Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mahler's Catholicism

During Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad 2010, music lovers had an opportunity to experience Gustav Mahler’s 8th symphony, nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the colossal forces it called for. Any performance of this music is always an "event".

The opening movement of the 8th symphony is a monumental setting of “Veni Creator Spiritus,” a hymn written in 809 by Raban Maur, a Benedictine monk and prelate living in Mainz, to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Listening to that stirring music has always prompted me to think of Mahler’s faith, his religious conviction. Mahler was Jewish by birth, and a great number of musical scholars have dismissed his conversion to Catholicism, accusing him of mere opportunism.

Composers reveal themselves most truthfully in their artistic creations, and an examination of many of Mahler’s symphonies and songs leads me to believe that the composer’s Catholic conversion as much more than just a baptism of convenience.

Before Beethoven, symphonies have been purely instrumental works. But ever since Beethoven, in his 9th symphony, introduces solo and choral voices in the famous “Ode to Joy” finale, composers have been following his example. Four out of nine of Mahler’s symphonies include sung texts, chosen with great care from prose and poetry that have great personal meaning for him. For Mahler, every text he chooses to set to music reflects his own belief and conviction. Significantly, the words he set to music invariably address death and resurrection, life in heaven, and man’s relationship to God.

A solo alto sings the hymn-like Urlicht (Primal Light) movement in Mahler’s second symphony, “I am of God and wish to return to God!” In the finale of that same work, subtitled “Resurrection”, the choir intones, “Oh believe, you were not born in vain, have not lived in vain, suffered in vain,” and ends with, “Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead, my heart, in an instant! What you have conquered will bear you to God.” Here is Mahler, the believer, going beyond the 19th century’s metaphysical view of redemption, declaring his religious conviction for the world to see.

In the composer’s third symphony, a chorus of angels rejoices, “That Peter was freed of sin,” and that, “Heavenly joy is a happy city. Heavenly joy knows no end. Heavenly joy was granted by Jesus to Peter and us for our eternal felicity.” Mahler continues in the same vein with his fourth symphony, which ends with a charming description of heavenly life through the eyes of a child.

Finally, one of Mahler’s many songs, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), describes a man, anxious and lying awake at night. He is searching his soul, and longing for peace. At the end, he prays the affirming and consoling words, “Lord! Lord over life and death, You are standing on guard, You, You are on guard at midnight!”

Certainly doesn’t sound to me like the voice of a cynical non-believer, who chooses to become a Catholic as a mere career move.

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