Ives and Mahler- Kindred spirits and spirituality

When I first got to know the music of Gustav Mahler, I was fascinated by the story of his last years. His most perfect symphony, the Sixth, is also his most tragic. Written at the height of his personal and professional life, its Finale depicts a hero who suffers three terrible blows of Fate, the last of which fells him. Not long after it was premiered, Mahler himself suffered three such blows- the death of his beloved daughter, the loss of his position as Director of the Vienna State Opera and the onset of a fatal heart condition. Nearly destroyed by these events, his last works- Das Lied von der Erde, and the Ninth and Tenth symphonies- were long believed to be a painful document of his coming to terms with his own death.

It is an amazing story, but only ALMOST true. What we now understand is that, after much grieving and soul-searching, Mahler embraced a new life, knowing full well he could never know how much time he had. In his last years, he rebuilt his career in New York, and wrote his greatest, most complex and most innovative music. He continued to learn new repertoire, and to plan for future projects. He knew full well that he had a hellhound on his trail, but to the very end, he worked. When he returned to Vienna while already in the grips of what was to be his mortal illness, he was still looking to the future. In short, he spent his last years, months, weeks and days living, not dying.  He even brought with him on his last journey a number of scores he was learning for the upcoming season in New York.

One of those scores was Charles Ives Third Symphony (“The Camp Meeting”). With his own Tenth Symphony unfinished, and knowing how ill he was, why did Mahler choose this piece to take with him on his final voyage? Why spend even a minute of his last days on this music?

Mahler was a composer with a conspicuously open mind, willing to support the innovations of younger composers even when he was unsure whether he understood or liked their music. He famously vigorously supported Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (a work which I often think of as a 90 minute Mahler symphony for 100 musicians condensed down to critical mass of 15 players and 22 minutes, with a commensurate increase in dissonance and intensity) even though he admitted he didn’t entirely “get” it. Many commentators have noted that Mahler must have been fascinated by this unknown American composer’s new language- the bitonality, the dissonance, the radically complex poly-rhythms.

Indeed, I’m sure he was impressed and fascinated, but I think Mahler found something of a more personal connection with Ives. On the surface, their music could not sound much more different, and their symphonies exist on profoundly different scales. The whole of Ives 3 is just over half the length of the first movement of Mahler 3, Ives writes for a small chamber orchestra, while Mahler wrote for the biggest orchestras ever used at that time.

But remember that one of Mahler’s most important innovations, and surely the one he took the most criticism for throughout his career, was his introduction of popular, even banal or kitschy styles of music into the symphony. Imagine his surprise when reading the Ives for the first time. Where Mahler draws from Klezmer tunes, country dances and urban waltzes, military marches and ceremonial funeral music, Ives uses church hymns, Stephen Foster songs (albeit, not in the 3rd), jaunty marches and naïve sounding chorales.

However, even their shared use of the profane (yes, in the hallowed halls of classical composition, the inclusion of American church hymns in a symphony would certainly qualify as profane!), and their shared exploration of new techniques would not, in my opinion, be enough to tear Mahler away from his Tenth for even ten minutes.

What I think must have fascinated Mahler was not the materials and techniques Ives was using, but the meaning Ives found in them. In Ives, he found another composer who was wrestling, in a very profound way, with the same questions of musical space and time, of the intersection the controlled musical world on stage with the world around it.

In the Finale of his 2nd Symphony, Mahler gives us one of the most radical passages in any symphony (it’s Figure 22 in the score). On stage is a passionate lament, while off stage, a noisy marching band stomps by in a completely different meter, key and tempo. It is an extraordinary inversion of reality- we perceive the onstage (which should be the most public of spaces!) music as intimate and private, as if a man stricken with grief seeks a moment to weep alone, while outside (backstage- unseen by the audience) the world bashes on, mocking the pain and the loss, making that loss all the more real, the pain that much agonizing.

Ives was the first other composer Mahler found to fully understand this- that those intrusions of real life into moments of the most deeply expressed artistic feelings actually make those emotions truer, more powerful and more difficult. At the end of the 1st mvt of the 3rd, Ives writes a chorale- beautiful, simple and stunning  in  its pristine perfection. In a piece that is ultimately about the idea of pilgrimage and the quest for spiritual enlightenment and peace, it is a deeply moving evocation of reverent prayer, of focusing all one’s energy, with ferocious gentleness, on seeking quiet and clarity. However, all around this chorale, Ives weaves unrelated music, first in the flute then in shadow lines on the solo violin. In the tent of the revival, we may have peace and perfection throughout the congregation, but in the night outside, the world is still wild and unknowable.

And surely Mahler must have loved the marches in the 2nd mvt of the Ives. Again and again, a march that begins with true country-bumpkin naivety disintegrates into something menacing and dangerous and rather complex, with bar lines obscured by strange metric shifts. Ives called this movement “Children’s Day.” Mahler’s own musical depictions of childhood, such as the third movement of the First Symphony, the Scherzo of the Sixth or the first movement and Finale of the Fourth remind us that childhood is experienced in a world that combines wonder and terror, innocence and menace in ever changing proportions. So too, does Ives’ movement.

Inspired as the first two movements are, I’m sure it was the Finale of the Ives (Ives called this movement “Communion”) that most fascinated Mahler. Most of the first two movements of the Symphony are quite tonal- we hear any dissonance as an intrusion into or a disruption of the world of simple hymns, easygoing songs and cheery marches. The Finale is more chromatic, denser, much more contrapuntal and altogether more weighty. Coming in the midst of such an overtly religious symphony, perhaps Mahler was reminded of his friend, the greatest of all religious symphonists, Anton Bruckner. It is far too facile and simplistic to write of Bruckner as a “devoutly Catholic composer,” for if he were only that, his music would hardly be worth listening to. It is not the expression of faith that draws us again and again into Bruckner’s symphonies, it is the expression of doubt.

Mahler himself knew something about doubt, and about the sometimes desperate struggle for faith, for something to believe in. In Ives 3, he would have seen a composer who’s first two movements are in many ways touching evocations of a naïve faith in spirituality revealing himself in the Finale as full of doubt, full of uncertainty, full of existential terror and unable to find his faith. From the slow, chromatic and contrapuntal opening, in many ways evocative of Brucker or late Beethoven, the music moves inexorably towards a shattering cataclysm of the kind of searing dissonance that was still new and shocking in 1911. It is a journey full of longing, full of sadness, even despair and one in which there is never a sense that we know where we are going or what awaits us.

After the devastation, anguish and terror of the climax of the movement, we are left without any reason for faith or for hope. And it is at this very moment that faith reasserts itself– when we can no longer assert it ourselves. It is a moment not unlike the end of the Adagio of Bruckner 9.

The coda is imbued with tremendous tenderness, and as the final lines disintegrate into ever more infinite shades of softness and slowness (so close in spirit and technique to the last page of Mahler 9!), we finally feel that we are at peace and that we can believe- not even that we can believe but that we find ourselves again believing. And, perfection attained, Ives allows one last intrusion from the outside world. No noisy band this time, nor sounds of ambivalent nature. Simply the gentle ringing of nearby church bells.


Ives transcribed “Communion” as a song called “The Camp Meeting.” The text of the Coda (from the hymn “Woodworth”) seems to speak of this idea of surrender and of faith as something given, not something made-

“Just as I am without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bidd’st me  come to Thee,

O Lamb of God,

I come,

I come


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Ives and Mahler- Kindred spirits and spirituality”

  1. Erik K

    Best post I’ve read on this blog, and that’s tremendously high praise.

  2. Pingback: Mahler and Ives | Analekta

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