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Beyond the here and now

16 October 2020

Rod Garner explores the theology that is expressed in the music of Gustav Mahler

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A Sotheby’s musical-handwriting expert examines the score of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony in 2016. It sold for a record $5.7 million

A Sotheby’s musical-handwriting expert examines the score of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony in 2016. It sold for a record $5.7 million

AS HE himself confidently predicted more than a century ago, Gustav Mahler’s time has come. After decades in which his music was censored, forgotten, or, in some instances, derided as banal, depressing, or lacking inspiration, it is now everywhere. Performances of his symphonies rival those of Beethoven. Between 1990 and 2010, his music has featured on more than 20 film tracks, including the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice. Books and articles about Mahler and his times, and recordings of his music, proliferate.

He is a composer for a post-modern world, whose music speaks to the turbulence of the age, and the deepest questions of the human heart. He is a musician who, in his own estimation, “belonged nowhere”; a Jew who, in 1897, abandoned his Judaism, and converted to Catholicism to assume charge of the Vienna Court Opera; and a man haunted by tragedy, love, and beauty. His mind was rarely still; he walked quickly — “always in full movement like a burning flame” — and he felt everything intensely.

Mahler wanted his music to embrace the whole world and what lay beyond it. To his detractors, such ambition seemed questionable or crazy, and his disarming mood- swings confirmed their suspicions. In marked contrast, however, his symphonies and song cycles — which frequently reduce concert audiences to tears, or to the profound silence more often associated with holy places — tell another story of a genius who, far from being mad, embraced pain and sorrow and made of them astonishing art.

Even if we knew little or nothing of Mahler or his work, only a shrivelled heart could remain indifferent to the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony, the final movement of his Eighth Symphony, his Rückert song “Lost to this world”, and the “Farewell” that ends Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

Seeking a perspective beyond this life, in his Second — “Resurrection” — Symphony, Mahler tackled the theme that is common to Judaism and Christianity alike: an ultimate hope beyond death, predicated on the existence of a just and merciful Creator.

The inspiration for the completion of a symphony that had already drained and frustrated him came unexpectedly, when Mahler attended a funeral service in February 1894. After a scripture reading and music by Bach and Brahms, a boys’ choir intoned a hymn by the poet Friedrich Klopstock. “Rise again,” they sang, “yes, you will rise again, my dust, after a short rest.”

Hours later, Mahler was at his desk, pen in hand, knowing that some form of benediction or visitation had enabled him to bring his revelatory work to an electrifying conclusion. It embodied a sound that had come to him “from some other world . . . one is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights”.

Fighting a severe migraine, Mahler conducted the first performance of the “Resurrection” symphony on 13 December 1895, in Berlin. The concert brought mixed reactions: some critics found it too noisy and modern, but two conductors rushed to the stage to offer congratulations. Its effect on the audience was palpable, and, for some, emotionally indescribable.


IN OUR own time, Mahler’s Second Symphony has lost none of its power and significance. In July 1967, Leonard Bernstein conducted three of its movements in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s six-day military victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. For Bernstein, the work represented an expression of simple but profound faith “that, despite the ancient cycle of threat and destruction . . . rebirth goes on and good must triumph”. When, in 1990, Bernstein died, he was buried with a Mahler score placed over his heart.

At the age of 11, Simon Rattle was taken by his father to hear the symphony for the first time. Recalling the event much later, Sir Simon described it “as a completely transfiguring experience. It was the road to Damascus.” After a concert performance in the Vatican in January 2004, Pope John Paul II spoke of its quest for “a sincere reconciliation among all believers in one God” — a prescient remark, that raises a theologically intriguing question: what did Mahler actually intend through this eclectic work, particularly its finale?

It is fairly certain that, despite Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism, the Second Symphony does not represent a Christian testimony — in fact, Christ is absent at all points. Mahler’s reception into the Church had been a necessary step on his part to counter the anti-Semitism that regarded Jews as “ethically sub-human” and was blighting his career. After his conversion, Mahler never attended mass or confession, never crossed himself, and only once entered a church for religious reasons: to get married.

The prayers that he scrawled on his final score were addressed to God the Father. He remained a monotheist and a Jew. Well versed in the tenets of Judaism, he remembered the early prayers that he had been taught as a boy by Rabbi Unger: texts written five centuries before Christ, which testified to a King who “keeps his faith with those who sleep in the dust”.

It seems that Mahler was staking everything on God: a God beyond divisive religious doctrines; a merciful God who brings back all the dead. In its searing conclusion, “Resurrection” affirms that it is not only the righteous who will rise again. Describing the finale, Mahler wrote: “The glory of God appears. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Behold: there is no judgement, no sinner, no just man, no great and small; there is no punishment, no ‘reward’. An overwhelming love.”

To listen attentively to this symphony is necessarily to take up Mahler’s challenge: to consider again the nature of God, the scope of divine love, and the fullest, truest meaning of resurrection.


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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