In 1860, Gustav Mahler was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in the Bohemian village of Kaliště, then part of the Austrian empire. When, seven years later, Jews gained full citizenship, Mahler’s father Bernard was eager to take full advantage. He projected his ambition upon his musically gifted son who, aged 15, was sent to the Vienna Conservatory – an uprooting that undoubtedly damaged him.
But Mahler soon found new comrades among socialists and pan-German nationalists who, discarding traditional beliefs, were inspired by the works of Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche. Their religion was romantic art, especially music, and they ascribed messianic status to those with creative genius.
However, Mahler’s radicalism was short-lived. He embarked instead on a meteoric career as a conductor. In 1897, he was baptised in the Catholic Church, before taking charge of the Vienna Opera. His conversion was at least partly pragmatic, although Mahler was already very familiar with Christian culture. He often read the Bible and knew the choral Masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner. JS Bach, whose B Minor Mass and St Matthew Passion were among the greatest achievements of Western music, was also a towering figure.
Mahler absorbed Christian-themed literature too – works by Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and Dostoyevsky. But by far the deepest influence came from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“From the Youth’s Magic Horn”), an anthology of medieval folk poems steeped in Christian symbols. These vernacular texts represented a pre-Enlightenment consciousness, a time when the difference between subject and object, spirit and matter was less clearly defined. Mahler crafted 23 characterful songs based upon them, their naïvety at times verging on irony. Yet they express perfectly the composer’s longing for a childhood paradise that never was, and a heaven that remains forever out of reach.
Mahler’s greatest wish was to belong. How could a visionary genius find acceptance? In his 2nd Symphony (1894), Resurrection, the tension between a secular collective and an individual’s quest for transcendence leads to a dramatic narrative.
The work’s opening movements portray the emotions that surround the death of a hero, while its scherzo is modelled on a Wunderhorn song, “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes”: the ignorant shoal swims away, unimpressed by the preacher’s lofty words. But then the symphony pivots from cynicism to belief via another beautiful Wunderhorn song for solo soprano. Urlicht (“Primeval Light”) alludes to the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Here Mahler’s struggle is with doubt, overcome by a simple chorale expressing childlike faith. The soul finds solace in the arms of an angelic mother.
The symphony’s finale erupts violently. On the Day of Judgment, what becomes of godless souls? Mahler surprises us. A chorus whispers the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode”, before the music surges to an ecstatic climax celebrating divine love. Nobody, Mahler believed, would be judged, whoever they were, whatever they had done. Christian compassion prevails again in the 3rd and 4th Symphonies. The finale of the 4th is another Wunderhorn song, “The Heavenly Life”, in which butcher Herod devours Christ the Lamb. But, at its close, St Ursula – another vision of idealised womanhood – smiles at us with unconditional acceptance.
If Mahler’s symphonies 5 to 7 are more sceptical towards transcendence, the 8th Symphony (1907) returns to the Romanticism of his earlier music. The work opens with an energetic choral setting of the Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus; a tour de force of contrapuntal ingenuity which sublimates eros into Pentecostal flames. In Part Two, Mahler sets the final scene from Goethe’s Faust. The soul, carried by angels and penitents, floats heavenwards, drawn by the Mater Gloriosa. We are reminded of the baroque splendour of Austrian churches with their elaborately carved altarpieces and soaring frescoes. The symphony ends with the Chorus Mysticus praising the Eternal Feminine, as the human and divine meet in a blaze of ecstasy.
If Mahler’s late works appear to revisit the modernism of his middle symphonies, Christian ideas are never far away. The first tragic movement of the 9th (1909) is haunted by Wagner’s Parsifal. Mahler is both the wounded king and the fool who seeks the Holy Grail. In his symphonic song cycle The Song of the Earth (1909), Mahler uses translations of ancient Chinese texts, and its last movement, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), combines Taoist docility with echoes of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. At the moment of separation, two friends drink a cup of wine, before the parting soul dissolves into the eternal shimmer of the blue horizon.
In Mahler’s music, we sense a battle with cosmic forces. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, he issues the cry: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Throughout his life, Mahler clung to faith in a God with blessings to give, who shares in human suffering. He resisted Nietzsche’s polemic against Christianity, which risked a collapse into nihilism, seeking instead universal meaning in Christian symbols stripped of their historical accretions. Mahler died in 1911. During his last years he had experienced several devastating personal crises. Despite everything his faith survived, as the transcendent beauty of his unfinished 10th Symphony so movingly reveals.
Peter Davison is a British musicologist and cultural commentator who spoke at the Colorado MahlerFest 2019