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The Meaning of Mahler's Resurrection

by Matt Tiscareno

What would a cosmopolitan Austrian Jew in 1890's Vienna know about the Resurrection? That was my question of the day on Friday. As I occasionally do, I got out one of my CD's of the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and listened to it. This time I listened to the First and Second Symphonies. The Second Symphony, subtitled "Resurrection," is possibly my very favorite piece of classical music (though you might want to ask me again when it's not the most recent thing I've heard!). All of Mahler's music is intensely emotional, but I find that the finale of the Second never fails to stop me in my tracks and bring me to the edge of tears. On Friday, I made the "mistake" of doing work while I listened to the Symphony; this worked fine until five minutes before the end, when suddenly I felt compelled to stop and focus my attention on the music.

For me, the sublime beauty of the "Resurrection" Symphony is closely intertwined with my Christian faith. The first four movements conjure up the painful realities of this life: longing for justice, longing for God, the inevitable end of death (the opening movement of the Symphony is a wrenching funeral march). The fifth movement triumphs over all these things, leading to salvation, to God, bringing about the consummation of all things. "Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise up." As the chorus sings these words (in German, of course), I see the throne of God surrounded by triumphant song, as envisioned by the Apostle John in the book of Revelation. But, as impossible as it is for me to experience the music apart from my beliefs, it is highly unlikely that Mahler himself shared those beliefs. I don't know too much about what he did believe, though I know that he was Jewish and that he lived in a very humanistic time and place. Mahler had a keen sense of the suffering inherent in the human condition (which he intimately expressed in his music), but I doubt that he found in God the redemption of that suffering.

Many Christians in America seem to think that only Christians can produce art with any lasting spiritual value. There's Christian pop music, Christian books, Christian movies, all designed so that Christians can get their fix of culture without interacting with anything "un-redeemed." Of course, nothing is necessarily wrong with art that is explicitly Christian, but that ethic of avoiding anything "tainted by the world" is seriously problematic. The Sacred Romance, a book that Laura and I highly endorse, argues that spiritual realities can potentially be found in any art, regardless of who created it. St. Augustine said to God that "You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You." And I believe that any truth or beauty that is found in art is a reflection of this "restlessness," this longing for God, this eternity in our hearts, even if the artist himself doesn't realize it.

Of course, a good deal of effort is required to glean meaning from "non-Christian" art. Discernment is required to filter out worthwhile content from what is un-edifying (not that that's any less true for "Christian" art). This article from the Christian Science Monitor reviews the discussion over the worthwhile spiritual content content of The Matrix, which of course has been re-ignited by the current release of the sequel. But whether it be Star Wars or Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (dare I say Harry Potter?), there are indeed many things of value to be found in contemporary art. As for Mahler, I will continue to exult in what the "Resurrection" means to me. Maybe Mahler himself found and understood the truth that is there, and maybe he didn't, but I would like to hope that he did.

This was originally written for Matt's online blog. The original article can be found here.

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Tuesday 18th June, 2024