Music for Easter?

Here’s a puzzle.  Handel’s Messiah is only one-third about the birth of the Lord; the other two-thirds are about his Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming.  Why do orchestras feature it, and crowds go to hear it, in Christmas season only, not the Easter season?

Here’s another puzzle.  Why are there no works of music associated with Christ’s Resurrection, while there are many for his birth?  (One might as the same for painting: why no famous masterworks depicting the Resurrection, but many scenes of the Crucifixion and Deposition?)

The musically minded among you might ask, What about the Easter Oratorio of Bach?  But isn’t that the exception that proves the rule?  Besides, this “oratorio” is really a cantata – a fine but not exceptional cantata – and, yes, a church composer who wrote over 300 cantatas would have written one for Easter Sunday too.

Ah, but what about Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection Symphony”? you might ask. Isn’t that a great Easter season work? And, if it doesn’t yet enjoy the status in our culture of Handel’s Messiah,  maybe it should.

Well, let’s pause and not hesitate to affirm that Mahler’s Second is one of the truly great works of classical music, a piece that seems to capture the whole human condition.  Many serious musicians I know have spent a year or two of their lives completely in its grasp, listening to it constantly, enthralled with it, obsessed with it.  When the BBC once asked conductors, those who should know best, to rank the greatest symphonies, Mahler’s Second was included in the top five.

(You don’t know it, or want a recommendation? To my mind, Andris Nelsons’ live performance last December with the Berlin Philharmonic is the best. But you’ll have to pay about $8 for a “ticket” to watch it – which also opens up the orchestra’s entire archives for you for a week.  Otherwise, watch free live performances by Rattle with Birmingham, Jansons with the Concertgebouw,  or Dudamel with his youth orchestra at the London Proms.)

But let’s be clear that this “Resurrection Symphony” is not about Christ’s Resurrection but a general resurrection, which Mahler looked for.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we are clear about it and read the “signs of the times” here in the right way.


Mahler wrote program notes for the symphony, which he later retracted.  Great composers, like great poets, because they write from inspiration not technique, are not usually the best interpreters of their own works, as Plato pointed out long ago.  But Mahler’s comments do give a good sense of the symphony’s structure at least.

It begins with a 25-minute-long movement called Todtenfeier, “death rites,” a meditation on the unavoidable reality of death.  “We are standing at the coffin of a beloved person. His life, struggles, suffering, and ambition pass one last time by our spiritual eye… Why have you lived?  Why have you suffered?  Is all of this just a terrible joke?. . .Is all of this a wild dream, or has this life and this death a meaning?”

Thus, Mahler.  He even instructed conductors to pause a full five minutes after this movement, before going on, presumably to let the fact of death sink in.

The next two movements underline the absurdity of a life ended in death.  The second evokes times of lost innocence and simple happy days, with its elegant dance melody, a Ländler (think of the Captain and Maria Von Trapp dancing sweetly under the moonlight).

The third highlights the apparent meaninglessness of suffering: “If you watch a dance from a distance through a window,” Mahler commented, “without hearing the music, the gyrations of the couples seem strange and senseless because the key element, the rhythm, is lacking. That is how you must imagine someone who is destitute and unlucky: To such a person the world appears as in a concave mirror, distorted and mad.”

So, Mahler is telling us, both the joys and sorrows of this life demand a solution beyond death.  He’s surely right about that.  And he states the problem beautifully.  Next, the fourth movement, a choral movement, gives his key to the solution, in the line: “I am from God and shall return to God!”

Manuscript of Mahler’s Second (one page of 232)

Yet here the Christian will want to step in and say two things, by way of warning and correction.  First, we can’t get back to God on our own, since that’s a destiny which transcends our abilities – contrary to the heresy which has been called “neo-pelagianism.” Second, the mere fact of our spiritual nature does not guarantee such a return, because we are alienated from God by sin – contrary to the twin heresy of “neo-gnosticism.”

But Mahler’s choral finale presupposes both of these heresies.  The libretto begins well enough, in taking lines from a resurrection poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock:

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.

To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.

Here our resurrection is presented, correctly, as a gift not a birthright, since of ourselves we are merely God’s “dust” (Staub).  Also, it takes place under the eye of the “Lord of the harvest,” who surely will sort out wheat from weeds.

But the remaining stanzas, written by Mahler himself, go awry: “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!”  We even see the restrained nostalgia evoked earlier in the symphony morphing into a blurry sentimentalism: ”O believe, my heart, O believe: Nothing to you is lost!”

Is it too harsh to claim to see incipiently in Mahler the “sentimentalism which leads to the gas chambers”?  But surely he assumes heresies that keep others, and maybe ourselves, from fully recognizing that we need a Savior – and therefore from truly exulting that, indeed, we have one.


*Image: Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1903 [MET, New York]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.