How does Mahler set the cry of mercy and forgiveness? More freygisher scales, more that's redolent of Judaism, with a God that is both terrifying, and takes up these questions in a way that signals that perhaps his judgement will be more Jewish than Christian...
The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches.
The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. Finally, after all have left their empty graves and the earth lies silent and deserted, there comes only the long-drawn note of the bird of death. Even it finally dies.The second symphony was one of the only pieces whose performances were praised in Mahler's own lifetime. It was said that at the premiere, the entire audience exhaled together at what followed.
What happens now is far from expected. Everything has ceased to exist. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard. Soft and simple, the words gently swell up: "Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt! Then the glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.
Mahler converted to Catholicism two years after this piece premiered, but this is an extremely un-Catholic vision of resurrection. What it is, however, is a vision that is full of Christian mercy, in which all sins are forgiven and mankind is redeemed, is extended to everyone. If redemption was not to be, as Beethoven dreamed, here on earth, then perhaps it can happen in the next world. This is far closer to Judaism, where everybody eventually gets into the next world after a brief period lasting less than a year during which the sins are purged and the mourners say a prayer, the Kaddish, let them get to Olam HaBaa sooner. But that in Judaism, there is very little mention of the particular type of redemption. This is the best of Judaism and Christianity combined, in which redemption is extended to everyone. Accomplishing in music, and in the Symphony, a divine love for which no Western religion ever allowed.
This is the moment when I should probably talk about Mahler 8, but that's the one Mahler symphony I don't care much for, so let's leave it there and talk about a much more radical work, his first symphony. In every Mahler Symphony, there is so much to talk about that any one of these would take an entire class's worth of material.
But Mahler is something special in music history. What makes Mahler's music extraordinary is not necessarily the pure music of it - I don't think anybody will claim that Mahler has anything the sheer musical invention of Bach or Mozart. And I doubt he was any more expressive than Beethoven or Schumann. He wasn't even necessarily the philosopher through music that Wagner was. But think of Mahler in comparison to a number of these other composers:
When you listen to Bach, however divine you find the music, those of us who are perhaps from another religious tradition or from no religious tradition at all can't fail to notice the sheer religious dogma that's attached to all his vocal music - it's not the worst thing, it's probably a large part of what inspired him, but it's there, and you have to make a conscious effort to ignore it. When you listen to Mozart, you realize that a large part of Mozart's talent was that he found a way to negotiate his way around the fact that the tastes of his time prevented him from expressing emotions in his music that were too dark - so he found ways of expressing melancholy through joy. When you listen to Beethoven at his greatest when he reaches a kind of infinity of the imagination - perhaps in the late String Quartets or Piano Sonatas, you realize that even Beethoven couldn't afford the full instrumental means to let his imagination run quite as wild as he could, except in two pieces: the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. Ditto Schumann, as great as his piano and vocal music was, he rarely figured out a way to get that infinite imagination to his orchestral music - and certainly not in the symphonies. And in Wagner? Well... with Wagner, you know what you're getting. Infinite musical imagination, tied to a philosophy that is very militant and a dramaturgy that is unremittingly ponderous.
Mahler transcended all those problems. He lived at the time when what we now call classical music mattered the most to the most people, and until he died, he was perhaps the preeminent conductor of his generation - his two rivals were Arthur Nikisch, who created the modern Berlin Philharmonic, and Arturo Toscanini, who became the first mass celebrity conductor in his oldest age. Had Mahler lived another forty years, it's quite possible that he, not Toscanini, would have been the great celebrity conductor, and given his track record, he probably would have been much more open to new music and other genres of music (particularly popular music, which is so important in Mahler's music), and have been a much healthier influence on classical music who might have prevented it from becoming the museum and cultural backwater classical music is today. Not to mention, we'd have forty more years of his music.
Mahler is perhaps the freest composer who's ever lived. Everything in his music is a kind of stream of consciousness in which we seem to hear Mahler's thoughts. He gets distracted, he gets confused, and then he picks up his thoughts again, sometimes in a later movement, sometimes even in a later symphony. Sometimes much later. Let's take one example. Here's something that happens at the end of the first movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. (Rattle/Birmingham) And now, here is the single most important phrase in Mahler Six, (Bernstein/Vienna) more on that next week. The major/minor modal shift, which is incredibly important in Mahler, Schumann, and all manner of composers going back another two-hundred fifty years. Now let's hear a quick moment Mahler 1. And now let's go straight to the beginning of Mahler 9, which we'll talk about in two weeks.
So let's begin with that Star Trek theme again. (MTT/San Francisco) So what the hell are those weird clarinets doing with what sounds like a military fanfare? Need I remind you of the last trumpets in the Resurrection Symphony? (Bernstein/New York)
So why clarinets? I have no poetic answer to that, I can merely point you to an earlier version of the symphony, Mahler made three. (Hengelbrock/NDR)
There are a number of reasons that I'm one of the only people in the world who prefers this second of the three versions. But this is one of them, because the horns make the military feel of it much more explicit. I have no doubt that Mahler thought it was too explicit. He begins with the strings playing one note, in seven octaves. No one had ever used an effect like that before. You feel the chill of the morning midst. Now let's hear the next two phrases. It becomes something like a melody, and most definitely, you hear that it's now a military barrack, accompanied with unmistakable birdcalls. And finally, let's go to one of the most ominous notes in music, where the seven octaves of violin midst are interrupted by ... what? A tuba?
It's worth remembering, Mahler came from a small town that nobody would ever remember were he not from there, Iglau, in what's now the Czech Republic but is really in an Austro-Hungarian no-man's land: German speakers, Hungarian speakers, Czech speakers, and Yiddish speakers all rubbing up against each other. Mahler was a mutt in the middle of this yet again, because he was a Jew who's family was trying to assimilate, so he spoke only German. He had no sense of his real identity, he only knew that he existed at the crossroads and tensions of a world so multifaceted that he could never find a place within it. We hear military drills, we hear nature - both organic and inorganic, and we hear... Beethoven. (Klemperer/Philharmonia)
That's the opening of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. Now in case Beethoven's influence isn't clear enough, let's first hear the second theme from the Fourth's opening movement. (Harnoncourt/COE) And now, the first theme of Mahler 1.
And to add a new level of complexity, here's a song that Mahler wrote shortly before he wrote the first symphony.
Listen to the lyrics, it could be sung by Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
Mahler said of his music that whoever listened to it intelligently would hear his life story. Revealing the deepest parts of yourself in art is not necessarily a great idea - all you have to do is read any number of personal essays in magazines these days to see that the insights you get are not necessarily that great. What makes it great is the self-awareness and imagination to keep it entertaining.
I walked across the fields this morning;dew still hung on every blade of grass.The merry finch spoke to me:"Hey! Isn't it? Good morning! Isn't it?You! Isn't it becoming a fine world?Chirp! Chirp! Fair and sharp!How the world delights me!"
Richard Strauss would dramatize ideas in music, and the results, while mindboggling, has a definite way of turning philosophical concepts into something kitschy. The ideas in Mahler come from everywhere, the deepest philosophy is most certainly there in Mahler, but he would just as soon take it from the cheapest popular music. Music in Mahler is the truest liberal democracy that any musician has yet come up with. For many highbrow composers, perhaps most, music is an aristocratic dictatorship in which everything is highbrow. In most popular music, it's populist democracy, and while a lot of it is extremely impressive, let's face it, 99% of creative musicians working in other genres don't . Don't think I'm being any less condescending to classical music - 95% of composers don't either, and the average classical instrumentalist makes most jazz or rock musicians seem like Einstein.
But Mahler was one composer, ever, who almost always took the highest musical genre to its highest aspirations, and he did it because he realized that in order to be a highbrow, you need to stand on the shoulders of lowbrow art. We are emphatically not here to serve music, music is here to serve us. Other human beings, not ideas, must be the priority of our lives, because whenever ideas become more important than human beings, humans become trivial enough to be sacrificed to an idea.
So with that in mind, let's hear some of the third movement. Again, how could Mahler have written something so bizarre?