Gustav Mahler—a Taoist?

I wanted to say a bit more about my comment  following my post becoming Tao: music in nature.  In that comment, repeated in the next paragraph, I speculated that the composer, Gustav Mahler, may have been a Taoist at heart.  There are several themes in Mahler’s life and work that seem to resonate with Taoism, even to point explicitly to Taoism:  his search for a philosophical understanding of life and death, but lack of comfort in conventional religion; his love of Nature, and his feeling of unity with and attunement to Nature; his finding some sadness, but ultimately comfort and consolation in the idea that Nature goes on and on, beyond the lifespan of any individual, who returns and reunites with Nature upon death;  and the use of a Chinese poem by Li Bai, with explicitly Taoist themes, as the words to one of his greatest works, The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde).  Here’s the comment I had written previously:

“For the last several years I’ve been a bit obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler. I have a kind of ‘out there’ theory that he was a Taoist at heart, or became one later in his life, although he may not have described it as such, and perhaps was groping toward something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He composed most of his music in the summers immersed in nature, while staying in the Alps, or by a lake in the middle of the Alps. He was deeply affected by nature. There are some intriguing things I learned in a video entitled What the Universe Tells Me: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The music historian, Morten Solvik, comments, ‘Mahler was a religious person who was not at all dogmatic. He was born a Jew; he converted to Catholicism; and yet he felt at home in neither religion. His search was a philosophical one, not a dogmatic or religious one, in the narrow sense of the word. It was all embracing.’ And Catherine Keller, a theologian at Drew University, comments in that same video about the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which has the structure of a chorale, and has been described as a prayer without words: ‘What does it mean, that, in some sense, Mahler is praying with us in this final movement without words. I think a prayer, for him, is not about gabbing at God, telling God what we need, or pouring out all of our self-deprications. A prayer, at this depth, seems to be about profound attunement to the spirit of life [I might replace ‘spirit of life’ with ‘Tao’].’ Although his music can express quite a bit of angst, it seems to move toward transcendence and serenity. In addition to being a composer, he was primarily known in his lifetime as a prominent conductor, and his conducting style went from being very physically active and dramatic early in his career, to very minimalistic (one might say, wu wei) later in his career. And later in his career he became fascinated by Chinese poetry and culture, and set his later work “Song of the Earth” to a Chinese poem by Li Bai. I like to imagine that he was a Taoist without fully realizing it or revealing it…”

This idea of Mahler as a Taoist began to occur to me as I have been reading and listening to various descriptions of Mahler’s life and work.  In a course from The Teaching Company, Professor Robert Greenberg states the following, regarding Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection” Symphony, which, by it’s title, had previously sounded to me Christian in theme:

“Mahler Symphony #2 is a philosophical tract, a spiritual and emotional journey that documented Mahler’s pan-religious belief structure, at least as it existed in 1894.  It’s not a Jewish religiosity.  It’s not a Christian religiosity.  Frankly,…the message of the symphony has more in common with various Indian and Eastern religious philosophies than European.”

–Robert Greenberg’s lecture #4 in “Great Masters:  Mahler–His Life and Music,” Course #756, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2001.

In that same course, Professor Greenberg touches up on the idea that, although Mahler suffered from all sorts of inner torment, he also was trying to find his way toward a sense of inner harmony, a very Taoist goal.  Professor Greenberg quotes from a letter that the composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote to Mahler in December of 1904, after attending a performance of Mahler’s Symphony #3:

“My Dear Director,  I must not speak as a musician to a musician, if I am to give any idea of the incredible impression your symphony made on me.  I can only speak as one human being to another, for I saw your very soul.  It was revealed to me as a stretch of wild and secret country.  I felt it as an event of nature.  I felt your symphony.  I shared in the battling for illusion.  I suffered the pangs of disillusionment.  I saw the forces of evil and good wrestling with each other.  I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony…”

–excerpt from a letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Gustav Mahler, December, 1904, quoted in Robert Greenberg’s lecture #6 in “Great Masters:  Mahler–His Life and Music,” Course #756, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2001.

Also, in the video Mahler—I Have Lost Touch with the World,  the Mahler biographer, Henry-Louis de la Grange, discusses Mahler’s composition, The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), and, in that discussion, makes reference to Chinese philosophy and religion.  Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde one year after the devastating loss of his beloved 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Marie, called affectionately Putzi, who died of diphtheria.  The last section of the piece, called Der Abschied (The Farewell) was written, in part, as a kind of farewell to Putzi, whom Mahler adored, and is pervaded with the themes of death and farewell, but also of life and the renewal of nature.  The last words of Der Abschied are, “The dear earth everywhere / Blossom in spring and grows green again! / Everywhere and eternally the distance shines! / Bright and Blue!  Forever….forever.”

Gustav Mahler and his daughter, Putzi

In talking about Das Lied von der Erde in the video Mahler—I Have Lost Touch with the World, Henry-Louis de la Grange describes Mahler’s philosophy and views of death in a way that makes them sound distinctly Taoist:

“He had religious feelings, more than beliefs.  I think he was neither a Catholic nor a practicing Jew, and I think he was much more a pantheist and influenced by Oriental philosophies, and that’s why it’s so interesting to see him setting Chinese poems to music in the Lied van der Erde … I think … the Orientals are…more familiar with this mixture of sadness and gaiety and this sense of farewell which is very sad and also rather mystical, rather otherworldly and does not express any particular belief in the case of the Lied van der Erde…  It is the renewal of nature every year in spring which is … when human beings compare their death to the fact that nature remains after their death.  It is a thing that is very inspiring and very moving, and I know very few passages in all of music which are more moving than the end of Lied van der Erde.”

Another Mahler biographer, Stuart Feder, also writes of Das Lied van der Erde, that, “In Der Abschied…The ultimate ‘place,’ the end point of human destiny has been transformed from the ‘heavens’ of the Second and Fourth symphonies, the Mutter Haus of Kindertotenlieder, and the occassional moments of grace in the lieder to a unique ‘place’ never before articulated in music.  At the same time, musical acts of mourning evident earlier find a point of resolution and comfort beyond mere resignation in the last moments of Das Lied.

“In this final movement, boundaries dissolve between the living and the dead; the human and the nonhuman; the organic and the inorganic.  By the same token, music, poetry, and philosophy merge in a confluence of meaning that none could adequately elaborate singly.  The truly engaged listener is drawn into the amalgam in such a way that there is a co-mingling of music and self.”

–Stuart Feder, Gustav Mahler:  A Life in Crisis, 2004, Yale University Press, p. 149

It seems that in this final movement, the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman, the organic and the inorganic, the listener and the music all become one with Tao.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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