Jackboots and Sinful Fishes: The Prophecies of Mahler’s Resurrection.
I love all music, but I’m a classical music nut. I’m also a bit like a vegan mentioning eating habits: if the subject comes up, people soon find my favorite composer is Gustav Mahler. I first heard his music when I was twelve and exploring the classics via a stack of old vinyl records my mom picked up for me at Goodwill.
I was hooked on the classics by my elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Lumadue, who one day played Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in our weekly class. The dark rich colors, pulsing rhythms, and delicious tang of that music perked up my attention so much, I came in after class and asked to listen to it again. Before long, I was exploring her record collection instead of going out to recess, looking up the composers of this strange and wonderful music in encyclopedias. This wildly varying, unpredictable art form immediately struck me as being more like life, more like nature than anything playing on the radio I was forced to endure on the school bus every day. I found a better world. And I found who I was with that music. Many things create a person, but I could not have been the person I am without classical music.
But the big bomb didn’t drop until I was working my way through my stack of records and found a piece of music by some guy I’d never heard of. Gustav Mahler, born 1860, died 1911. It was an excerpt from his Symphony No. 1 on a sampler of recordings by the great German conductor Bruno Walter. I loved the record’s other contents, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauss and such, but who was this Mahler guy? Mrs. Lumadue never mentioned him.
At first, I intensely disliked Gustav Mahler’s music. There was something ecstatic, almost manic that frightened me, because I couldn’t understand why it was so insistent, tapping some crazy primal energy. It was in the form of a ländler (an Austrian country dance) with a lazy waltz for a middle section, but it seemed almost fanatically religious in its urgency. And my point of view was not improved by the only music history book I had at the time, one published in the 1930s, also from Goodwill (the small-town autodidact’s treasure cave), which was brutally dismissive of Mahler as a rambling, megalomanic madman. Other, older books didn’t even mention him at all.
But something kept drawing me back to it. I wanted to grasp this music’s fervor. Over the next year, I gradually began to understand how one can let go and be flooded with the spectacular presence of Mahler’s music, and soon it became an addiction. I decided that I had to hear one of his full symphonies, in order to find out just how over-the-top, tasteless, and bombastic Mahler really was. So I got my mom to take me to the record store in the mall, where I not only found a small but vital Mahler section, I found Bruno Walter’s complete recording of Mahler’s First, reissued at budget price, some twenty years after it was recorded in the early 1960s. I eagerly took it home and played it. First movement, okay, very pretty, kind of nature music, then it builds up to a loud ending with kettledrums, always a plus in the thirteen year-old’s book of music appreciation. The second movement, my now beloved ländler.
Then the third movement began. It is a slow mock-funeral march, starting off with a solo double bass playing “Frere Jacques” in a minor key, gradually joined by other lugubrious instruments, topped by a saucy oboe kicking a rhythmic tune on top of it all. What the hell?! Lil’ innocent country bumpkin me had never heard music of such bleak, black sarcasm. Then it suddenly became tender and open-hearted in the middle of the march, then resumed its dark tread at the end. I had gone through a door I would never exit again.
I nearly jumped out of my chair when the finale took off with a cymbal crash and orchestral storm, leading to a titanic battle that finally emerged triumphant twenty minutes later. I would listen to the symphony again and again, making up my own stories to go with the ebb and flow of the music, stories of nature and life and love and death. By the time I was 14, I had gotten this strange music so deep under my skin that I could reach a state while listening to it where I saw the music in my mind’s eye turn into pure, shimmering, vibrating energy.
Next I went to Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth, because I had read in Discover magazine Lewis Thomas’ essay, “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” a devastating piece about living under the shadow of nuclear war, reflected in the slow, deathly fade out at the end of that symphony. It took me years to wrap my head around that piece of music, but I got it eventually.
Soon I introduced my best friend, Mason, to Mahler, and he fell in love with it, too. While other high school kids were out drinking or cruising up and down the Main Street of our small Ohio town, Mason and I would be jamming to Mahler, Bruckner, or Beethoven. Mason got hold of a recording of Mahler’s Second, the “Resurrection,” and we devoured it. It is music that struggles from great darkness to heavenly light at the end, which certainly appealed to the youthful romantic in me.
In those days, I took the long, dark first movement as a battle with personal demons—despair and depression—so that the resurrection at the end was personal triumph. I didn’t dwell too much at the time on the fact that this piece was crucial to Mahler’s career. The greatest conductor of his age, Mahler was nonetheless barred from the top job as director of the Vienna State Opera because he was born Jewish. While writing this symphony, he converted to Christianity, so this work was seen as a very public statement of his conversion, though many dismissed it as a cynical ploy to get the imperial opera job. He got it, and the decade Mahler led the Vienna State Opera is still legendary as the house’s golden age. But antisemitism was growing virulently in Austria at that time, and Mahler’s jealous enemies fought him until he left in 1907. He fled to America, leading the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic until petty intrigue and small-minded management wore him down. Less than five years after leaving Vienna, Mahler was dead from a genetic heart condition, only fifty years old.
As the years have gone by, and my horizon of vision has increased with age and experience, I have grown to take Mahler’s Second less personally, and have grown to see it more in the social context of its composition. Though, to some degree, the battles of the first movement were indeed internal ones for Mahler, it now appears to me to also enfold the gradual rise in militarism and fanaticism in the culture he lived in. The movement is riddled with insane, jackbooted marches that build up to crushing climaxes or collapse into gaping pits. What was once, for me, a personal battle with fate now takes on the appearance of a creative artist being attacked by the growing madness and hatred that led the once lofty German culture into the madness of Naziism just a few decades later.
The third movement of the piece still startles with its lurid slither, equally seductive and repulsive. It was based on an earlier song Mahler wrote, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” (“St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes”), which pictures moral bankrupcy in the old parable of St. Anthony, who stalks out of church because no one will listen to his teachings. He instead goes to the river and preaches to the fish, who all listen attentively. Then, as soon as he’s finished, the fish go on with their sinning and fornicating as usual. Mahler’s sardonic wit cuts through the all-too-easy redemption promised by traditional religious sources, lending itself to new visions. Instead of fish, I see the slithering movement of crowds of consumers oozing through the virtual mall of Amazon.com or lines of cars stopping at McDonald’s on the way to pick up insulin at the pharmacy.
Where I once took it at face value that Mahler was expressing a conversion in the choral finale, I now see hidden messages: Mahler’s use of Gregorian chant-like themes is pervasive in this symphony, but those themes are also what gets hijacked by the militant marches. In the finale, what finally breaks the music free of the darkness are passages of music that sound ancient, almost Middle Eastern, almost… Jewish. Far more Old Testament than New Testament. And though the text is about resurrection, it isn’t liturgical or even demonstrably Christian. When I read what Mahler wrote about this finale, that there was “no heaven, no reward, no punishment, just love,” I realize now that the piece is about transcending the insanity of the world he lived in, looking toward a better world, one that is up to us to make, regardless of creed. Part of the wild energy of Mahler was because he was tapping into the madness of his times. He was both expressing himself and chronicling his world, actions that became in this music virtual acts of prophecy, fifty years before the disasters they foretold—and, potentially, still foretell.
The mark of a masterpiece is that it works on multiple levels. Mahler’s Second is still a personal struggle from darkness to light, and it is still a theatrical tour de force, bringing in human voices to cap the drama in the finale. Now it has taken on new life for me as an indictment of the society its creator lived in and fought with. But this point of resonance opens up new, frightening doors, for suddenly I am chilled by the parallels I see with our current world, the rise of hatred, fanaticism, and intolerance. Most Americans think that Nazi Germany couldn’t happen here. That scares me, because it shows a lazy complacency. If you had asked most Germans or Austrians in the early 1900s if that sort of madness could happen in those countries, they would have dismissed you with a laugh. It was the culture that gave the world great composers and great philosophers. How could it possibly become utterly derailed? Then it did.
As I look around, I see that many Americans are blind to how much our society has polarized and grown accustomed to the culture of war. They think that because our country was founded on noble ideals, such a just nation couldn’t possibly subvert those ideals, when in fact we already have, many times. Bacon’s Rebellion. Manifest Destiny. Wounded Knee. Remember the Maine. My Lai. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Donald Trump. Mahler’s music crystallizes this moment in history for me, when we are, as the Comte de Salvandy once said, “dancing on a volcano.”
And that is why I listen to classical music. It isn’t of our time. It’s of all time. It isn’t just dead European white guys, it’s human artists sharing insights about the world they perceive, insights too valuable to be pitched simply because of what they lack in diversity. It’s music held in greatest reverence in… China, where it was banned for much of the last century and is still looked at suspiciously by the powers that be. It’s one of humanity’s clearest mirrors, one that shows warts and other truths, which is why totalitarians like Hitler and Stalin so often banned pieces of classical music. It helps me see my world and know what I have to say, in order to do my part to help resist the pig-ignorance of that dead-end road, fanaticism.
And above all, it put me in touch with the shimmering energy that underlies the universe, allowing me to become a creative artist sharing these thoughts, something that is desperately important to me because of what Lewis Thomas said in his essay about the fading finale of Mahler’s Ninth. He said that the music became almost unbearable to him after he heard government officials talking about strategies for surviving a potential nuclear war. For the moment, today, the threat has focused on free-floating fanatics with nothing to lose who terrorize their perceived enemies. But someday the two—nuclear weapons and lone madmen—will become one threat, more terrible than anything previously dreamed-up by the slithering fishes of humanity’s worst self. And even then there will be tin-skinned functionaries droning on about managing disasters and calculating survival strategies so that “only forty million” people die. Lewis Thomas’ words will still be hanging in the air like they were when I was a teenager and read his essay:
“If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to that, or read things like that, I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.”
We’re trying, Mr. Thomas.