As a brass musician, the music of Gustav Mahler has always been the pinnacle of classical music to me. There is simply nothing else in the world like hearing a Mahler symphony live. You would be forgiven for thinking that, because I play a loud instrument, my main reason for loving Mahler is the sheer force and volume of his symphonies. After all, what could be louder than a symphony that calls for 8 trumpets, 10 french horns, 4 trombones, tuba, quadruple woodwinds, 2 harps, organ, massive choir, and the “largest possible contingent of strings?” And yes, I do love those moments in Mahler’s symphonies that knock you back in your seat, as if all of a sudden you were sitting in the wake of a huge jet engine. I also love the moments of near infinite silence, when you must inch forward in your seat to hear more, and you hold your breath for fear that you might extinguish the beautiful sounds you are hearing. The reason so many musicians care so deeply about Mahler’s music is because it contains something for everyone.
Mahler said famously, in a meeting with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, that “a symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything.” In them, he inserts the entire range of human experience: the blissful naivete of a child, the grief felt over the loss of a loved one, one’s realization of their own mortality, and everything in between. There are morose passages which express death, alienation, suffering, and anger. There also passages of such extreme serenity and beauty that it is impossible not to smile. For this reason, many people have accused his music of being schizophrenic or bipolar. Through his symphonies, I believe, he is saying ‘so is life.’
I was incredibly fortunate, in 2006, to travel to Vienna with my future wife and a group of students from my undergraduate school. For an orchestral musician, or anyone who loves classical music, Vienna is hallowed ground. There are monuments and streets dedicated to the composers that made the city world famous. In one cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof, you can visit the burial sites of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Schoenberg, and many more. Mahler is surprisingly absent from this circle of musical giants. Instead, to see his grave, you have to go to Grinzing, a suburb in the outskirts of the city. He once said, after choosing a site far away from the famous composers at the Zentralfriedhof, that “those who love me, will know where to find me; for everyone else it makes no difference.”
During a free day that was scheduled during our trip, Holly and I decided to break away from the rest of our tour group and visit the place where our favorite composer was buried. We asked our tour guide, who now runs and operates a very cool travel company called ‘In Mozart’s Footsteps’, how we could get there. Not having iPhones or satellite navigation at the time, we pulled out our map and he circled two spots on it for us. The first was our hotel, located in the center of the city, and the second was the Grinzinger Friedhof, the cemetery.
We were told that there was no direct way to get there, but we could easily take public transportation, and then walk the rest of the way. First, we got on the U-bahn (subway) at our local stop, Neubaugasse on the U3 train, and then connected to another line, the U2, at the Volkstheater stop. We got off the train at Schottentor Universität, went above ground, and connected onto the #38 S-bahn, or tramway. We took this to the end of the line, Grinzing, got off and looked around. “Which way do we go...?” We consulted our map, which wasn’t very detailed, and decided that we should go down and to the left.
After walking about a half of a mile, we saw the cemetery before us. It is huge. There were no signposts directing us on where to go to see Mahler’s grave. We had seen pictures of it, so we knew what to look for, but we had no idea where to start looking.
Now, I know that what I’m about to say will sound like some dramatic, artistic account of what happened, but this is the truth. For the entire week that we had been in Austria, the weather had been cold, gray, and overcast. But, as Holly and I meandered through the cemetery, the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds. We were walking without any real sense of direction, as if some invisible, magnetic force were pulling us along. After we had been looking for about half an hour, I turned around a corner and saw his grave, tucked in between two tall hedges.
It is a massive slab of granite that is rough, almost crude in its construction. On it there are only two words: Gustav Mahler. There is no epitaph and there are no dates, which seems appropriate given Mahler’s belief in the power of his music. Misunderstood in his own life, he seemed to understand that his music was meant for some other time, and that, beyond his music, he was nothing.
Mahler described much of his music as naturlaut, or “according to the natural world.” As I sat there, listening to the sounds of his world around me, I felt that I had a great understanding of his life and his work.
The ‘Resurrection Symphony’, as it is frequently called, seeks to answer the question, “Why have we lived? Why have we suffered? What happens to us when we die?” In the last movement of the symphony, Mahler uses a choir to answer this question. In the final moments, after nearly 90 minutes of music, they sing these words, which were written by Mahler:
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!
It has been 100 years since Mahler’s death, and he has achieved a level of fame as a composer that was unheard of in his time. I can think of no better way to end the 50th Anniversary Season of the Boise Philharmonic than our upcoming performances of his 2nd Symphony, on May 5th and 6th.
If you would like to learn more about Gustav Mahler and his 2nd Symphony, I hope you will join me and my fellow colleague, Justin Stamps, in a very special pre-concert conversation, beginning one hour before each performance. It is free and open to all ticket holders, so I hope to see you there!