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Gustav Mahler: Death & Resurrection

[1]1,909 words

One hundred years ago today, on May 18, 1911, Gustav Mahler died in Vienna. Born on July 7, 1860, Mahler is one of the great composers of the late Romantic era, along with such figures as Edward Elgar (1857–1934), Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943).

Mahler is also the only Jewish composer among the first rank of European classical composers. One might argue that Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) also belongs on that list, but as much as I enjoy some works by Mendelssohn, I am not buying it.

Richard Wagner’s notorious essay “Jewishness in Music” (1850), published ten years before Mahler’s birth, offers a profound explanation for why the Jewish composers of his time were at best second raters like Mendelssohn: Jews, who were only recently emancipated from their ghettos, were essentially foreigners to European civilization and European music in particular.

For European composers, European music was as close to them as their mother European languages. For Jews, European music was as foreign to them as European languages, which they learned largely for practical purposes such as commerce and generally spoke with a distinct Yiddish accent.

It is almost impossible to compose first rate literature in any language other than one’s mother tongue. Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov are among the very few exceptions. (Heinrich Heine’s native tongue was German.) For the same reasons, Jewish forays into European classical music tended toward superficiality, inauthenticity, and crass commercialism.

However, as Bryan Magee points out in his classic defense of Wagner’s “Jewishness in Music” in his slender gem of a book Aspects of Wagner [2], all of this was bound to change with time. As more Jews rejected the strictures of their tradition and assimilated European languages and culture, including music, from an early age, one would begin to find first rate Jewish creative geniuses in European art and literature.

I think that Magee’s list of Jewish creative geniuses is heavily padded, but he was at least partly right. Magee mistakenly believes that Jews are not a genetically distinct group. Nor does he believe that genes shape culture and that genetic differences limit one’s ability to assimilate an alien culture. But genetic traits that might limit Jewish assimilation fall on bell curves, thus there will always be a few Jews who are able to genuinely absorb and constructively participate in European civilization. Mahler was such a Jew.

Despite the titanic efforts of Jews to claim Mahler as one their own (an effort eagerly abetted by anti-Semites who want to drive him back into the ghetto), Mahler’s music belongs to the tradition of Austro-German late Romanticism, and no convincing case has been made that Mahler’s compositions contain distinctly Jewish musical elements, with the possible exception of the third movement of first Symphony. Furthermore, Mahler’s music is fundamentally earnest and sincere, even in his settings of naïve folk songs, rather than the typically Jewish alienation and irony that one would expect in such contexts.

Mahler was also a convert to Catholicism. He married a Christian woman, had his children baptized, and most importantly, to my mind, wrote music that expresses explicitly Christian ideas, such as his settings of the Wunderhorn Lieder and his Symphony no. 2, “Resurrection,” which would be utterly grotesque and absurd if it were not so heartfelt.

One can always, of course, raise doubts about the sincerity of Jewish converts to Christianity, and from a racial perspective holy water alone changes nothing. But conversion can be indicative of a genuine desire to reject Jewish tradition and ethnocentrism and embrace the surrounding culture. One has to judge by the convert’s subsequent behavior, and in a case like Mahler, who made genuine contributions to European culture, the conversion seems sincere. Even in cases when a Jew becomes a bad or indifferent Christian, conversion may be indicative of a desire to be a good European, and as a non-Christian that is what matters most to me anyway.

Mahler had a successful career as a conductor and composer. His works were controversial and had their critics, but so did other Romantic pioneers. After Mahler’s death, his works fell into relative obscurity, but this was part of a wider cultural rejection of Romanticism after the Great War.

Leonard Bernstein is famous for claiming that he single-handedly rescued Mahler from obscurity in the 1950s and ’60s, which is rubbish. Mahler’s work was kept alive by such non-Jewish conductors as Willem Mengelberg, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and John Barbirolli, as well as Jewish advocates like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Aaron Copland.

Yes, Mahler benefited greatly from Jewish ethnic promotion and hype, the most ridiculous excesses of which are ably chronicled by Brenton Sanderson at The Occidental Observer [3]. But more objective Mahlerians also credit such factors as the waning of inter-war anti-Romanticism and the rise of the LP record.

Hype can account for brief and ephemeral fame. But the main reason that Mahler has remained among the mostly widely conducted and recorded of composers for the last 50 years is that his music is good. He has stood the test of time. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Mahler’s music.

Last year was the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, which prompted the major labels to release a number of excellent boxed sets of his major works. I recommend EMI’s Mahler: The Complete Works [4], a 16 CD set which contains some of the greatest Mahler recordings of all time, including such conductors as Furtwängler, Barbirolli, Klemperer, and Rattle and singers like Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and Fritz Wunderlich. Deutsche Grammophon also released a highly competitive Gustav Mahler: Complete Edition [5], this one in 18 CDs. Although in my opinion, the singers in this edition are slightly less desirable than in the EMI collection, the symphony recordings are slightly better, including Rafael Kubelik’s Symphony no. 1 and Herbert von Karajan’s reading of the 9th. Both sets are available new for less than $3/disc.

I want to conclude with four YouTube videos of excerpts from Mahler’s Symphony no. 2, “Resurrection,” which is the first Mahler symphony I heard, and the one that remains my favorite. The first movement is an anguished funeral march. The second movement is pastoral, an escape from grief into nature. The third movement is swirling urban night music, another attempt at worldly diversion which collapses into an outburst of anguish. The fourth movement, “Urlicht” (Primal Light) is a song from the Wunderhorn Lieder, a collection of German folk songs, this particular song about the suffering of earthly life and the joys of heaven. This points the way to the fifth and final movement, in which grief is conquered by Christian faith in the Resurrection of the dead.

The recording [6] is conducted by Leonard Bernstein, whom I usually find annoying. But the orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra), the soloists (particularly Dame Janet Baker, the mezzo soprano), the setting (Ely Cathedral), and the direction and picture quality are just too good to pass up. Bernstein’s mugging, moreover, is at a comparative minimum, and his tempos are dead right.

The first excerpt is from the opening of the first movement:

The second excerpt is the brief fourth movement, “Urlicht,” sung by Janet Baker. These are the words:

Original German

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Noth!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!

Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

In English

Primeval Light
O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!

How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

The third excerpt is the beginning of the fifth movement:

The fourth excerpt is the finale of the fifth and final movement. These are the words, written by Mahler himself:

Original German

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!

O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!

Hör’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!

O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!

Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’gedrungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen
Werde ich entschweben.
Sterben werd’ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!

In English

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!

O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

What has risen
must pass away.
What has passed,
rise again!

Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

Now, to end on a slightly ironic touch, Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony has been resurrected in the most unlikely place, in Laibach’s song “Das Spiel ist Aus” (The Game is Up). Here is a video, followed by the lyrics in German and in English translation. I have rendered the lines that have been adopted from the Resurrection symphony in bold. Their originals in the Mahler symphony reprinted above have also been rendered in bold.

Original German

Die Zeit ist fast vorbei
Die Freiheit ist nicht mehr frei
Still ist unser Herz
Und kurz ist unser Tod

Der Mensch liegt in grosser Pein!
Der Mensch liegt in grosser Not!

Die Zeit is fast heraus
Und unser Spiel ist aus.

Raus! Das Spiel ist aus!
Raus! Das Spiel ist aus!

Was erstanden ist,
das muss vergehen.
Was vergangen ist,
muss auferstehen!

Wir der Böse sind,
und wir sind Gott.
Wir sind zeitlos.
Und du bist tot!

Raus! Das Spiel ist aus!
Raus! Das Spiel ist aus!

In English

The time is nearly past
Freedom is no longer free
Our hearts are still
And swift is our death

Man lives in great pain!
Man lives in great need!

The time is nearly here
And our game is up.

Out! The game is up!
Out! The game is up!

What has risen
must pass away.
What has passed
must rise again!

We are the Devil,
and we are God.
We are timeless.
And you are dead!

Out! The game is up!
Out! The game is up!