What was Mahler’s cost of greatness?

Ahead of our Faust: the Life of a Composer concert on 25 March 2020 at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall,  we're taking a look at the cost of greatness. The music in this concert has been inspired by Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus: the Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend, in which a man enters a Faustian pact by deliberately contracting syphilis to achieve artistic greatness. We are performing Mahler's devastating Kindertotenlieder in this concert. And Mahler certainly had his fair share of set-backs before he achieved 'true greatness'.
  1. Nowadays, Mahler’s music is widely listened to and he has a big fan base. However, his music only really gained widespread popularity after his death and after a time of relative neglect. So, poor Gustav never got to see the full extent of how much people would eventually love his work…

 

  1. Mahler’s output of works is fairly limited in comparison to some other composers. This is because he spent so much of his time earning a living as a conductor and therefore wasn’t able to spend as much time as he would have liked composing. Without his conducting job, Mahler would have struggled financially.

 

  1. Coming from a Jewish background, Mahler faced a horrible amount of anti-Semitic hatred throughout his life. Under the notorious rule of Hitler, Mahler’s music was banned in much of Europe during the Nazi era and was cruelly branded as ‘degenerate’.

 

  1. The composer was no stranger to the effects of death, especially from an early age when eight of his siblings died during his childhood. Mahler’s traumatic experiences allowed him to pour emotion into works such as his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). While Mahler had not personally experienced the death of one of his own when he wrote this song-cycle, his wife Alma berated the composer for tempting fate. In a cruel twist of fate, Mahler’s eldest daughter, Maria, fatally fell at the hands of scarlet fever four years after he completed Kindertotenlieder and the composer suffered from an irrational feeling of guilt and despair from then on.

 

  1. It was not only death that haunted Mahler. He was sent into a jealous rage when he discovered his wife was having an affair with the young architect, Walter Gropius. Nevertheless, this emotional turmoil fed into the composition of his last, unfinished symphony. Every cloud…

 

Hear Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and other works by Wagner, Pfitzner and more on Wednesday 25 March in Faust: the Life of a Composer.