Mahler's sense of being an outsider, coupled with penetrating intelligence and an extraordinary talent for depicting his surroundings in music, made him a restless and acutely self-critical artist. His symphonies are often conceived on an immense scale, with immense philosophical subjects: love and hate, joy in life and terror of death, the beauty of nature, innocence, and bitter experience. A great composer of songs, he refined the essence of intense human emotions, developing and enriching his melodic gift in the process.
The introspective second child of 14 of a Jewish distillery owner, Mahler remembered violent arguments between his parents and much sadness, with six of his siblings dying in infancy. His first composition, written when he was 10, was a Funeral March with Polka, a combination that would typify his work as an adult composer. In 1878, the final year of his studies at the Vienna Conservatory, he began his first major work, Das klagende Lied ("The Song of Sorrow"), in which many of the distinctive features of his mature style can already be heard: ardent lyricism, a fascination with nature, and sombre funereal rhythms.
For most of his life, Mahler supported himself by conducting, and grew to be acknowledged as one of the greatest conductors of his age. His career began at the Austrian provincial theatre of Bad Hall in 1880, but his talent led to successive appointments at Olmütz, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg, and eventually the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler's conducting career reached its height during his tenure in Vienna, where he was lauded by many, but persecuted by the city's strong anti-Semitic faction. Mahler left Europe for New York in 1908, conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and becoming conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1909.
He composed whenever he could, usually during his summer holidays and at breathtaking speed, and his first important works were songs and song cycles, notably Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer") and Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("Youth's Magic Horn"). His first four symphonies are closely intertwined with his songs, sometimes reworking a Wunderhorn song as a whole movement, as in the Fourth Symphony. Mahler's "Tragic" Sixth Symphony makes use of one of the largest orchestras ever assembled on the concert platform. The sonic possibilities of an extended orchestra reached their height in the choral Eighth Symphony, nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand" in reference to the vast forces it employs.
Following the death of his four-year-old daughter Maria, his works changed in style and expressive focus, with greater introspection and a search more for peace than for great climaxes, often with delicate or sparing textures. Along with these changes, Mahler had already become increasingly forward-looking in his approach to harmony, rhythm, and sound colour. In his intensely ironic use of popular musical elements, especially Viennese dance tunes, he was also significantly ahead of his time, for which 20th-century composers as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Hans-Werner Henze, and Pierre Boulez have acknowledged an abiding debt to him.