Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is an Austrian composer of Czech origin with a well recognized place in the history of music. Although his ability to compose was questioned by his rivals during his life, and later prohibited, he is considered one of the leading composers of his time. Having fourteen children, Mahler's father had to work very hard to maintain his family. He was often aggressive and authoritative, especially towards his mother who suffered a lot and this left signs on young Mahler's personality. 1 Five of thirteen brothers and sisters survived childhood. Gustav also became aggressive and needed to obtrude himself, probably like his father. As a Jew he often felt neglected and discriminated, so this defence mechanism allowed him to manage in a harsh competitive environment, but also caused personal dissatisfaction, confrontations with his colleagues and family problems later in his life.2
As a child he was very interested in music. When he discovered his grandparent's piano and demonstrated his will and talent to his parents, they decided to nurture his gift. His school reports did not describe him as very keen for studying, and he was never among the top students of his class, but he succeeded in acquiring a place at the Vienna Conservatory when he was 15. 3 There he met Hugo Wolf who was his very good friend and a person of great influence on him for some time. Wolf was later expelled from the Conservatory, but they maintained their relationship till mature age.2,4 During his education he developed a passion for philosophy, especially for works of and . When he was 20 years old, he started conducting. It was common for young conductors of that time to start their career in a smaller community, like Ljubljana (where he stayed for 2 years from 1881 to 1882) and then gradually advance. Dedicated work helped him on his way to the top. He moved from Ljubljana to Olomuc, then Kassel, Prague and Leipzig and finally to Budapest and Hamburg.3
In 1897 he became head of the Vienna Court Opera that flourished under his supervision. Stories about »him and every young girl that aspires to sing in the opera « were more common as his influence rose. 3 He used to teach the 20 years younger daughter of a known painter, Alma Schindler, composition. After initial disagreement, they started to date. Although their relationship was not approved either by Mahler's or by girl's parents, they had to marry as soon as she got pregnant. Alma was an independent, emancipated woman, very beautiful and flirtatious. Gustav was moody and devoted to his work. He needed to be authoritative like his father and insisted that she end her music studies and support his music career. He cared the most about her looks and her individualism had to drown in his ambitions. In 1902 their first daughter was born and named after his mother - Anna Maria and soon thereafter their second daughter Anna was born.
The public loved his work but colleagues found him hard to work with because of his need to be in control of the situation. He was often described as a dictator that insisted on rigorous orchestra training and many found his methods exaggerated. This exaggeration was present in his private life too. He used to swim a lot and live a very healthy life but on the other hand he was a heavy smoker and ate irregularly. 3 Mahler had health problems with haemorrhoids and migraine. 5 He was prone to purulent anginas form his early days. 6-8 Streptococcal tonsilar infections were often followed with sepsis. Rheumatic fever developed very soon and he suffered from inflamed joints. His heart progressively weakened. Heart troubles were of nervous origin at first, but soon the organic disease of heart valves developed. In stressful times his condition exacerbated and he was forced to slow down and pause his work.6
At the time of his Vienna engagement, the rising anti-Semitism in the Austrian society, open antagonism by his professional competitors and his orchestra's dissatisfaction with his methods created a very hard atmosphere for him. …