The Genius of Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Moritz Nähr (1859–1945)

Music has a unique power to express life-experiences while remaining on one level a purely abstract art. Someone listening to the late quartets of Beethoven can be made aware of thematic relationships between the movements and of a wide variety of emotional experiences, from the earthily comic to the spiritual. I would argue that no works are able to combine musical abstraction with emotional realism to the same extent as the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Listening to any one of his symphonies, including the Tenth, left unfinished at his death, we are made aware of universal human desires, for peace, for connection with nature, or for answers to life’s unsolvable problems. Moreover, these elements are not presented randomly but as elements of an emotional autobiography, so that when we listen we feel an additional narrative unfolding behind the purely musical one. The First Symphony illustrates this process at work at the very beginning of Mahler’s symphonic career.

The very start of the first movement suggests elements of the outside world filtering into our consciousness as happens, for example, when we awake each morning. Over a sustained note in the orchestra several octaves deep, solo instruments contribute sounds apparently emanating from the outside world; bird-calls, military fanfares and a suggestion of other, less definable sounds just beyond our awareness. Such moments are crucial to Mahler’s conception of symphonic music. As he said to Sibelius: ‘The Symphony must be a world. It should embrace everything!’ Sibelius himself belonged to a tradition of absolute music stretching back to the symphonies of Beethoven and beyond. His symphonies are taut, powerfully-constructed musical arguments which, despite their source of inspiration in Finnish nature and legend, remain abstract music with little evocation of the world at large.

Mahler is different. This difference does not rest in his use of a unique musical language. If I were to suggest a nineteenth-century composer whose musical voice is like no other, I would select not Mahler but Berlioz, who composed as if he were the first to use a common chord or a major scale. Much of Berlioz’s difference melts away when you understand his youthful background in French Revolutionary music, but the sense of difference, his unique musical syntax, remains. Mahler’s difference is not like this. He was content to use the musical language of his Austro-German forebears, extending this inheritance with a more progressive approach to melody and harmony, but essentially remaining true to this tradition. Mahler’s difference lies not in his approach to harmony and melody, but in his extending the boundaries of what is acceptable in ‘serious’ or ‘art’ music. Today we are aware of a wide variety of musical genres and the sense of a ‘canon’ of art or folk music is much weaker than it was in Mahler’s day. Yet we still think of classical music as embodying some high ideal, displaying a purity of language that sets it apart from other music we are likely to hear. Mahler was one of the first composers to overturn this conception of classical music. True to his idea that symphonic music must embrace the world, he included in his symphonies everything that had previously been excluded. If previous composers had occasionally admitted the sounds of nature into their works, as Beethoven had done in his Pastoral Symphony, Mahler would fling the doors wide open and admit all nature in its entirety. The story goes that the conductor Bruno Walter once visited Mahler when the latter had completed his massive, pantheistic Third Symphony. Mahler was vacationing in the Austrian lakes and Walter commented on the magnificent scenery. ‘Don’t bother looking at that’, Mahler is supposed to have said, ‘I’ve composed it all already!’

Because it is so all-encompassing, Mahler’s music evokes a personal response in many listeners. I remember the moment when I fist became aware of his unique musical voice. Like so many other people, I discovered his music in the context of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, where the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony becomes the lugubrious backdrop to composer Gustav Von Aschenbach’s descent into obsessive infatuation. The intense, tortured mood of the film made me think that Mahler was simply another Late Romantic, singing of some unattainable ideal in tones of nostalgic regret. Yet something about the music’s all-enveloping cloak of emotion drew me in. Surely no composer had ever exposed his innermost feelings to the world in this way? The sheer intensity of the music was breathtaking, catching me off guard with its insistent, personal message. But what was this message? Can music, which deals in abstractions, really convey a particular message to its audience? I believe that in Mahler’s case there is a message hidden within some of his greatest music, which becomes clearer when you understand the circumstances behind its creation.

All of Mahler’s works delve deeply into the questions of existence. Mahler is not one of those artists who are capable of accepting the world as they find it. He has a need to question, examine, and investigate. Like a scientist he tests hypotheses in his music, suggesting possible solutions to life’s problems; the belief in pantheism of the Third Symphony, an acceptance of Man’s tragic destiny in the Sixth, an affirmation of the power of human creativity when harnessed to love in the vast Eighth. Yet in none of these symphonies is the urge to reach into the heart of human experience, to question the very foundations of existence, so evident as in his Second, the Resurrection Symphony. This symphony occupied Mahler on and off for around six years. He had written the first movement, originally named ‘Totenfeier’ or ‘Funeral Rites’, in 1888. He was to subsequently add three more movements, a graceful minuet, an ironic scherzo and an affecting song of simple faith, ‘Urlicht’ or ‘Primal Light’. Yet he was at a loss to know how to finish the symphony until he attended the funeral of one of the great figures in German musical life, Hans von Bülow. It was here that he encountered a musical setting of the Resurrection Ode of the eighteenth-century German poet Klopstock. This gave him the text he needed to provide a fitting conclusion to his symphony. A little background information is necessary here: Von Bülow had earlier given the young composer one of his great setbacks when, after hearing Mahler play through the first movement of his First symphony, he proclaimed ‘If this is still music, I no longer know what music is’. Mahler took the insult personally, and it severely dented his self-confidence. In a psychological sense it can be argued that only the death of this overwhelming figure in contemporary musical life freed Mahler to complete what was to be his greatest masterpiece to date.

The symphony begins with a long, impassioned funeral march which, according to Mahler’s own description, asks the urgent questions ‘Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is life just a huge, terrifying joke?’ Right from the opening bars we are immersed in a storm of anguish and protest at the senselessness of life. This movement is a good place as any to consider the unique power of Mahler’s music. Other composers may pack as powerful an emotional punch – Wagner had a way of undermining the listener’s defences with the seductive power of his musical argument – but only Mahler can engulf us in a wave of emotional experience that feels this personal. It can sometimes feel as if Mahler is bypassing normal musical communication and channelling his life and experiences directly into our souls. The composer himself realised the personal source of his inspiration. Of his first two symphonies he said: ‘To those who know how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and existence are so interwoven that, if my life flowed as smoothly as a stream through a meadow I would be unable to compose anything.’

The middle movements continue the emotional biography of the first, but are less comprehensive, representing facets of human experience rather than attempting to encompass all of life as the first movement does. The second movement represents, according to Mahler’s own programme, ‘a ray of sunlight from the life of the departed’. It suggests the store of poignant memories which a single individual can accumulate in their lifetime.

This mood of introspective nostalgia is shattered by the drum-stroke which begins the following movement, a swirling, phantasmagorical evocation of our daily round of activity, envisaged by Mahler as a macabre dance of death, with no other destination than the grave. He described the piece as being like a dance glimpsed through the open windows of a ballroom, so that the music is inaudible and the movements of the dancers seem somehow alien and eerie. Finally the orchestra gives out a discordant shriek explained by Mahler as ‘a cry of disgust’, and the relentless ballroom music resumes once more, gradually fading to nothing. The music here is brilliantly evocative of an alienated sensibility, unable to identify with the goals of existence which most people make their own, and haunted by the looming certainty of death. Perhaps the best analogue to this anguished vision of humanity can be found in the works of his contemporary, the artist Edvard Munch. Both Mahler and Munch were familiar with death from an early age, seeing their siblings die in childhood. Both were obsessed by mortality and depicted the human condition in terms so stark that we all understand their meaning. The dominating images of the previous movement, the perennial dance of existence and the cry of anguish at the meaninglessness of life are exactly paralleled in two paintings by Munch, part of his Frieze of Life series which occupied him throughout most of the eighteen-nineties. Munch’s painting ‘The Dance of Life’ shows the endless round of existence in terms of innocence, sexual experience and barren old age. Around the central group of figures, depicting a woman in the three stages of her life, swirl anonymous dancers who, unlike the central character, are unaware of the pathos of their condition.

The Dance Of Life - Edvard Munch

A still more precise parallel to Mahler’s imagery in the third movement can be found in Munch’s most famous contribution to the Frieze of Life, ‘The Scream’, which echoes the movements culminating ‘cry of disgust’. This picture has, much like the work of Mahler, gained iconic status as perhaps the ultimate statement of twentieth-century alienation. It is all the more surprising to realise that the painting, like this symphony, was actually painted in the nineteenth century. Parallels between artists can only take us so far, particularly when they work in different media, and there are certainly differences between the two creative figures. Mahler did not on the whole have Munch’s sexual neuroses and Munch did not share the latter’s religious obsessions, yet the fact that both artists have been seen as prophets of twentieth-century existential angst says much about the unique power of both to disturb and question received values. In this they are at one with the lonely figures of their generation such as Nietzsche and Strindberg, who laid dynamite to the foundations of nineteenth-century bourgeois self-belief.

The Scream - Edvard Munch

Yet what distinguishes Mahler from the iconoclastic Nietzsche is his nostalgia for the certainties of religious faith. The next movement makes clear his yearning for the reassurance of belief, as he sets a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, whose verses ultimately derive from German folk poetry. The poem ‘Urlicht’ expresses the idea that we ultimately belong to God and it is to God that we will return. It might seem as if Mahler the prophet of alienated modernity has lost his nerve, is urging us to return to faith in a benign God as an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern life, but that would be to take the opinions expressed here for the composer’s own, which is surely not what Mahler intends. Given the fractured, contradictory worldview that emerges from his works, it is more likely that he is expressing one possible response to the search for ultimate meaning, without giving it the status of a definitive answer.

This reading is reinforced by the final movement, whose crushing emotional power has the effect of bringing the message of the previous four movements into question. What happens here is so shattering that it creates a crisis in the narrative of the symphony. Things can’t go on as before; moral striving (the first movement), worldly pleasures (second movement), the endless round of everyday life (third movement) and the consolations of religion all seem inadequate as we approach the awesome scene of the Last Judgement, which Mahler evokes with tremendous orchestral resources, effecting an assault on the listener’s senses. The music’s feeling of finality seems to demand an answer to the questions posed in the first movement: ‘Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is life just a huge, terrifying joke?’

The answer, when it comes, is not immediately shouted to the rafters but is at first stated softly by a choir singing in unison. This eventually builds up to an overwhelming climax which provides the affirmation we have been waiting for. The choir are singing of the Christian belief in resurrection, but the power of the music seems to transcend an interpretation in terms of religious faith. By beginning softly, then swelling to an immense peroration, the music seems to suggest a sense of existential self-belief emerging from the depths of the unconscious to envelop our whole being. Thus Mahler seems to be saying that the point of our existence lies in existence itself, not beyond it. Such an insight cannot be adequately expressed in words. Only music can provide the necessary means to convey faith in life itself, and the composer meets this challenge magnificently in creating a work which reaches into the deepest wellsprings of our being.

The Second Symphony provides a textbook example of the way in which Mahler approaches composition, creating a musical unity out of disparate and sometimes contradictory fragments which each bear the stamp of personal experience. Achieving this unity does not mean trying to harmonise the discordant and often distressing facts of our existence. Rather it means re-living this existence in music, music which gives us strength by holding up a mirror to our fractured lives. As we look into this mirror, it is ourselves that we see, transfigured by our search for understanding and love.