In just over a quarter century, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) clawed his way out of muddy Austro-Hungarian backwaters like Olmütz and Ljubljana and into the greatest opera houses in the world. His career resembled a series of controlled explosions, each propelling him upwards but exacting such a personal and political toll that he died, worn out, at fifty. “One of the mightiest energies, one of the most inconsiderate despotic natures, one of the most powerful spiritual potencies of public life . . . has destroyed [his] unprepossessingly weak shell,” wrote one contemporary after Mahler’s death.

Mahler lived and worked during a time of extraordinary musical upheaval. While he was on good terms with traditionalists like Johannes Brahms (who declared himself Mahler’s “fiercest partisan”), he was also a force for change, encouraging the group of younger composers...


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