For years, Barton Swaim was baffled by the high esteem in which so many critics and musicians held the, to him, “muddled and perverse” symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Having at last found himself enjoying a performance of the composer’s Ninth Symphony, Swaim reflects on what he sees as a biblical theme in the work:
Perhaps Mahler was attempting to do something akin to what the writer of Genesis attempted in narrating the life of Joseph. It is a sprawling story that takes in greatness of character and inextinguishable human love, but also mischance, pettiness, hatred, stupidity, deceit, self-absorption, greed, and of course death. The story is an intensely beautiful one, including though it does many unsavory details one might have assumed a myth-making historian would leave unrecorded. It is the story (to put it briefly) of how one vicious and cowardly act of human trafficking turns out to be, in the sublime superintendence of God’s quiet governance, the very thing that keeps a tribe of families from destruction. “You meant evil against me,” says Joseph at the story’s end, “but God meant it for good.”
So much of a Mahler symphony is jarring and confusing and unhappy, but somehow he stitches its themes together in ways that always seem natural—his transitions never sound forced—and the whole, once you’re able to take it in, forms a thing of great humaneness and power.
I wonder the degree to which Mahler [a Jew converted to Christianity] had internalized this Judaic aesthetic, if that’s not an unduly literary way to put it. Many of the Hebrew Bible’s histories read this way: an untidy series of mistakes and betrayals and partial gains leads in time to fulfillment and rest. We know that as a child Gustav was an “excellent” student in Judaic studies, and many scholars have pointed out the Jewish influences apparent in his works, especially the Second Symphony, “Resurrection.” The analogy of his music to the life of Joseph is probably a fanciful one, but it is not preposterous.