For Easter 2021, amid the many deaths we witness, the message of Resurrection has all the more become relevant. But instead of attempting to write some sort of a secular homily on this, I think it will be more inspiring to share my feelings on the music of Resurrection. I refer to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, popularly known as Resurrection.
Three days before my beloved friend Eddie died, I wrote to him that for some reason, I listened to Mahler’s Resurrection. The music made me feel his physical and spiritual condition. Eddie was suffering excruciating physical pain; yet, he conveyed a feeling of serenity and happiness. His equanimity projected the readiness to face death… and to see eternal light.
Listening to Mahler’s Resurrection was my way of embracing Eddie. I told him how Mahler’s Resurrection releases an intensity of feelings. The struggle between dark and light, between pain and joy is resolved with life being triumphant.
So I said to Eddie: “Would like to share the music with you. Love you, buddy.” And he replied: “Yes, please. Love you too, Men.” This turned out to be our last communication.
I have always associated Mahler’s Resurrection with Lent and Easter. This symphony is fitting to reflect on Christ’s death and resurrection. But the meaning of Mahler’s Resurrection goes beyond its significance for Lent and Easter.
Absorbing Mahler’s music goes beyond religious observance. More importantly, it’s an intense and profound spiritual, philosophical experience that embraces our whole world.
It’s about pain and suffering, joy and triumph, and redemption. Mahler’s music, like Beethoven’s, depicts or evokes life’s contradictions: the ups and downs, sadness and jubilance, serenity and dissonance, defeats and victories, vulnerabilities and heroism.
But the flow and the dynamics of the music are unpredictable. Darkness and light, distress and tenderness, despair and hope alternate. To illustrate, the prayer for the dead and a “death shriek” give way to jubilant, rousing music. It takes almost one and a half hours to go through this rollercoaster of contradicting emotions before the tension is resolved.
The description of the music provides the backdrop as to why I shared Mahler’s Resurrection with our childhood friend. Mahler’s epic depicts Eddie’s journey.
The symphony’s first movement is about the hero’s death. The question that arises: Is there life after death? A funereal mood, dark and serene, sets in, but is tempered later by graceful and triumphant music. However, the energetic music transitions to gloom.
The second movement is about the happy times of the hero’s life, of youth and lost innocence. The movement, marked “andante moderato,” alternates light and darkness, but light and lyricism prevail in the movement’s ending.
The third movement is characterized by flowing, dancing music, a depiction of “life as a meaningless activity.” The lively, humorous, and meandering lines of the strings and woodwinds are drawn from Mahler’s setting of a song that depicts a drunk San Antonio de Padua giving a sermon to the fishes.
That probably describes our juvenile life. We also had our own drunk or stoned experiences of talking to fishes.
The dancing as well as rousing passages deceive as jarring sounds disrupt the flow. The movement’s end is punctuated by what Mahler called a “cry of despair” or a “shriek of death,” which nevertheless gives way to a ray of hope.
The fourth movement revolves around the contralto’s song. She sings about the beauty of the simple things in life, symbolized by the rose. But then she expresses that amid the hero’s “greatest pain,” she would rather be in heaven, and that the loving God “will light me to blissful everlasting life.”
In the long final movement, the death shriek emerges before the chorus enters to deliver the resurrection message, culminating in an outburst of brass, bells, drum rolls, and an orchestra at full throttle. The chorus sings: “Die I shall, so as to live!”
So intense, so overpowering. Listening to the part that the final movement was climaxing, I was already weeping.
Resurrection overwhelms our feelings because of the depth of the pain and the power of victory and liberation that it conjures. To quote Mahler himself, the symphony is “like the world. It must embrace everything.”
Do listen to the symphony in its entirety to “embrace everything.” It’s almost 90 minutes long, but it’s a most rewarding spiritual experience even as it is dramatic and spectacular.
To our beloved Eddie, to the countless who died during the pandemic period — regardless of cause of death — the chorus sings the finale for you:
Rise again, you will.
my heart, in a trice!
will carry you to God.
(The piece is written in memory of Eddie Kalaw.)
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.