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Mahler’s Second Symphony was an attempt to confront the shock of mortality, to bring both composer and audience face to face with their own triviality and inconsequence. At the same time, the fearful image of the cavernous void presented Mahler with an opportunity, not to find, but to create meaning amid an otherwise purposeless existence.

Death haunted Gustav Mahler. Born in 1860, Mahler was one of fourteen children. Nine of his siblings died in infancy. In 1889, while he was at work on the Second Symphony, his father, mother, and sister Leopoldine died within a few months of each other. His brother Otto committed suicide in 1895, the year the Second Symphony debuted in Berlin. It is not surprising, then, that Mahler became obsessed with death and that death became an essential theme in many of his compositions, none more so than the Second Symphony. Confronted with mortality and doomed to extinction, consumed by the fear that life was without meaning or purpose, Mahler sought reassurance and hope.[i]

He confirmed his intentions in the program that he composed for the Second Symphony in 1896. Initially reluctant to explain the conceptual foundation of the work, Mahler at last acquiesced after repeated entreaties from the composer, journalist, and critic Max Marschalk. He wrote that:

There is the great question: why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, terrible joke? We must answer these questions in some way, if we want to go on living—indeed, if we are to go on dying! He into whose life this call has once sounded must give an answer.[ii]

Five years later, in a letter to his sister Justi dated December 13, 1901 that he wrote while revising the original program, Mahler added “what next?… What is life—and what is death? Have we any continuing existence? Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning.” [iii] Mahler gave his answer in the finale to the Second Symphony. But first listeners had to brave the ordeal of death, and to admit the prospect that life moved between absurdity and despair.

Mahler originally titled the first movement (Allegro maestoso: stately, dignified) “Totenfeier,” obsequies or funeral rites, in which he communicates the solemnity of grief. But a sense of anguish does not predominate. Beginning with an ominous tremolo that yields to a hesitating series of arpeggios, the music, although somber, also conveys feelings of outrage at the terrible ubiquity of death and revulsion at human impotence to surmount it. Throughout the first movement lyrical passages repeatedly give way to more aggressive and dissonant statements in which the percussion and the brass emerge as the dominant voices.

The second, third, and fourth movements form an interlude (intermezzi) that permitted Mahler to engage in a musical exploration of the philosophical and theological questions he had posed before resolving them in the finale. The second movement (Andante moderato: moderately slow; at a walking pace) initially captures a moment of happiness that, however fleeting, introduces an element of ecstasy into the music. For Dante, there was “no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery.” (Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi al tempo felice nell miseria.)[iv] Mahler’s response to sorrow is different. He suggests instead that the contemplation of past happiness amid present suffering is, or can be, a source of immense comfort, even ineffable joy. Rendered incomprehensible and traumatic by the relentless approach of death, life may yet occasion instances of enchantment that, although ephemeral, are nonetheless real. Mahler described such occurrences as the image “of a long-dead hour of happiness, which now enters your soul like a sunbeam that nothing can obscure—you could almost forget what had just happened.” [v]

What Mahler gave in the second movement he withdrew in the third (Scherzo: fast, vigorous, humorous). Here the music is unsettled and exhibits a restless agitation. The tone itself is indefinite, the music divested of clarity and precision. Reality has intruded; the reverie is ended in the loss of meaning, identity, and purpose. Confusion prevails. Despite a brief respite, and even moments of playfulness, anxiety encroaches, culminating in a discordant protest that Mahler alternately described as an “outburst of despair”or a “cry of disgust.” In his correspondence with Marschalk, he elaborated. The return to “the confusion of life,” this “ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence,” comes to seem “horrible.” Mahler likened it to

the swaying of dancing figures in a brightly-lit ball room, into which you look from the dark night outside—and from such a great distance that you can no longer hear the music. Life strikes you as meaningless, a frightful ghost, from which you perhaps start away with a cry of disgust. [vi]

The last, tremulous echoes of life sound into the fourth movement (Urlicht: primal light), in which Mahler examined the most frightful questions of the human condition—questions for which there may be no answer, questions that may be beyond words. He confided to Marshalk that “We find ourselves faced with the important question how, and indeed, why music should be interpreted in words at all…. As long as my experience can be summed up in words, I write no music about it; my need to express myself musically—symphonically—begins at the point were the dark feelings hold sway.”[vii] The Second Symphony, at least the fourth movement, is thus the musical expression of emotions and beliefs too mysterious and profound to be uttered in language without being distorted or falsified.

Given this assertion, it is somewhat ironic that Mahler made a vocal section the centerpiece of the fourth movement. The soloist communicates the suffering of humanity, the longing for a reunion with God, and a yearning to experience the divine grace that alone brings salvation and confers eternal life:

Humanity lies in greatest need,
Humanity lies in great agony,
Ever I would prefer to be in Heaven.
Then I came upon a wide path
There came an angel who wanted to turn me away.

But no, I did not let myself be turned away.
I am from God. I want to return to God,
The loving God will give me a little light,
Which will light me into eternal, blessed life.[viii]

It is a passionate entreaty.

In important respects, Mahler’s Second Symphony offers a musical commentary on the theology of Søren Kierkegaard. A brief comparison may be instructive. “I stick my finger into existence,” Kierkegaard declared—“it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it who has lured me here? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?” [ix] For Kierkegaard, as for Mahler, inexorable dread was the price of existence. It was possible that life had neither purpose nor meaning, that at its heart yawned a vast, empty chasm. The recognition that humanity might waver on the edge of an abyss had prompted some men and women to retreat into the security of their illusions and had alternately propelled others to step off into nothingness. Yet, again like Mahler, Kierkegaard believed that life was not wholly determined. Human beings had choices. They could lose themselves in the welter of futility and insignificance or they could commit to a life of faith, embracing the only real hope there is.

Although Kierkegaard admired Descartes for his willingness to cast aside all prior knowledge and construct a new epistemology, he ultimately rejected Descartes’s ontological argument.[x] Reason, Kierkegaard insisted, did not and could not demonstrate the existence of God. Neither could it elucidate the vital questions of life nor at last provide an objective vision of reality. Faith alone was the source of truth—a truth that surpassed rational understanding. Faith contradicted logic. Individuals had thus to approach faith with “fear and trembling,” aware that in their quest for truth they were susceptible to errors that might prove fatal. Truth itself—“pure truth”—was inscribed in the mind of God and belonged to Him alone. To conquer their agonizing doubts and to give meaning to existence, those who wished to believe had to make a terrifying leap of faith. Without hesitation, they must plunge into the unknown, the unintelligible, the absurd. The early Christian theologian Tertullian observed that “the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.” [xi] Similarly, Kierkegaard admitted that “faith… hopes also for this life, but, be it noted, by virtue of the absurd, not by virtue of human understanding, otherwise it is only practical wisdom, not faith. Faith is therefore what the Greeks called the divine madness.” [xii] Only in such madness did truth and meaning reside.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was an attempt to confront the shock of mortality, to bring both composer and audience face to face with their own triviality and inconsequence. At the same time, the fearful image of the cavernous void presented Mahler, as it had Kierkegaard, with an opportunity not to find but to create meaning amid an otherwise purposeless existence. In the finale, Mahler swept aside the universality of death and replaced it with an affirmation of everlasting life. Enjoining men and women to believe and to be not afraid, the dramatic choral section punctuating the fifth movement reaffirms the faith and hope that Mather had previously expressed in musical terms:

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My dust, after a short rest!
Immortal life
He who called you will give to you.

To blossom again you are sown!
The lord of the harvest goes
And gathers, like sheaves,
We who died.

O believe, my heart, o believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
It is yours, what you desired.
It is yours, what you loved, what you struggled for.

O believe:
You were not born in vain!
You have not lived, suffered in vain!
What came into being, it must cease to be!
What passed away, it must rise again!
Stop trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!

Oh grief! You all-penetrator!
I am forced to you
O death! You all-conqueror!
Now you are defeated!
With wings that I won for myself
In fervent pursuit of love
I will waft away
To the light that no eye has penetrated
I shall die in order to live.

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My heart, in a moment!
What you bested
It will carry you to God![xiii]

Intensely emotional, the Second Symphony, especially the final movement, elevates listeners, carrying them toward an encounter with the transcendent, with all that is indestructible, immutable, and eternal, all that the senses cannot experience or the mind fathom. Life may be devoid of certainty and replete with tragedy. But it is also rich with possibilities for those who, animated by the fierce striving of love, gather the courage to overcome despair and to embrace the mysteries of being. [xiv]

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[i] Mahler composed his Second Symphony during a period of six years. He began the first and second movements while in Leipzig during January 1888. The personal sorrows he endured in the years that followed along with the demands of conducting the Hungarian Royal Opera in Budapest, and, perhaps the unfavorable criticism that the First Symphony had received when it debuted on November 20, 1889 prompted him to suspend his efforts. He did not return to the Second Symphony until the summer of 1893 and completed it in 1894.

[ii] Gustav Mahler to Max Marschalk, March 26, 1896, in Knud Martner, ed., Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler, trans. by Eithne Wilkins, Ernst Kaiser, and Bill Hopkins, (New York, 1979), 180. Emphasis in the original. For a thorough discussion and an insightful analysis of this theme, see Ryan R. Kangas, “Mourning, Remembrance, and Mahler’s `Resurrection,’” 19th-Century Music Vol. 36/No.1 (Summer 2012), 58-83.

[iii] Quoted in Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years (Woodbridge, UK, 2005), 183; see also Kangas, 66.

[iv] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. by Allen Mandelbaum (New York, 1982), Canto V, lines 121-123, p. 47.

[v] Mahler to Marschalk, March 26, 1896, in Martner, ed., Selected Letters, 180.

[vi] Ibid. Emphasis in the original.

[vii] Ibid. Emphasis in the original.

[viii] Reprinted in Kangas, 78.

[ix] Quoted in T.Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophical Quest (New York, 1984), 322.

[x] In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard was careful to note that “Descartes. . . did not doubt in matters of faith.” (Princeton, NJ, 1954), 22.

[xi] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York, 1918), 525.

[xii] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 10.

[xiii] Reprinted in Kangas, 82. For the choral section in the final movement, Mahler used the first two stanzas of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem “Auferstehen” (”Resurrection”). He had heard the lyric sung to a melody different from the one he used in the symphony at the funeral of fellow conductor Hans von Bülow, which he attended in Hamburg on March 29, 1894. To Klopstock’s lyric, Mahler added twenty-seven lines of his own.

[xiv] Besides the sources cited in the previous notes, in writing this short essay I have profited from reading, or reading in, a number of biographical and scholarly works. These include: Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (Chicago, 1996); Kurt and Henta Blankopf, eds., Mahler: His Life, Work, and World (New York, 2000); Jonathan Carr, Mahler: A Biography (New York, 1997); Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, trans. by Stewart Spencer (New Haven, CT, 2013); Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (New York, 2011); Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler (Mineola, NY, 2013; originally published in 1941). I also recommend Ken Russell’s evocative and poetic (rather than strictly historical and biographical) film, Mahler (1974).

The featured image is “Portrait of Gustav Mahler” (1907) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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