Mahler and Hesse: What the Water Tells Me

Mahler’s composing hut in Steinbach. (Photograph courtesy of Alex Ross)

Gustav Mahler was working on his Symphony No. 2 in 1894 when he decided to build a composing hut in a lakeside meadow in Steinbach. The builder who constructed the hut was a man named Franz Lösch, and in an interview with a Viennese journal he recalled the time he worked on Mahler’s hut (quoted in Mahler Remembered by Norman Lebrecht):

[Mahler] would always say: the lake had its own language, the lake talked to him. From up at the inn he couldn’t hear it, so he needed to have a little house right by the shore. When he heard the lake, he composed more easily, and the compositions flowed fully formed from his head.

My father, who was still alive then, would say to me shaking his head, ‘Strange there’s a man who talks to the lake.’ He was a good man, my father, but he did not understand. I, however, who have spent my whole life by the Attersee, I understood very well.

Reading this, I was struck by the connection (I’d call it a ‘spiritual’ connection) to the following passage from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Siddharhta has finished his journey and joined the ferryman, who teaches him to listen to the river.

Siddharhta listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking everything in. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

When Siddharhta listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or the laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection.

There is a great coincidence in these two passages and how I came to find them. We are looking at Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in this month’s Culture Club, under the theme of ‘spirituality’. Both are examples of something deeper than symbolism, of something more like a total identification with nature as a unifying principle of spirituality.

It’s not first time that I’ve found surprising or revealing cross connections between the works that we’re looking at; for example, the central idea of an argument between law and love emerged for me in the works we looked at under the ‘supernatural’ theme; and while looking up a reflection on a theme of Chekhov’s, in a book about Frank Zappa, I came across a reference to JH Prynne, brought together under the question of authorial intention. All of this reminds me to be continually mindful of the unexpected connections within and around creative works of art.


One response to “Mahler and Hesse: What the Water Tells Me”

  1. All of this reminds me to be continually mindful of the unexpected connections within and around creative works of art. -I agree, this allows us to read deeply, beneath our own egos, and learn something new.

    I really enjoyed reading the connections you made between Mahler and Hesse- two madmen who heard the sounds that few of us ever get to hear.

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