Gustav Mahler’s spectacular career as kapellmeister took the son of a Bohemian liqueur manufacturer from a number of low- and middle-ranking positions to the Court Opera in Vienna (whose artistic direction he held for a decade) and ultimately to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mahler’s own compositions, on the other hand, were initially met with scepticism among colleagues and audiences, and it was only in his penultimate year that the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”, gave him an unqualified success.
Nevertheless, it took almost half a century for Mahler’s work to fully assert itself among the general public. In its elegiac and nostalgic passages, his music articulates a longing for the recently ended 19th century, while in its fractures and grotesque escalations it hints at approaching events in the age of world wars and humanitarian catastrophes. There is no question that Mahler’s rank as a great composer of symphonies and songs, which interlock in his work in an inimitable way, is no longer in doubt. Even in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker, who Gustav Mahler himself conducted on several occasions, the peculiarly delayed reception of his music is evident. Wilhelm Furtwängler kept his distance, and Herbert von Karajan found his way to his music only in his later years. However, for Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle and Kirill Petrenko – his successors as chief conductor of the orchestra – Mahler’s music is central to their artistic work.