In November of 1901, Mahler met Alma Schindler, and in March of the following year, the two were married. His appointment as music director in 1897 at the Vienna Opera created a firestorm in the press, but his debut was a triumph. He also instituted reforms at the opera, and his first few years there were phenomenally successful. x
  • 6
    Family Life and Symphony No. 5
    Mahler experienced the best years of his life from 1902 to 1907. He and Alma had started a family and built a summerhouse where Mahler could compose. In 1902, Mahler completed his Symphony no. 5, a superb example of the Expressionist art movement. Mahler befriended Arnold Schönberg, one of the most well-known Expressionist composers of the early 20th century. x
  • 7
    Symphony No. 6, and Das Lied von der Erde
    Three events shattered the Mahlers' lives in 1907: his resignation from the Royal Vienna Opera, the death of their elder daughter, and the diagnosis of his heart disease. In 1908, Mahler threw himself into composing Das Lied von der Erde as an attempt to find solace from the grief of his daughter's death. The work is a symphonic song cycle about loss, grief, memory, disintegration, and transfiguration. x
  • 8
    Das Lied, Final Symphonies, and the End
    Mahler next completed Symphony no. 9, which is filled with contemplation of his own mortality. Symphony no. 10 was left incomplete at his death. During this time, Mahler was working in New York and spending the off seasons in Europe. He died in Vienna in 1911; according to Alma his last word was: "Mozart!" x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Great Masters: Mahler—His Life and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 41.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Heights and the Depths Achingly beautiful. Masterfully told. Mahler suffered and showed us how it felt, so be careful not to listen to the first two lectures when you are depressed. According to Schachtel in his Metamorphosis, artists suffer emotionally; Science keeps us on a more even keel. I remember going to the Vienna Funkhaus to hear Mahler's Fourth Symphony. I was 27 and noticed the power of the music, but not the pain. Now I'm 81 and was struck by the depths of the manic-depressive emotion in this wonderful look into Mahler's life and work.
Date published: 2019-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another fascinating series of lectures This series on Mahler was included in the package of Great Master composers that I purchased. As I have listened to each of the biographies of the 10 composers who were included in this package, I have fallen in love with that composer to the exclusion of the others. When I listened to Schuman's bio, I thought what a great, tortured soul; I loved him, I loved his music. I was convinced I wouldn't like that Liszt guy...only to find quite to the contrary. In the end I have ended up loving and appreciating each of these masters. Professor Greenberg loves his subject matter and it shows as he makes you love it as well. Now I am finishing up Mahler and, as with the previous 7 (I have been listening to them in chronological order), I will really miss this man, Herr Mahler. I keep listening to his symphony #1 over and over. As Professor G is pretty even-handed in describing his subjects' complexities, their positives and negatives, I have been able to understand their human side as well as their genius natures. I would like to thank Dr. Greenberg for his wonderful, enthusiastic and entertaining presentations. I am sure I will return to these lectures again as they are so dense I have much left to learn and re-learn. I am quite a novice at classical music and Dr. G has greatly enriched my appreciation of this genre. I have even visited the symphony a couple times for the first time in my life. I so much appreciate this, even at my age, 65, there is so much still in life to discover and appreciate. Thank you
Date published: 2019-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it Loved it, enjoyed it and learned from it. What more can I ask? Well, in this time and age, some short videos would make it even more atractive. Example: seeing the orchestra and choruses fro Mahler's 8th Symphomy will make even clearer the Symphony of a thousqand nickname.
Date published: 2019-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic presentation! Dr. Greenberg gives a highly spirited series of lectures on this influential master. Mahler's complex personality and his complex music are analyzed in a directly understandable overview. Much deeper appreciation of this profound composer and conductor. The only improvement? Recordings of music conducted by Mahler himself!
Date published: 2019-01-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mahler and (some) Music I am not as familiar with Mahler’s music as I am with many of the “Great Masters” that Dr. Greenberg presents. As the course progressed, I was amazed that I knew far more about the music than the man. Professor Greenberg has done a fine job in sketching out the difficult journey from childhood through adulthood to the last years of a very difficult man. So much was new to me about Mahler. His difficult childhood, failed love affairs, his marriage to a much younger woman, his ill treatment of her (and of many, perhaps most others) and more. All of this was fascinating, but not so much as how his life’s issues found their way into his music. Professor Greenberg delivers all of this with his usual panache and low-brow humor. All to the good. But for me there are cons. And in this course about a man and his music, the music comes up short. To be sure, I normally pass over reviews that wish the lecturer had included more music, as I normally find that the courses include enough music to illustrate the point being made (easy enough to listen to complete pieces on my own). Naturally a course on opera will have more (and more lengthy) examples, than, for example a biography on Mozart. And this is a course about the life of Mahler. Still neither lecture 2 nor lecture 5 contain any music at all. To be fair, lecture 2 focuses on Mahler as a conductor and number 5 discusses how he met and won his wife, as well as more conducting gigs. And many of the other lectures contain enough musical excerpts to satisfy my expectations. I am pretty sure Professor Greenberg is knowledgeable and smart enough to work in one or two samples in those two lectures. Enough carping—a fine course and I learned a lot.
Date published: 2017-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My favorite of the Great Master Series! No clearly discernable indications were noted in this course, but I wonder if Greenberg didn't consider Mahler as one of his personal favorites as composer people go. Greenberg is knowledgeable and energetic/entertaining as usual. Having watched these lectures, I am left with a much greater interest in Mahler and his music. I also wonder about Mahler's heart valve diagnosis in a context of what is known today about heart disease. Hey Doc, how about another opinion!
Date published: 2017-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine Prof. Greenberg is the best. I have many of his recordings.
Date published: 2017-05-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Music & Life Prof. Robert Greenberg's presentation is lively, enthusiastic and engaging. [and at times entertaining] This course is full of facts about Mahler's life [as well as his closest family and friends]. The musical analysis is insightful and revealing. Prof. Greenberg does an excellent job demonstrating how the music and the man influenced or drove each other to the extremes of emotions and creative output. The musical examples are wonderful. I went in with a 'curiosity' about a few of Mahler's symphonies and came away with a wide-eyed appreciation for the music, the man, the mind, the musical times of all his symphonies as well as lieder.
Date published: 2016-07-28
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