Why theology doesn’t know what to do with Gustav Mahler

Every so often you receive snippets of information that make you jealous as a musician. Today was a case in point; just as I was about to start writing this post, I read a brief Facebook jotting from my Dutch musicologist friend Marcel Zwitser that read ‘Enjoyed a two and a half hours rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Mariss Jansons for the upcoming New Year’s Concert in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna this afternoon. Gorgeous’. Very timely, as my thoughts for the last couple of days have been very much in Vienna and with that orchestra; I made a resolution that before the year is out I would try to write something on this year’s Mahler centenary, and I’m determined to keep it. However, I do so with not a little fear and trembling, not merely because of the vastness of the literature on the composer and the complexity of his work, but also because when it comes to Mahler, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the most important word of all is ‘ambiguity’. As with few if any composers before him, Mahler’s work has given rise to diametrically opposed interpretations, depending not least on whether one thinks he is speaking with or without quotation marks, sincerely or ironically. As we shall see, this is particularly problematic when it comes to trying to find one’s way out of the labyrinth of his complex and shifting metaphysical views.


Gustav Mahler, 1909

A courageous recent attempt at theological dialogue with Mahler can be found in the essay ‘Musical Time and Eschatology’ by Alastair Borthwick, Trevor Hart and the late Anthony Monti in the collection Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology; in this stimulating article on the parallels between musical process and theological conceptualizations of the Last Things, the authors turn to Mahler’s ‘eschewing of strong authentic cadences’ which they see as ‘a natural musical parable for a similarly “strong” and satisfying end to the world and its history.’ Their purpose in examining Mahler is to make the bold claim that his creative, non-cadential solutions to the problem of how to attain musical closure without the kind of straightforward resolution favoured in classical tonal music ‘can model an alternative kind of eschatological “closure” entirely consonant with the wider shape of Christian hope.'[1] Such a hope, they assert, neither degenerates into modernity’s discredited myth of progress nor resigns itself to the ultimate futility of the world, but posits an open, dynamic future in which possibilities are never exhausted.


The chief example chosen to illustrate this point is the remarkable ending of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which the authors aptly describe as a ‘the end point of a process of fragmentary dissolution that fades into silence’, quoting Leonard Bernstein’s opinion that this is ‘a sonic presentation of death itself …which paradoxically reanimates us every time we hear it.’[2] To support this affirmative interpretation, they point to Mahler’s brief instrumental citation of a melodic fragment from his Kindertötenlieder, which is accompanied in the song-cycle by the words ‘O be not afraid. The day is beautiful. They [the dead children of Friedrich Rückert’s poems] are only on their way to yonder height’, contending that Mahler’s ending can be read as pointing not to death as a full-stop, but to a life whose future is left mysteriously open by the symphony’s refusal of an unambiguous conclusion:

‘Mahler’s gestures of closure suggest […] that “completion need not imply an ending.” Rather, completion may suggest an opening out onto that which is without end or limit – that is, onto infinity or, better perhaps, the transcendent future of God’s promise.’[3]

This is undoubtedly a highly creative and theologically fertile interpretation, in that the chief aim of the article is to argue (following both Gregory of Nyssa and Jürgen Moltmann) for an eschatology which is neither simply the telos of the historical process of the world, nor a ‘state of static timelessness’, and for a life beyond death which ‘is not a world where we finally “arrive” and all loose ends are tied, but instead is one of infinite progression into the unfathomable mystery of God.’ [4] To the extent that the ending of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is radically open and does indeed function as a singular evocation of a deep mystery, their point is certainly well-made. Moreover, Borthwick, Hart and Monti are surely pursuing a fruitful line of inquiry in seeing the questioning, open-ended Mahler – who has always struck me personally as being at his most ‘truthful’ when refusing easy solutions – as offering more fertile territory for theological reflection on the nature of eternity than the rousingly affirmative conclusions of his Second and Eighth Symphonies, via which the composer has often been co-opted into something resembling a traditional Christian framework (a mistaken interpretation which is dispelled by anything more than a superficial reading of the works’ texts). The authors of the article are perhaps wise to avoid theological appeals to these two symphonies; for all their undeniably thrilling moments – and I say this while still counting myself as fervent an admirer as any of the Second Symphony – the aspect of public celebration in both seems to render these two works, like all artistic apotheoses, vulnerable to ideological appropriation of the most dubious sort.


Ticket for the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Munich, September 12, 1910

A perceptive recent study by Carl Niekerk focusing particularly on Mahler’s Jewishness has underlined this by pointing out that the performance of the Second and Eighth Symphonies in 1936 on the 25th anniversary of Mahler’s death by the Vienna Philharmonic can plausibly be construed as part of an attempt to make the composer acceptable to a ‘deeply Catholic, autocratic, anti-parliamentarian Austrofascist regime that envisioned a state modeled after Mussolini’s Italy’ and whose chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was a close friend both of Alma Mahler and Bruno Walter.[5] This historical observation would appear to vindicate the trenchant critique levelled at the  Eighth Symphony by Theodor Adorno in 1960, in which he pinpoints the undeniable element of self-glorification in the work’s deliberate conflation of the Holy Spirit and the Zeitgeist :

‘The magnum opus is the aborted, objectively impossible resuscitation of the cultic. It claims not only to be a totality in itself, but to create one in its sphere of influence […] In reality it worships itself. The spirit that names the Hymn in the Eighth as such as degenerated to tautology, to a mere duplication of itself, while the gesture of sursum corda underlines the claim to be more.’[6]


Mahler’s Eighth, claims Adorno somewhat cruelly but not unjustifiably, mistakes the Spirit for itself in a way which is typical of its epoch; ‘it confuses art and religion, under the sway of a false consciousness that extends from Die Meistersinger to Pfitzner’s Palestrina, and to which the philosophical conceptions of Schoenberg, the man with Die glückliche Hand, the chosen one of Die Jakobsleiter, are also subject. Like no other composer of his time, Mahler was sensitive to collective shocks. The temptation that arose from this, to glorify the collective that he felt sounding through him as an absolute, was almost overwhelming. That he did not resist it is his offense.’[7]


Veni Creator Spiritus, opening

Typically irreligious?

While the gist of Borthwick’s, Hart’s and Monti’s argument (that ‘open’ models of God’s future are ultimately more hopeful than ‘closed’ ones) strikes me as theologically attractive, their use of Mahler to illustrate their case makes me more than a little nervous from a historical and musicological standpoint. The basic problem with attempting to annex the dénouement of the Ninth Symphony to notions of the ‘transcendent future of God’s promise’ is that this overlooks the possibility that the concept of infinity can also be construed pantheistically; the ‘yonder height’ beyond this life can equally well be interpreted as the liberating dissolution of the individual into the Weltall. Furthermore, an examination of the historical background to Mahler’s work demonstrates that to interpret it in non-theistic terms is by no means a fanciful hermeneutical move, as it is well-known that the composer’s major philosophical influences included several thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the panpsychist Siegfried Lipiner who can hardly be seen as congenial to traditional forms of Christian doctrine.

As Niekerk argues persuasively on the basis of a detailed analysis of Mahler’s literary sources, the biographical evidence against any attribution of a traditional metaphysical outlook (whether Christian or Jewish) to Mahler is considerable.[8] What seems far more plausible is to see Mahler as the prototypical ‘spiritual but not religious’ composer, turning to art as a substitute for religious practice, with music being the vehicle for what might be termed a ‘postmetaphysical’, non-dogmatic piety in which the search for transcendence is not so much abandoned as collapsed into an ‘immanent frame’, to use a useful term from the eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s reading of the long-term emergence of ‘A Secular Age’. Otto Klemperer’s description of the composer in his memoirs captures this essential ambivalence towards religious belief: ‘Mahler was a thorough-going child of the nineteenth century, an adherent of Nietzsche and typically irreligious. For all that, he was – as all his compositions testify – devout in the highest sense,’ though his piety was ‘not to be found in any church prayer-book’.[9]


Cartoon by Theo Zaschke, 1906

Imagine there’s no judgment …

If Klemperer’s straightforward alignment of Mahler with Nietzsche has been shown by contemporary scholarship to be something of an over-simplification, it is incontestable that Mahler was deeply impacted by the author of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. An acquaintance with Nietzsche’s and other literary critiques of metaphysics dating back to Jean Paul, whose Titan Mahler referenced in his First Symphony, made acquiescence to conventional religious belief as problematic for him as it had been for Brahms, who famously claimed in his late exchange on religion with Dvorak that he had ‘read too much Schopenhauer’ to espouse traditional Christian faith. At the same time it needs to be emphasized that Mahler did not simply jettison a Judeo-Christian symbolic framework in the overtly confrontational manner of other musical Nietzscheans such as Richard Strauss or Frederick Delius. Right up until his late works, Mahler instead explicitly attempted to integrate elements of Christian symbolism (shorn of their doctrinal basis) into his work on a philosophical rather a than theological basis, as if to preserve religion’s inner core through art; his friend Siegfried Lipiner’s statement that ‘He who means well toward religion should protect and support the efforts of those critics who want to kill its dogmas'[10] could well have been his own.

The two most obvious large-scale examples of this effort to re-define religious concepts by severing them from their dogmatic connotations are of course Mahler’s adaptation of Klopstock’s Resurrection in the finale to the Second Symphony (to which Mahler added his own works in place of the poet’s) and his daring – or shocking, depending on one’s point of view – combination of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus with the conclusion to Part II of Goethe’s Faust in the Eighth. In both cases, the result is uniquely personal and cannot be described in terms of Mahler’s adherence to any pre-established religious or philosophical framework.

A startling example of the composer’s revisionism is provided by his program for a Dresden performance of the Second Symphony on December 20, 1901. Here Mahler begins his discussion of the 5th movement in the relatively conventional terms of Biblical apocalyptic:

‘The end of all living things is at hand, the last judgment is announced, and the whole horror of that day of days has set in.- The earth trembles, graves burst open, the dead arise and step forth in endless files.[…] the cry for mercy and grace falls terrifyingly on our ear.- The crying becomes ever more dreadful – our senses forsake us and all consciousness fades at the approach of eternal judgment.’

At this point, however, a surprising reversal occurs; Mahler has in mind something radically different in his finale from the vision of the Last Things offered by Christian theological orthodoxy:

‘Softly there rings out a chorus of the holy and the heavenly: “Risen again, yea thou shalt be risen again!” There appears the glory of God! A wonderful gentle light permeates us to our very heart – all is quiet and blissful! – And behold: there is no judgment – There is no sinner, no righteous man – no great and no small – There is no punishment and no reward! An almighty feeling of love illumines us with blessed knowing and being!'[11]

Mahler’s 1896 version of this program had been arguably still more radical, with the Nietzschean influence unmistakable:

‘What happens now is far from expected: no divine judgment, no blessed and no damned, no Good and no Evil, and no judge.’[12]

For Mahler, the belief in universal resurrection expressed in the Second Symphony must therefore be seen as an essentially philosophical rather than a religious notion. His poem expresses not the desire for eternal life as bestowed by the personal deity of Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather the intuition of the ontological necessity of dying and rebirth, in terms which have overtones of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: ‘What has come into being must perish, what perished must rise again’.

The Second Symphony can thus be read in terms of Mahler’s life-long conversation between philosophy and religious tradition, as can the Eighth (Mahler’s letters to Alma on the subject speak explicitly of his ambition to reconcile Jesus and Socrates within a common framework of ‘creation through Eros’), in which Mahler follows the trajectory already mapped out by Goethe in terms of the philosophical appropriation of religious symbols, for example in the linking of the Mater Gloriosa and the Eternal Feminine.[13]

As Niekerk points out, the Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde , with its unforgettable final repetition of the word ewig, is an especially enigmatic instance of this dual philosophical and religious track in Mahler. The composer’s specificity, argues Niekerk, lies precisely in his willingness to embrace the full ambiguity of the word , with overtones both of religious transcendence and its reduction to pure immanence in the form of Nietzsche’s cyclic notion of eternal return. It is Mahler’s apparent refusal to choose unequivocally between the two which gives the music its persistent fascination and ongoing appeal in a present-day intellectual climate suspicious of unambiguous readings:

‘The term lives off the tension between the desire to find something eternal beyond the here and now and the realization that it is precisely life on earth that will carry on perpetually. […] In spite of its religious etymology, it does not in any way contain a promise that anything like a divine order or ongoing spiritual essence of nature exists.’[14]


Whereas Hart, Borthwick and Monti appeal to Bernstein in their reading of the ending of the Ninth, Niekerk turns to another great Mahlerian, Bernard Haitink, on the Abschied: “I don’t know if the end of Das Lied von der Erde is a consolation. I don’t know. It is just more than that. Humanity dissolves into the air and nothing is left. A sort of emptiness – which is very moving.”[15] Whether one accepts Niekerk’s line that ‘Mahler is searching for a philosophy of life and death that is decidedly postmetaphysical’, his point seems historically well-grounded when he asserts that we are dealing with something which is ‘more complex than any scenario that seeks to read some form of redemption into the end of Das Lied von der Erde.’[16] And it it this irreducibility to a conclusive reading which makes Mahler both an intriguing and problematic figure for theology in a way that mirrors the complexity of the Western intellectual tradition’s relationship to classical theism in the modern era. However, he is a composer whom theology can ill-afford to ignore; it is surely significant that the Mahler revival of the 1960s coincided with the rise of an ever-growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency in the Western world, with whom the composer’s non-dogmatic spirituality would appear to resonate deeply. Here Niekerk’s remark at the outset of his analysis, that ‘music seems particularly well suited to accommodate a residual longing for meaning beyond the purely subjective that still exists in postmetaphysical times such as the early twenty-first century’,[17] seems highly pertinent. To engage with the many questions thrown up by Mahler’s oeuvre is to engage with just such ‘residual longings’ .

Devout musician?

As I conclude this post, another Facebook entry has just appeared which confirms the intuition that the position I describe is especially common within the artistic community – a ‘quote of the day’ from Sting offered by the Rock & Theology website:

‘In an interview for Time magazine, Sting said his religion was “devout musician.” When asked what he meant by that he responded:

It’s not a frivolous answer. I’m essentially agnostic. I don’t have a problem with God. I have a problem with religion. I’ve chosen to live my life without the certain ties of religious faith. I think they’re dangerous. Music is something that gives my life value and spiritual solace.’

This sounds strangely similar to an anecdote told by one of Mahler’s closest collaborators, the Vienna Opera set designer Alfred Roller, which is perhaps as good an encapsulation of Mahler’s fundamental ambivalence towards religious faith as any other:

‘Ernst Bloch describes Mahler among other things as “a human hymnal” and that is probably the most apt summing-up of Mahler’s essential nature. He was deeply religious. His faith was that of a child. God is love and love is God. This idea came up a thousand times in his conversation. I once asked him why he did not write a mass, and he seemed taken aback. “Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there’s the credo in it.” And he began to recite the credo in Latin. “No, I couldn’t do it.” But after a rehearsal of the Eighth [symphony] in Munich he called cheerfully across to me, referring to this conversation: “There you are, that’s my mass.”‘[18]


[1] Alastair Borthwick, Trevor Hart, and Anthony Monti, ‘Musical Time and Eschatology’ in Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (eds), Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 271-294: 275.

[2] Ibid., 280-281.

[3] Ibid., 283.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Carl Niekerk, Reading Mahler : German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (Rochester, NY : Camden House, 2010), 217.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: a Musical Physiognomy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 138. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid., 139. Emphasis mine.

[8] It has long been the established scholarly consensus that Mahler’s formal conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in 1897 was essentially a tactical manoeuvre designed to ensure his acceptability as a candidate for the post of music director of the Vienna Court Opera.

[9] Klemperer on Music: Shavings from a Musician’s Workbench, ed. Martin Anderson (Lancaster: Toccata Press, 1986), 147.

[10] Quoted Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 92. Niekerk’s discussion of the philosophical influence of Lipiner upon Mahler in chapter 3 is especially lucid.

[11] Reprinted in A. Peter Brown, The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), 579. Stephen Hefling has conjectured that Mahler’s universalism derived from Lipiner’s teacher Gustav Fechner, whose opinion was that ‘there is no heaven and no hell in the usual sense of the Christian, the Jew, the heathen, into which the soul may enter … after it has passed through the great transition, death, it unfolds itself according to the unalterable law of nature upon earth … quietly approaching and entering into a higher existence.’ (Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode (1836), quoted in Stephen E. Hefling, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 10.

[12] Quoted in Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) , 634n..

[13] Mahler’s simultaneous turn to the themes of the Spirit and das ewig Weibliche raises the tantalizing and as far as I can see unexplored possibility of a conversation between the composer and Teilhard de Chardin, whose poem L’éternel féminin, later analysed by Henri de Lubac, appeared in 1918, as well as with the Russian Orthodox exploration of the figure of Sophia in the work of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov; like Mahler all can in some way be seen as trying to re-conceptualize notions of divine transcendence and immanence.

[14] Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 208.

[15] Frank Scheffer, Conducting Mahler, DVD (Paris; Idéale Audience, 2005). Quoted in Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 269n.

[16] Ibid..

[17] Ibid..

[18] Quoted in Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (Norton: London 1987), 163-4.