Gustav Mahler: Alienation and Spirituality

Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s spirituality was defined by his personal inner demons and psychological struggles. He was a typical late Romantic in this respect. With Mahler’s music there is none of the objective contemplation of God that we see in the music of J.S. Bach, for example; everything Mahler wrote was highly subjective. His contemporary, one-time friend and the music critic of the Hamburger Nachrichten, Ferdinand Pfohl, wrote this of him:

Mahler was a mystic, a God-seeker. His imagination circled incessantly around these matters, around God and the world, around life and death, around spiritual matters and nature. Eternity and immortality were at the centre of his thoughts. Death and eternity are the great theme of his art. He wanted to believe, belief at any price.

But why the struggle, why the incessant questioning? A clue to Mahler’s spiritual intensity can be glimpsed in his remark to Richard Strauss; that it was through his art that he sought redemption. Strauss reported this to the conductor Otto Klemperer, adding his own baffled comment: ‘I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to be redeemed from’.

Mahler and Alienation

Strauss wasn’t the only one perplexed by Mahler’s deep spiritual angst. It’s this very issue that made his music so difficult to understand during his lifetime. It’s also what made him such a relevant composer to a later generation, and may explain the extraordinary growth of popularity in Mahler’s music from the 1950s to the present day, after being virtually ignored for over 40 years after his death.

At the heart of Mahler’s spiritual struggle is a deep-seated alienation from the world as he experienced it. Burnett James, in his book The Music of Gustav Mahler, puts this into a broader perspective:

Baudelaire’s remark that when we are moved by poetry or music, and tears come to the eyes, it is not a sign of profound joy but of ‘an irritated melancholy, a nervous postulation, a nature exiled in an imperfect world which would like to take possession at once on this very earth of a revealed paradise,’ is very near to Mahler’s intense longing and sense of alienation. It is of course true to a greater or lesser extent of all major art, in one form or another: it is also, perhaps primarily, true of Mozart (which is the major reason why the Romantics tended to regard Mozart as ‘the Christ of music’). In Mozart the very spiritualization of form, the inward ideality, all but breaks the heart that beholds it. It is simply that, with Mahler, as with all the Romantics, early or late, the nerves are nearer the surface, more exposed.

Mahler’s pain would appear to be a result of this intense alienation. As a Bohemian Jew he was an outsider racially and geographically until his death, and this was at the root of his ongoing spiritual crisis.

Leonard Bernstein was a great champion of Mahler’s music, and he played a major part in the re-evaluation of Mahler that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s (he was the first conductor to record the complete cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, in 1967). Bernstein was also Jewish, as well as a world-renowned conductor, composer and pianist in his own right, so he was uniquely placed to empathise with Mahler.

In his televised documentary, The Little Drummer Boy, Bernstein locates Mahler’s spiritual alienation within the struggle between his suppressed Jewish identity and a yearning for the salvation offered by Christianity:

It’s very difficult to be a Jew. Judaism is the hardest of all religions, because there are no ultimate rewards except on earth. No promises about the hereafter, no guaranteed kingdom of heaven, only the conviction that God will love you if you do his works. Judaism is not primarily a consolation, it is a system of ethics, with not ten but hundreds of commandments about how man should live with man. Therefore the great attraction of Christianity for Mahler was the great concept of resurrection of the soul, the promise of life hereafter.

Mahler himself claimed that his first and second symphonies were the spiritual autobiography of his early years. He called his first symphony a ‘flaming indictment of the Creator’. Ferdinand Pfohl, a friend and colleague, even suggests that this affected his physical appearance: ‘He looked like one who had questioned God and had accordingly been cast out of the Light and into the Darkness, one whose crime was knowledge and who now sought with desperate urgency the way back to the lost paradise… seeking to reach God and the angels on the sounding bridge of music which joins the present world with the hereafter.’ It was this aspect of his personality that was at the root of the hostility he attracted from the conservative musical elite, as Peter Franklin explains in his study of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3:

The revolutionary, critical aspect of Mahler’s music, which then, as now, could upset Brahmsian conservatives, consisted not least in the way in which it articulated Faustian questioning as much as it embodied the harmonious reconciliation that even Romantic classicism had tended to consider the primary function and purpose of the art.

The Quest for Salvation in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’

In his Second Symphony, known as the ‘Resurrection’, Mahler presents his passionate and urgent quest for salvation and the afterlife, in which, as Burnett James says, ‘Faith had, for Mahler, to be created out of tragic awareness.’ The first movement is a funeral march, depicting the ‘death of the hero of my first symphony’, and from there on in it’s a struggle for faith that doesn’t come easy. As he said in a letter to a friend about the thoughts behind this work: ‘Why did you live, why suffer? Is it all nothing but a terrible joke?’

The ‘terrible joke’ aspect of life reveals itself in the Scherzo, Mahler’s first example of what has been called his ‘spectral scherzos’. Scherzo literally means ‘a joke’, and it was largely used to describe playful music, but in Mahler’s hands the joke becomes black humour (and in later symphonies at times grotesque). Bernstein argues that in this Second Symphony Scherzo Mahler portrays most conspicuously the conflicts between his Jewish and Christian identities; between, for example, ‘oriental’ melodies and Bachian contrapuntal exercises.

Claudio Abbado conducts the third movement Scherzo from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’

Much of the struggle and pain is expressed through one of the aspects of his style that was uniquely Mahlerian and at the time revolutionary; a style where the tragic and the commonplace sit side by side, where elevated classical themes are followed by popular street music, where a heavenly adagio might be suddenly interrupted by a hurdy-gurdy tune. Stephen Johnson provides an example of the effect in his essay on Mahler in A Guide To The Symphony: ‘The clarinet’s Ländler tune 13 bars before fig. 30 in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony is innocuous in itself, but after the haunted opening one can read all manner of sinister possibilities into it.’

This ‘inclusive’ style is very evident in the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the final struggle towards salvation. Here he displays what David R. Murray called ‘a whole web of thematic cross-references, with anticipations of things to come as well as reminders of what has gone by’ (from the sleeve notes to the recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by Simon Rattle and the CBSO, 1987). There are horn calls, marches, brass band tunes, plaintive melodies, vehement outbursts, birdsong, and much else, all brought together in one extensive movement, as if the whole world itself were being paraded by us. In the end, however, salvation does come, in a triumphant affirmation, ‘a final plateau of spiritual exultation’ (David R. Murray). This is one of Mahler’s most transcendental musical moments.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the LPO in the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’

Identity, Faith and the Song of the Earth

It is easy, in retrospect, to see why Mahler was a man out of time, and why his music was resurrected and championed so passionately long after his death. The alienation that it depicts is something that many more people, certainly in the West, have come to experience in the modern and post-modern world, creating a powerfully receptive audience for Mahler’s message. As Burnett James puts it:

Mahler’s own sense of isolation and alienation – his sense of being ‘thrice homeless’ and his situation as a Jew in a hostile world – was reflected in the general sense of the individual’s loss of identity and the consequent loss of security in a world from which the firm centre had dropped under the pressures of the new knowledge and its concomitant faithlessness.

The Second Symphony is one of Mahler’s earliest solutions to the struggles with his inner demons, but he continued to search for answers throughout his life. At the last, however, he reached a calmer spiritual understanding, best conveyed in one of his last works, Das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth. Bernstein discovers in this work an ‘almost zen-like contemplation of death’:

This stunning quietude and sparsness… is the musical equivalent of what Zarathustra, Buddha, Wagner and Nietzsche called variously the all, the nothing, the élan vital, the cosmic ‘om’. What has happened is that Mahler’s music, at its greatest and most mature, has become a synthesis of his lifelong conflict between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other. Which makes it clear to us why Mahler chose for his final song texts ancient Chinese poetry which concerns itself with youth, beauty, wine, the brevity of life and the mystical embrace of death.

5 responses to “Gustav Mahler: Alienation and Spirituality”

  1. Thanks for your insight into Mahler’s spirituality — lucked into your site and Found it helpful, as I’m trying to understand Death in Venice by mann…

  2. Thanks so much for your sensitive, profound article. As an old man who struggled with classcal piano for many years, I only recently opened myself to Mahler. My love of his music is multiplied many time with articles like yours.I am not Jewish, but his struggles, life long questions about Life represent for me, one great human quest for understanding whatever Life and God are. I am awed by his intense/calm music. Thank you very much for your enlightening article.

  3. As a near enough disciple of Mahler, I take keen interest in anyone’s thoughts about this man and his music. Thank you for your insightful post. I know his music inside out and have been privy to have played my trumpet in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th symphonies over the last few years. I have had some time off here and there listening to Mahler, but it’s telling how he is the only composer that one’s opinion changes as one’s own life progresses. I loved your angle on things there, it displayed the weight of what’s beneath the notes without the real need for many musical examples (the Abbado link is broken, by the way..).

  4. I am not a catholic but my thinking about spiritual matters inclines more to Bruckner than Mahler.

    As an angst ridden 20 something over 30 years ago i gorged on Mahler but as i get older and my evangelical christian faith grows increasingly certain Mahler’s agony is something to be pitied but no longer partaken of.

    I no longer listen to Mahler very often, but my beloved Bruckner, a certain and convinced catholic whose music to me breathes tranquility as well as the glory and majesty of God Almighty, is my favourite composer.

    I am no longer interested in listening or reading artists’ expressions of their own agony, but like Bach prefer to contemplate the objective truths about the Most Holy

    In this perhaps I too am a man outside of my own time

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