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Post details: Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

One hundred years ago, on May 18, 1911 the world lost one of its greatest musical visionaries, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

In his day, Mahler was primarily known as an ambitious and unorthodox conductor, a reputation he acquired largely as the director of the Vienna Court Opera. Composing was but a passionate hobby of his, mostly restricted to summer vacations and not generating much public acclaim. But as the 20th century progressed, it became apparent that Mahler's music captured certain aspect of the modern society that people became increasingly attuned to, certain apprehension that no other composer could match with similar vividness and urgency. His nine symphonies masterfully articulated the existential anxiety, partially precipitated by the diminished role of religion in the intellectual circles, that began to enshroud the newly emancipated humankind.

The heart of Mahler's view can best be illustrated by analogy. For children, parents are a sort of deity. Everything that they experience, everything that happens to them seems to come as a will of the parental "Gods". Their whole world revolves around them. But as it becomes clear that both mother and father are just ordinary people, acting within the context of a larger society and subject to all limitations and weaknesses of the human flesh, kids have to cope with the new reality and not only redefine their relationship to the parents, but also discover their true selves. It is this fundamental shift of focus that is one of the primary agents for rebellious teenage years.

Mahler understood that at the onset of the modern era, with the quickened pace of industrial revolution and unstoppable progress of sciences, humanity was about to undergo similarly painful process of self-discovery and redefining its relationship with its gods/parents. The old belief framework needed new anchors; a new light had to be shed on the place of religion in our lives. We were collectively going through a severe bout of puberty. The only difference was that in lieu of binge drinking or growing long hair we were probing the outer limits of free thinking and instead of throwing mindless drug abusing all-night parties we were about to wage two devastating world wars. But in the process of growing up, we needed to acknowledge some very troubling questions pertaining to our own being. Is it possible to find hope from within? Where do we draw the borders between the ever expanding field of knowledge and the traditional beliefs? How are we supposed to cope with our mortality? Are we intrinsically good?

In addressing these questions, Mahler's work reached deep into our innermost core. Down there in the wine cellar of our psyche, half obscured by thick cobwebs and emptied bottles lies a rusty hatchway into his musical world: the illusory dreamland dabbed with clouds of haze rolling drowsily by, an evanescent pageant of life restoring moisture sweeping the deserted battlefields, and if you train your sight on an occasional opening in their flanks, you can spot a covey of homeless angels wading across an infinite flour beach, their white wings tightly tied with ropes of suffering, and also - a bit further in the distance - millions of faceless trombonists lining the long way out, all wearing dark brown habits and blowing their polished instruments under old gnarly trees planted by the fugitive God. Down there in the secret chambers of our soul, in narrow passageways that you rarely dare to enter on a stormy night, Mahler's music is widely spoken.

Technical note: if you never listened to him, I'd recommend symphonies 1, 4, 5 and 6 to start with. They are relatively easy to digest and present some of his most inspired melodies. Then I would take on the Eighth whose vastly expanded orchestra and multiple choirs earned it a fitting nickname "the Symphony of Millions". Finally, I would delve into the realm of metaphysics - the Ninth, the Adagio from the Tenth and "Das Lied von der Erde". If they don't scare you away, and they might, symphonies 2, 3 and 7 would provide a welcome refuge from unduly deep thoughts.

Mahler's symphonies picked up where Beethoven's last string quartets left off, although - technically speaking - the lives of the two composers were separated by several decades. But the evidence of fingerprints cannot be denied. While occupying the opposite ends of the 19th century, their intellectual personas had nearly touched. Michelangelo's famous painting "The creation of Adam" always springs to my mind when I think of them. In fact, if there ever is the Church of Music, Beethoven should be its God, the supreme and unquestionable authority, while Mahler would make for an excellent Christ, a more erring and Earthly incarnation of the same spirit.

The difference between the two is almost palpable. From the very beginning, Beethoven's tone is resolute and dominant, as befits the undisputed ruler of the Inner Kingdom. The battle cries of Eroica, the revolutionary ethos of Appassionata, the sovereign brilliance of Emperor Concerto all testify to his tremendous talents and uncompromising attitudes. But some of his best works from the last period of his life go beyond human genius. They bear marks of higher inspiration. Like the stone tablets that Moses brought back from Mount Sinai, they have a revelatory character. Whether you listen to Grosse Fugue, Ode to Joy or the Finale from Gloria, you are filled with a sense of awe - standing alone in front of an altar in a grandiose cathedral. The sheer momentum of their sound masses could easily move tectonic plates.

While basking in the same radiance of divine inspiration, Mahler's music is much more tentative and full of contradictions. Especially following the Eighth Symphony, whose massive proportions would make you think of a grandiose coming-of-age party in which a young adult expresses gratitude to his parents. A Thanksgiving to Gods if you will. After this musical feast, the landscape changes dramatically. Late Mahler steps into the world of uneasy and reverberating solitude. Much like Christ on his last journey to Golgotha, he stumbles under the weight of his increasing doubts. That moment when Jesus cries out with a loud voice: "Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachtani" is pure Mahler.

One day, I would like to see a film adaptation of the gospel according to St. Mark filled with Mahler's music. There is no shortage of deeply spiritual passages in his work, so the director would have plenty to choose from. For the emotionally stark path to the crucifixion, for instance, the first movement of the Ninth Symphony literally suggests itself - the gushing shadows of uncertainty, the shreds of the future hanging from poorly lit gallows, the anxious slow beating tympani in the background and the heavy cross of existence pressing on one's shoulder. Now if only we could get a kindred spirit behind the camera.


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