Like many artists, Gustav Mahler was concerned with life, love and death. A new film, Of Love, Death and Beyond: Exploring Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, soon available on DVD, explores the depth of this as manifested in his Second symphony.
The New York premiere screening of the documentary happened on Dec. 2 at NYIT Auditorium. In attendance were Lewis M. Smoley, President of the Gustav Mahler Society, who made the introductory remarks; Maestro Neemi Järvi, the conductor of the filmed performance; and the filmmaker himself, Jason Starr, who answered questions from the audience after the showing.
The film featured highlights from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, "Resurrection," along with commentary from several eminent Mahler scholars, theologians and a philosopher, seeking to elucidate the historical events that may have influenced Mahler's planning of this work, as well as what his thinking may have been as he approached its various sections.
It also provided occasional visual imagery to illustrate the music, sometimes in a lighthearted way. (The imagery of St. Anthony preaching a sermon to the fishes was quite memorable, especially with the juxtaposition of Thomas Hampson, who also served as the film's narrator, singing Mahler's song on this text that he designated as a "study" for the third movement of the symphony.) There was no attempt to show a complete performance of the work, as that would have taken virtually all of the 90-minute duration of the film.
The film begins with the premise that Mahler was very concerned with these deep thoughts, having experienced the death of six of his brothers during his childhood, and having just experienced the end of a clandestine love affair in his own life. Mahler stated that he began the Second symphony where the first left off. To understand this, one needs to know, at the very least, that the first symphony ends with a very heroic, triumphal theme, reminiscent of the section of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" set to the text of "and he shall live forever and ever."
The Second symphony becomes an exploration of what that idea could possibly mean. His intent in the symphony was to express it all. In his exhaustive search to deal with these questions, he consulted a number of literary and philosophical references, including the works of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, as well as the Bible. Although several other texts are sung during the later movements of the symphony, in the end, while inspired by Klopstock's "Ode," he rewrote many of its words to fit his own personal conclusions.
As the film progresses, each movement of this monumental work is explored in its musical and extra-musical contexts. Just as translating a text from one language to another and then back can result in drastically changed meaning, any translation from a musical thought to a philosophical one, or vice-versa, is fraught with great potential for misunderstanding. Nevertheless, when performing a work, even a questionable point of view usually produces a better performance than no point of view. (As an aside, a commentary on a recital once began, "The performer played the notes of a Beethoven Sonata.") Thus, if one keeps in mind that, as each commentator talks about how Mahler is expressing "love" or "redemption" or whatever at certain points in the music, other points of view may be equally valid, it is still interesting and informative to experience the ideas given in the film.
As an example, the filmmaker used short scenes of high society members dancing and drinking together to illustrate the gemütlichkeit nature of the ländler-like dance section of the second movement. Was Mahler thinking of images such as these while composing this section? It's impossible to know for sure. While the imagery does correspond to the general mood of the music, which is dancelike but conventional, easygoing and very much under control, somehow the music transcends the images of the filmmaker and expresses more universal qualities.
And that is what great music does. So, in the end, does this film serve the music? Yes, very much so. To a listener not familiar with the symphony, it provides a series of reference points from which an understanding of the whole can be made easier. To a listener familiar with the symphony, it can add further enhancement of the experience by pointing out deeper connections and references.
◊ Mahler's Second symphony was last performed locally by the Dallas Symphony in 2010. Here's our review of that performance.