Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia, on July 7, 1860. At the time, Bohemia (later to form a major component of Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic) was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then enduring its final crumbling decades, and the region where Mahler spent his youth was strongly associate with the Czech independence movement. However, Mahler also was a Jew, and Jews in the region were associated by ethnic Czechs with Germans. Mahler famous quote is: "I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed." Then add to that the fact that the public considered Mahler to be a gifted conductor with a habit of writing over-long symphonies, while Mahler considered himself to a composer forced to spend most of his year conducting.
Mahler is known for the length, depth, and painful emotions of his works. He loved nature and life and, based on early childhood experiences, feared death (family deaths, a suicide, and a brutal rape he witnessed). This duality appears in almost all his compositions, especially in the Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Deaths of Children"), which are actually about the loss of an innocent view of life.
Mahler's orchestral music is clear, complex, and full of musical imagery, from the heavenly to the banal (the family lived near a military barracks, so march tunes sometimes appear; an argument was associated with the sound of a hurdy-gurdy outside the window). The "program" in the incredible symphonies is therefore that of personal tragedy and hope projected onto a universal scale.
Mahler was one of the most important and influential conductors of the period. Although Mahler had originally studied piano and composition, he was not a virtuoso pianist and his student and youthful works were already too forward looking for him to win the conservative judged composition contests of the time. As a result, Mahler was forced into a conducting career.
Mahler's early career was spent at a serious of regional opera houses (Hall in 1880, Laibach in 1881, Olmutz in 1882, Kassel in 1883, Prague in 1885, Liepzig in 1886-8, Budapest from 1886-8, and Hamburg from 1891-7), a normal career path, until he arrived as head of the Vienna Opera in 1897. Mahler ended some of the more slovenly performance practices of the past; he removed significant cuts that had been "traditionally" made in performances of Wagner's operas, significantly upgraded the expected level of performance for both vocalists and instrumentalists, expanded the repertoire and introduced many new works.
He also ruled with an iron fist, helping create the image of conductor as dictator. This was not, however, the result of simple ego, but rather of Mahler's artistic honesty and desire. When members of the opera orchestra complained that one or another lazy practice was tradition, Mahler's favorite reply was that...