I love Bach, I just don’t believe in Bach. I’ve prattled endlessly on this blog about how that final level of greatness to Bach seems to elude me while blessing everyone else. There’s an endless amount of music by him which I love, and two endless amounts which bore me to tears.
I should admit, I have a bit of an allergic reaction to church music, but that can only explain so much of the problem. Bach’s religious belief was not the core of his problem, it was, like Wagner’s anti-semitism, merely a symptom of the real trouble.
Bach’s true religion was order. He believed in a joyful, Leibnizian God who runs the world as though it’s as perfect as a grandfather clock. All the suffering of our lives is just the briefest test we must undergo to prove ourselves worthy for the joys that come from an eternal world. A God of an eternal heaven must run the world in such a way that his infinitely complex greatness is always manifest, even if the ways he displays his glory can be elusive in the extreme. Bach’s music was a mission to discover the extremely elusive glory of his god, and in order to expose such glory, his music had to be craft itself.
Form is what gives music its physical definition, and when it came to creating the finite limitations which gives music its substance, Bach’s craft is truly infinite - a craft never beaten in any artistic realm, and probably not equaled (Dante?). Just as Newton discovered the formal patterns and possibilities of physics, Bach laid bare the formal, contrapuntal, and harmonic patterns and possibilities of music - he marked the end of a counterpoint-dominated music and the beginning of a harmony-dominated one. He also marked the end of an old concept of form, but he did not mark the beginning of a new conception. That was left to the next generation.
Because when it came to the infinite, ineffable possibilities of music - melody, instrumental timbre, rhythmic variety - Bach was thoroughly human, seeing little need to hear his music in a fourth dimension. There are plenty of great melodies in Bach, but they are the exception that proves the rule. For a musician to have created so venerated great music, and for so few a percentage of them to contain melodies we remember for all time, tells us that there was something limited, or limiting, about Bach’s genius. The same goes for instrumentation; most of Bach’s music can be played on an infinity of instrumental combinations, and while that demonstrates his universality from a certain angle, it also demonstrates his lack of thought about tone color and timbre.
Many composers have died too early, but Bach died a different death. The Church was always at the center of Bach’s inspiration, but Bach was so committed to the church that his last twenty years were by-and-large spent not composing. Until the flowering of his final three years, he spent his more venerable years training and educating his choir boys and simply recycled his church music for the next time it was required for performance. When Bach exchanged the court instrumentalists for the church choir, the quality of his music already took a step back from the ‘divine’. Whereas his music could once stretch out to the infinite with instrumental suites and partitas, it became beholden to the dogmatic strictures of whatever Biblical lesson he had to impart for that week’s homily.
Imagine if Bach could have taken a step back from his Church obligations and become a bit more liberal in his secular sympathies as he aged. Imagine if he were not quite so intractable about the idea of polyphonic forms and allowed himself to write in the new styles. Perhaps we could have Bach symphonies, Bach operas, Bach string quartets. Like many great classical musicians of our day, Bach had a tin ear for new developments, and the loss to music and posterity is incalculable.
I recently heard an interview on television which beautifully summed up the difference between Christianity and Judaism as follows. Christianity is a religion of denial - their Messiah has come, but he left and the world appears no better, so they say he will come again and do right what he did wrong last time. Judaism is a religion of depression - their Messiah has never come, they wait, and wait, and wait, and yet he never arrives.
Judaism can be every bit as insular and denial-ridden as Christianity. But for Mahler, Judaism was merely the beginning - a springboard for his cosmopolitan consciousness through which he could spring into the entire world. In Mahler, history finally arrives at a composer whose vision is compromised neither by religious dogma, political dogma, nor practical consideration. We’ve arrived at a composer with both the intellectual means of articulating a worldview through music and the musical means to translate his worldview into sound with absolute freedom of thought.
I don’t understand how people draw so much spiritual sustenance from Bach. His music is like the beautiful and dangerous lies which religious people tell lonely potential converts who crave a community at their meet-and-greets. We’re all insecure, we need assurance that someone has heard our suffering, and if we’re not careful, we’d all be willing to believe that we’ll be rewarded for it. But the probable truth remains that nobody will reward us for our tribulations, and we all have to keep going in spite of it. How do we do it?
In all likelihood, our existence precedes our essence, and we need music and art that doesn’t lie to us about that. We need composers who reject the lies of the insular community and reach out into the wider world with all its diversities and dangers.
If I had to make a list of pieces which articulate a whole worldview in sound, it wouldn’t be a long list: Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s final two oratorios, Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Beethoven’s Ninth, Mozart's Da Ponte operas (at least when taken as a whole) perhaps Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ives’s Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich's Fourteenth or Berio's Sinfonia or Kurtag's Jatekok or even Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise. And if you limited it to visions of the world uncompromised by dogma, you’d have to take off Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s Creation, even The Rite of Spring. But above all other ‘worldview’ pieces, one head and shoulders above all others.
The more I listen to Mahler’s Third Symphony, the more it seems to me the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It’s a piece whose grandeur is very easy to dismiss. Here is what Alan Rich, one of my favorite music critics, wrote about it:
I love all that masquerading in the Mahler Third: the fake blood that oozes constantly in the first movement while Mahler giggles up his sleeve, and the delicious pomposity at the end, where the crowd really ought to be forced to its feet singing patriotic verses as white doves are released. It’s all a great con;
The first time I heard the Mahler’s Third Symphony was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My parents somehow had an extra ticket to hear Yuri Temirkanov conduct it with the Baltimore Symphony. To my astonishment, I’d still never listened to it. I went to the music library and took out Jascha Horenstein’s famous recording. As I was with virtually all the Mahler symphonies, I was utterly blown over. But nothing could have prepared me for the concert itself.
My mother and I both started cackling during the famous ‘marching bands in a storm’ sequence during the first movement. Mahler was so hell-bent on drama that he’d gone utterly over the top. It was absolutely impossible to take seriously, and yet the more we heard of what happened afterward, the more it seemed that lack of seriousness was the point. And yet, by the end of the final movement, all three of us were awash with tears.
Many people call it Mahler’s worst symphony, I think it’s his greatest - the one where Mahler’s imagination was in fullest flight, the one in which he literally articulated a philosophical worldview from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and completely humanized their rather anti-humanist conceptions of the world.
That said, of course it’s a kind of con. You absolutely can’t take the philosophy in Mahler’s Third Symphony completely seriously, and I sincerely doubt we’re meant to. Mahler, unlike so many artists of an intellectual bent, realizes that he’s an entertainer first and an intellectual second. The dramatization of his ideas is more important than the ideas themselves. When he calls his first movement, ‘Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In’, summer is announced with a bunch of military marches that sound as though they belong in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. It’s impossible not to hear what he’s depicting, but it’s also impossible not to enjoy it on its own terms. When orchestral instruments play so many weird sounds that clearly sound like animal noises, how can we take it completely seriously? How can we be meant to take it seriously?
Far more than Wagner ever did, Mahler takes Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will to life and sets it to music - depicting six stages of evolution over ninety minutes. He begins with nature itself, moving on to the beauties of plant life, to the animal kingdom, to mankind, to the angels, to love itself.
(“O Man! Take heed!” Mahler’s rendering of Nietzsche)
It's interesting that when Mahler arrived at the fourth movement, entitled ‘What Man Tells Me’, he reached for Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to express mankind’s plight. After the amazing third movement, which depicts the animal kingdom as though it’s a low-rent circus, he expresses something that sounds like the lowest possible spiritual darkness. Here is Nietzsche’s text:
“O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
"I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
—seeks deep, deep eternity!"
If this setting is any indication, Mahler understood Nietzsche better than Nietzsche understood himself. Nietzsche’s image of a dead god and a will to power is one of utter nihilism, which, as Nietzsche admits here, is a world that seeks an eternity it can never find. Is Nietzsche right? Perhaps, but we’d all better hope he isn’t.
But after this spiritual darkness and longing for light comes the light itself in a movement entitled ‘What the angels tell me’ - replete with treble instruments, boy choir, and bells. Here is its text.
Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"
"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"
"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
Imagine the audacity of following a Nietzsche text with an utterly Christian one in the 1890’s. Whose side in this great debate is Mahler on? Has he taken a side? The answer, if there is one, is seen in the very last line of the fifth movement’s text.
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
“Eternal bliss to all mankind?” If this is a Christian text, it flies in the direct contradiction of every piece of Christian dogma. This is clearly not the Christianity as most of history envisioned it. This is the Christianity of the sinner pleading for heaven's acceptance, the Christianity of that universal longing for higher joys than our mundane lives endow us. It says that we should all believe in the possibility of eternal joy, even if hardly any of us receive it. Because it is the belief in the possibility of eternal joy which gives us the power to experience joy at all.
And that joy is to be found in the last movement, a roughly twenty-two minute orchestral prayer called ‘What Love Tells Me.’ Love, not God or Will, is Mahler’s thing-in-itself.
Mahler Three has become my highest article of faith. It is a battle cry, a prayer, and a love letter which tells me that life is always worth living. That it could come from a man like Mahler with such a great talent for suffering could have composed it makes it all the more meaningful. It is, to me, the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It does what music seems meant to do to me better than any other piece I know, and therefore it may even be the greatest piece of music I've ever heard. Throughout all its oddities, and perhaps because of them, it has given me all that solace that Bach never could.
(The best performance of the first three movements I've ever heard. Shame about the sound...)