Symphonies of Life and Death

“Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke?”

Like many people, Gustav Mahler struggled with these questions all his life and his feelings about these questions can be heard in his works, most notably his second, sixth and ninth symphonies. I was just listening to his second symphony this morning, with Leanord Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1963, Sony Classical, which is a fine recording, one of the finest among my collection of about 15 of Mahler’s second symphony recordings. Being a rather crazy Mahler fan, I have spent a considerable amount of money collecting recordings of his works plus other stuffs, such as books, concerts, etc. and therefore it is not surprising that I have in my collection more than 10 different recordings of each of his symphonies and several recordings of his song cycles.

Mahler’s second symphony asked if there is really a meaning to life, whether we have lived in vain. Of course, it is always dangerous to try to read the music as music is primarily an emotional experience, not an intellectual one but in Mahler’s music, such an endeavour is possible. In fact, Mahler wrote about this in his programme to the music, although he later sort of regretted in trying to write about the music. As he said, whatever he can write, he will write. But whatever he can’t write but felt deeply about, and all words exhausted him, he put them into his music. However, his general outline of what the music is about will be useful for those who wants to get an idea on what Mahler is trying to reach out to.

The second symphony, also called the “Resurrection” answered these questions in the Christian belief, as is according to his belief at that time. At the end of the tunnel, he thought that Mankind will live forever, will be resurrected and we have not lived in vain. However, in his sixth symphony, titled “Tragic”, this view took a literally tragic turn, that everything, really, is in vain and this is what we have. There is no afterworld, no paradise and mankind is here to live, to be happy, to love, and to suffer and at the end of it, mankind’s fate is tragic, i.e. when he dies, he is extinct.

Then he gave us his ninth symphony, the greatest one in my own experience where he again dealt with the idea of life and death but this time, he seemed to be at peace with himself, taking the reality and facts of life in its stride. He accepted life as it is and came to peace with it, much unlike the stubborn rebel in the sixth symphony. The music of the ninth is peaceful, calm and progressive. I remember listening to this symphony so many times and whenever I listen to this symphony alone, sometimes in the dark, I cannot help but feel the deep emotions welling up inside me and tears begin to form, nodding away in the dark. This is the power of music.

This coming season, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra will be bringing us again the 6th symphony, together with the hammer blows and all and it will be a great experience.

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Filed under Gustav Mahler, Music

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