10 of Mahler’s most earth-shattering pieces of music

29 November 2023, 20:35 | Updated: 3 December 2023, 19:33

The 10 best pieces of music by German composer Gustav Mahler.
The 10 best pieces of music by German composer Gustav Mahler. Picture: Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

From the mighty ‘Resurrection’ Symphony to tender songs of heartbreak, here are the 10 best pieces of music by German composer Gustav Mahler.

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Born in Bohemia in July 1860, Gustav Mahler was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of his time.

From humble beginnings to holiday villas, Mahler achieved great success in his lifetime with monumental symphonies and beautifully serene lieder, or German songs.

A life thrown from great whirlwind romances to devastating tragedies, Mahler was an intensely emotional person and poured all that he felt into his music.

The result is a heady concoction of orchestral and chamber masterworks that have the power to move like very few others.

Almost lost to the annals of history after being banned by the Nazi party, owing to his Jewish heritage, Mahler’s music has experienced a great resurrection of its own thanks in part to the dedication of Leonard Bernstein to performing and sharing the composer’s works.

Here are his all-time 10 greatest pieces of music...

Read more: Did Mozart and Mahler have ADHD? Experts say it’s possible...

  1. Symphony No.4 (1899-1900)

    Around the turn of the century, Mahler had become famous for the huge sound and scale of his symphonic works. His Fourth Symphony set a different sort of course. It didn’t even include any trombones.

    Mahler still creates a work of enormous weight, but with a new sense of light and colour, too. Mahler used a child’s vision of heaven, the song ‘The Heavenly Life’ as the inspiration behind the entire work. Fragments of its melody are heard throughout the work, until the final movement, where a soprano joins to sing of this vision in full.

    Mahler: 4. Sinfonie ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Mojca Erdmann ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

  2. Symphony No.5 (1901-1902)

    Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is undoubtedly his most famous work, thanks to its serene fourth movement, the ‘Adagietto’, written as a love letter to his beloved wife Alma. It was written in the summers of 1901 and 1902, during which time the composer experienced some of the greatest highs and lows of his lifetime.

    On the one hand, he was recovering from a major haemorrhage which almost killed him. On the other, he met, married, and welcomed his first child, with Alma Mahler. Nestled away in his tiny coastal composing hut, looking out over the calm blue waters and lofty pines of Lake Wörthersee in southern Austria, Mahler poured his emotions into five colossal and complex movements for his fifth symphony.

    Just have a listen to all the adoration and anguish in this masterpiece:

    Gustav Mahler - Adagietto | Leonard Bernstein (4K)

  3. Symphony No.6 (1903-1904)

    This ferocious work, nicknamed the ‘Tragic’ but composed during a relatively contented time of the composer’s life, features large woodwind and brass sections. But everyone is here for one instrument: the ‘Mahler hammer’.

    The opening movement is dominated by march-like themes, contrasted with a soaring melody which Alma personally claimed represented her. March themes continue into the scherzo, before beautiful slow movement offers a moment of rest. Finally a stonking finale arrives, featuring two mighty hammer blows – listen at around an hour and four minutes, and then at one hour and 19 minutes, below:

    Symphony No. 6 (complete) / Gustav Mahler / Jukka-Pekka Saraste / Oslo Philharmonic

  4. Symphony No.9 (1908-1909)

    Mahler’s ninth and final symphony is one of the most heart-breaking pieces of music ever written. A superstitious man, Mahler believed firmly in the so-called ‘curse of the ninth’, which had already ‘killed’ Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner. Adding to that trepidation a forced resignation from the Vienna State Opera, the recent death of his daughter, Maria, and a terminal heart defect diagnosis, Mahler managed the cards he had been dealt the best way he knew how: through music.

    Beginning with an unsteady rhythm that Bernstein compared to Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, the symphony then leads into a passage the composer said should be ‘like a funeral procession’, tolling bells and all. Mahler’s ninth is a battle between his melancholy and dry humour, as his sense of dread is interspersed with attempts at a more positive outlook.

    He ends with a final note, forebodingly marked ‘dying away’. And, in case you were wondering, Mahler’s superstition was proved correct. He died in May 1911, a year before its premiere, with a 10th symphony left unfinished forever.

    Read more: What is the Curse of the Ninth and does it really exist?

    Mahler - Symphony No. 9 - Abbado - Lucerne Festival Orchestra 2010

  5. Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)

    Das Lied von der Erde, ‘The Song of the Earth’ is a collection of six songs performed by solo tenor, alto, and orchestra, subtitled as a symphony. Bernstein even described the song cycle as Mahler’s “greatest symphony”. Written across the same period as his ninth, Mahler wrote to a friend: “With one stroke I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn.”

    By way of words, Mahler chose from Hans Bethge’s collection of rewritten classical Chinese poems. A common theme runs throughout the six poems, of the earth’s eternal beauty and the inevitable end of every human life. It’s this idea that closes the piece as Mahler contemplates the news he has been given. Possibly still in a state of denial, the composer wrote the last lines himself, ending on the poignant but fading repition of the words: “Forever, forever…”

    Mahler: Das lied von der erde | Simon Rattle

  6. Symphony No.8, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906)

    Mahler’s colossal eighth symphony cemented his status as one of the most ambitious and visionary composers of the late-Romantic era. It’s even known as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, due to the sheer scale and numbers of musicians it demands.

    In 1906, the composer claimed to be experiencing a bit of writer’s block, when he was overcome with the power of the ancient Latin hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’. He said, “On the threshold of my old workshop, the Spiritus Creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.” Within two months, this incredible symphony was with us.

    The Latin Hymn opens the symphony, in a blaze of choral light. The second half of the symphony sets the final passages from Goethe’s dramatic poem ‘Faust’ and features some of the composer’s most transcendent and inspired writing.

    MAHLER | Symphony no. 8 | Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra | Marc Albrecht | Concertgebouw

  7. Symphony No.1, ‘Titan’ (1887-1888)

    Mahler’s First Symphony has a truly exceptional opening: a seven-octave drone in A – from the double basses, though the strings, up to the heights of the first violins who produce a high harmonic. All sets up a mighty mammoth symphony, which he nicknamed ‘Titan’.

    The second movement is full of rollicking lyricism, as the composer sets a Viennese ländler (an old waltz form) to symphonic proportions. In the slow movement we reach peak Mahler, with a slow funeral march based on the nursery rhyme ‘Frère Jacques’, but in a haunting minor tonality. A frantic and frenzied finale brings to a close the epic that sets the tone for Mahler’s eight symphonies that were to come.

    Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado)

  8. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-1885)

    This is one of Mahler’s most hauntingly beautiful moments of music, written by the 24-year-old composer after his first real heartbreak. After a passionate whirlwind romance with the soprano Johanna Richter came to a disappointing end, the young composer turned to pen and poetry to express his sorrows. His texts became the words for a song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer).

    Through four songs, Mahler’s grief cycles through tender reflection, utter despair, agonising loss and tentative optimism. Following a truly gutting third movement in which Mahler compares his pain to that of a blade to the heart, comes a particularly special moment.

    ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ (The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved) describes the moment the intrepid adventurer reaches a peaceful resolution in his predicament. He leaves the place that has caused him so much pain to lie beneath a linden tree, which sheds its blossoms over him and brings him peace.

    Christian Gerhaher - Mahler - Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

  9. Symphony No.3 (1893-1896)

    Lasting well over an hour and a half, this incredible work is Mahler’s longest symphony, and one of the biggest, most expansive creations ever for orchestra. Yet, you could not change a single note.

    Scored for full symphony orchestra, contralto, women’s choir and boys choir, it all takes place over six extraordinary movements. The fourth movement and the hushed opening of the solo alto setting of ‘Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra is one of the most magical moments in all music.

    But that only helps set the scene for the deep beauty of the final movement, when it’s just the orchestra and the composer’s musical depiction of ‘What Love Tells Me’. The legendary conductor Bruno Walter writes: “In the last movement, words are stilled – for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?”

    This is symphonic perfection.

    Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 3 (Lucerne Festival Orcherstra, Claudio Abbado)

  10. Symphony No.2, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)

    We have the great 19th-century conductor Hans von Bülow to thank, indirectly, for Mahler’s greatest work. By now in his late 20s, the young Gustav had completed what would become the first movement, with a few sketches for the second. He knew already that he wanted to include a choir in his finale, following in the footsteps of Beethoven’s inimitable Symphony No.9 – but finding the perfect words proved a challenge.

    At the time, he was working under the great conductor Hans von Bülow. The two became close colleagues, and the elder musician’s death devastated Mahler. But Bülow’s funeral proved to be the spark of inspiration Mahler had been waiting for. A reading of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem, Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), struck him “like lightning … and everything was revealed to me clear and plain,” Mahler wrote to a friend.

    Altogether, this magnificent symphony is almost an hour and a half of music, and the ultimate display of Mahler’s genius.

    Read more: A pianist has turned Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony into a Cuban Rumba

    Mahler Symphony No. 2 - Bernstein - English Subtitles