Mahler, Pandemic, and Music

“And now, in this solemn and deeply stirring moment, when the confusion and distractions of everyday life are lifted like a hood from our eyes, a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity chills our heart, a voice that, blinded by the mirage of everyday life, we usually ignore: ‘What next?’ it says. ‘What is life and what is death? Will we live on eternally? Is it all an empty dream or do our life and death have a meaning?’ And we must answer this question, if we are to go on living.”

Gustav Mahler on his “Resurrection” Symphony

The following was written in April 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

It is difficult to imagine a more fitting quote for this period of pandemic than Mahler’s reflections on his Resurrection Symphony quoted above. The “mirage” is indeed lifted, and, while the “busy distractions of everyday life” are missing, our inner worlds have never been more deafening. This is indeed a period through which our conceptions of reality are and will continue to be challenged. The opening section of Mahler’s Symphony comes to mind with its contrasting discourse between the initial, enraged motif in the low strings and the lyrical pleading response in the upper strings. Like these two themes, we must live at once with anger and death, as well as that “voice of awe-inspiring solemnity” which forces us to face the realities of our own humanity.

Mahler was of course not the first composer to use music to wrestle with these difficult topics. Beethoven, roughly 80 years before, asked some of the same questions through his 9th Symphony. The result was a joyous call for us to take up the responsibilities of our common humanity. Of the many revolutionary features of the work, the one that holds particular fascination in considering Mahler is Beethoven’s use of “instrumental recitative” in the final movement. Much in the same way, Mahler begins his Resurrection Symphony using a recitative style in the low strings. However, where the declamation of Beethoven’s character is confident in its hope, Mahler’s is snarling in its doubt. How the world had changed in those 80 years between these two philosophical pillars of Art; what a different place the world is in now than when Mahler penned his second symphony. And yet, moments like the one in which we find ourselves presently remind us that, underlying all of the external trappings which we construct for ourselves, these central questions remain.

Admittedly, our current situation is different in that it is disrupting the very central aspects of what we do as musicians; bring people together in a common space. Even without a disruptive event like COVID, online / virtual implementations of what we do as musicians is important, but the fundamental nature of our work is an in-person, collective experience. Practically, then, our situation is a difficult one. Another aspect is that live, orchestral concerts at the scale as were happening pre-COVID will be one of the last things to return in a post-COVID world. As central as music is to a musician’s understanding of the world, it will be a considerable time before large groups of people are comfortable sitting together in the same room for two hours (not to mention standing in intermission’s long lines waiting for their turn to use the loo). Certainly, smaller genres and chamber performances will happen much sooner in tightly controlled, strategic ways, but large-scale symphony performances will take great creativity to bring back any earlier than when a definitive vaccine and/or cure is known.

Given the practical difficulties with bringing back orchestral performances, what is the role of a conductor during this time? How might conductors facilitate the musical exploration of these fundamental subjects with which Mahler challenges us when engaging in orchestral performance is an impossibility? I propose that a complete understanding of a conductor’s job should encapsulate the answer. The part of a conductor’s role from which the profession gets its name (the actual conducting piece), is merely the most visible of a great many other elements which are fundamental to “being” a conductor; fundamentals which should serve us well during this historic moment. Ultimately, a conductor’s job is to answer for the deepest questions presented by the score. Beyond tempo and rhythm, each score presents innumerable philosophical questions (such as the one(s) presented by Mahler in Resurrection Symphony); a conductor’s work is to understand the truths and questions within and to convey (through gestures, words…any means necessary, really) the central meaning of the work of art. Even though the primary means of that communication has disappeared for a time (I.e. the orchestra), this fundamental task has not changed and is, if anything, more important now than ever.

In terms of programming a 2020/2021 season, the major challenges lie in the unknown. It seems to me that there are two main possibilities with variances in between. The first is that everything is still completely closed; live, orchestral performance is still a strict impossibility. In this case, we can only hope to continue the creative work online and in formats which allow as visceral a connection with our audiences as possible. The second scenario is that some form of live performance is possible, but in a limited kind of way. In this case, I think there is a wealth of previously underperformed chamber orchestra repertoire which will serve us well. In this way, there is an opportunity to share with our audiences little-known repertoire that would not normally fit within the typically larger orchestral forces we’re used to.

No doubt, this will be a trying time. The industry has ground to a halt, and our professions (at least in their paying form) have all but disappeared. Before the world changed, many of us were in the midst of job applications and interviews—while some boards have continued to interview during this time, job descriptions have veritably been turned upside down. Will the qualities in a Music Director sought for in a pre-COVID world be the same qualities needed in a post-COVID environment? What that will mean for boards in the middle of a search will remain to be seen, but one can sense the apprehension to hire during this unknowable time. In some ways, the suspension of our “industry” has forced us all to consider the deeper, fundamental value of Art. [1] What IS the value of music, when we cannot gather to enjoy it together? I think the answer lies in the fact that music speaks to the very nature of our being. Whether through Mahler, Beethoven, or the music of any composer bursting with the questions of life, the Art which we represent speaks to the fundamental questions of being—questions that will be central to our moving collectively through this time.

I don’t know what opportunities will lie ahead for the Musician, but I hope that we can all continue to find ways to tap into the deepest meaning of what we do. There will be difficult decisions and situations that lie ahead, but if we keep our eye on the core questions addressed through our Art, we will always have something to offer the world around us.


[1] I must be clear that I am in no way suggesting that such a drastic situation as COVID-19, which is putting health and financial burdens on so many artists, has been a ‘good’ thing. I am merely saying that the unfortunate realities of our situation have forced us to consider important questions related to the nature of our Art which we can hopefully take with us into the post-COVID world.

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