Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s second symphony (the “Resurrection”) ends with a beautiful choral movement that’s based in part on a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  Mahler once wrote that it was his intention to capture the idea of a life beyond death: “The last movement of my Second Symphony really obliged me to search through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in order to find the liberating word… .”  There’s nothing new in the yearning for life after death, but what I’m wondering is whether there’s such a thing as the “liberating word”? 

Does music need words?  Can words, lyrics, liberate music?

The most famous instance of an orchestral work culminating in a choral finale is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which ends with the “Ode to Joy,” that grand statement of faith in the universal brotherhood of humanity.  The Ninth looms large over music history, and many composers have been conscious of its shadow.  Even Mahler worried that people would perceive his Resurrection Symphony as a “superficial imitation of Beethoven.” 

To push the idea a little further: Wagner saw Beethoven’s Ninth as the culmination and end, the death of orchestral music pure and simple.  The entrance of the voice in the finale signalled the eclipse of the orchestral era and, with it, the dawn of a new age: that of the Gesammtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” Wagner felt that this supposedly higher form of art would successfully integrate music, drama and poetry.  The way I read him, Wagner thinks that the written word was needed in order to free music from the tomb of tradition and to elevate it to the symbolic realm of art and myth.  “Where music can go no farther, there comes the word,” he says.

Now, I disagree with just about everything Wagner ever wrote (and this is no exception), but I’d like to rein things in before they get needlessly heavy.

I realize that words can help to give symbolic power to music, but I’m not sold on the idea that the written word is “greater” than music itself.  I’m reminded of a small 1927 miracle: Delta bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a gripping three-minutes of wordless moaning over a solitary slide guitar.  Ry Cooder considers it the “most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th century.”  Part of this so-called “transcendent” quality comes from the very fact that there are no words.  If the song is religious, there is no theological baggage to weigh it down; if it is a cry from the American Delta, there is no English to restrict its reach.  The only language here is music, and there is nothing to limit its communicative power.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)In some ways, music can be limited by words.  They can tie it down.  I don’t say this to suggest that the word has to die if music is to find new life.  I simply don’t think that Wagner is right in suggesting that the age of purely instrumental music has died. 

Music does not die.  And if there is no death, then there is no need for the dream of a resurrection.  

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Short Note:

The ideas are all my own, but I should point out that I drew the Mahler quote from Kurt Blaukopf’s critical biography Mahler.  The Wagner quotation comes from Maynard Solomon’s Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

Recommended Recordings of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony:

  • Otto Klemperer / Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra (recorded 1962; released on EMI Classics in 2000) 
  • Pierre Boulez / Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)

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