Mahler and Life and Death

I haven’t blogged for a good few days because I’ve been too ‘re-absorbed’ in the music of one of my three favourite composers, Gustav Mahler, and now I’d like to write something about Mahler and death. I hope you haven’t fled away from that last word, because it’ll catch up with you regardless so, if you’re still reading this, just a brief word about Mahler himself. The photo is the last one taken, on his way home from the USA to die in Vienna. He was fifty years old, so why does he look as if he’s eighty? Apart from his illness it’s because, in music, he was what can be called a ‘perfectionist’. Nothing but the very best, from himself and from all others, would do, whatever the effort and cost. 

He was latterly the director of the Vienna State Opera, not just conducting performances, but hiring singers, rehearsing musicians, superintending scenery, problem solving, and making sure the Opera was paying its way. He was simultaneously the composer of nine (or ten) of the world’s greatest symphonies, as well as numerous song cycles. The composing could only be done during his summer ‘holidays’, and their scoring in any free moments during the autumn-to-spring, jam-packed opera season. He squeezed two or three lives into one, and the cost eventually caught up with him.

His quest for perfection carried a cost. Musicians and singers had to rehearse until they ‘got it right’. There was no room for sentiment – those who were past their best had to be shown the door. Late-comers to the Opera were not allowed in until the end of an Act, and there was no clapping of individual performances during them. He was loved by those who understood and shared his values, and hated by those who didn’t. He was also hated by the inevitable plonkers prejudiced against Jews. What do his symphonies say to us about death?

The 2nd symphony, known as the ‘resurrection’, has a barn-storming (or church-storming) conclusion, with full-throated organ and orchestra, complemented with brass fanfares, bells and gongs, and the chorus singing, “Rise again, yes, you will rise again .. I shall die to live – Sterben werd’ich, um zu leben!” It’s unreservedly and unashamedly glorious and uplifting. Death is not the end, but the beginning of something new – and ‘unorthodox’! According to Mahler, “There is no sinner, no righteous ones, no one great – and no one small – there is no punishment and no reward! An almighty feeling of love illuminates us with blest knowledge and being”. 

The 6th symphony, known as the ‘tragic’, has a different message. The last movement contains three ‘hammer blows’. Mahler said that, “It is the hero, on whom falls three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” It’s been suggested that here is ‘foretold’ three ‘blows’ which fell on Mahler after the symphony had premiered – his forced resignation from the Vienna State Opera, the death of his favourite child, and the diagnosis of the heart disease that was finally to “fell” him. In any event, the symphony ends in unremitting gloom, with its tragic ‘motto’ – a timpani rhythm like the faltering beat of his doomed heart, and a brass chord beginning in the major, but falling into the minor mode, and then silence, forever … 

The 9th symphony is sometimes known as his ‘farewell’, In the first movement, a hopeful theme keeps rising, but is repeatedly beaten down into a concluding shadow of its initial self. In the central movements, as the musicologist Deryck Cooke puts it, “bitterness and horror run riot”. The final movement, however, to quote Cooke, “transmutes horror and bitterness into courageous acceptance and unquenched belief in life”. At its conclusion, the hymn-like main theme comes back, and includes a quotation from one of his earlier songs, “In the sunshine! The day is beautiful up in yonder heights!” The theme begins to ‘fall apart’ until there’s left only a solitary cello, a suspended note in the violins, and a final syncopation in the violas. But it is peaceful, resigned and accepting – a good way to die.

It’s important to think about death. It’s life’s one certainty. But it’s also important to let our thoughts be guided and enriched by reading and hearing, including great works of art, such as these three symphonies of Mahler. Which of their conclusions makes most sense, as of now, to you?

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