Expert’s Perspective- Mahler 8, What is “the Eternal Feminine?”

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Before and after the Mahler in Manchester performance of Mahler 8 last week, there has been a lot of discussion about what Mahler meant in this work by “the Eternal Feminine” and what, if anything, we should take as listeners from his dedication of the piece to his wife, Alma.

Today, Peter Davison takes a look at these and other questions, and helps us to understand what Mahler is trying to say with this extraordinary work

Mahler, the Eternal Feminine and the battle of the sexes

The Eighth Symphony is a work that causes a lot of controversy. Many find it a regression to the Wunderhorn style and that its optimism is insincere. The argument goes; Mahler wrote the Sixth symphony which was tragic, and the Seventh which was ironic, then he lost his way, before finding it again in the late works. There is a further layer which critics find hard to bear. Mahler dedicated the work to Alma after the crisis in their marriage, when he was trying desperately to impress her and win back her affection. The 8th seems mixed up with Mahler’s confusion about his relationships with women, which Freud diagnosed as a bad case of the mother complex. In other words, Mahler idealised women and sought from them unconditional maternal nurture which allowed him to remain in some sense a little boy. That’s simplistic, but there is some truth in it.

Mahler was not a mysogenist, quite the opposite in fact, but we might conclude that he was in some ways not very grown up about women. He inclined to assume (in common with many men) that women existed to love him, assist him and inspire him, but not to make any great claim upon him for their own sake or to have lives of their own. We might also suspect that this attitude is reflected in the 8th symphony, where woman – in the form of Gretchen – redeems Faust’s lost soul. She makes the sacrifice of forgiveness which heals Faust inner wounds, but Faust appears to have done nothing to deserve this loving generosity.

Mahler enjoyed the companionship of women – think of his sister Justine and his biographer Natalie Bauer Lechner. They were devoted to him. He also formed a tempestuous marriage with Alma who stirred something in him which resembled passionate love. But his feelings were mingled with his deep-seated hunger for the maternal affection and warmth that was not offered him as a child. Mahler’s mother was a troubled woman who saw in him a favourite son who could fulfill her needs and thwarted ambitions. When maternal love is loaded with such expectations, it can make a child very insecure and perfectionist. That child is often then hungry for the unconditional love that a Gretchen figure might have to offer. Freud was right to suggest that Mahler saw in Alma something of the perfect woman who could be mother, lover and muse.

How is this played out in the 8th symphony and does it matter? We can put a narrow personal interpretation on the work and use the Alma dedication to justify such a view, but Mahler was more visionary than that. He wanted to show us truths that have a universal application. The key is to see the work in terms of archetypes; the idealised forms and energies which operate in the human psyche. These are mythic charcaters which dictate how human personalities and human societies function and develop. The EternalFeminine, as Mahler stated often enough, is the archetypal symbol of Eros. That is the principle which binds things together and loosens the differences between things. It is associated with the feminine principle and encompasses what is indefinable and mysterious. This is in contrast to the masculine principle, often identified with Logos, which leads to the separation of things through discriminating judgement. Logos permits the creation of distinct forms, and it is when it comes together with Eros harmoniously that life becomes possible at all – as spirit finds form or a soul inhabits a body.

So although, in the 8th, we can easily feel justified to start a feminist diatribe about men expecting women to make all the sacrifices, we should probably take another view. Namely, the symphony is about men finding contact with their feminine side and learning to relate to it better. Faust is redeemed because he falls to ground – i.e. he loses his position of lofty male arrogance and must then come to terms with true nature and Eros from a position of humility before the femninine. Eros is then offered as a blessing and source of healing redemption. Life is generous to those who learns to worship the goddess as the symbol of life.

But one of the lessons of Eros, and perhaps the one Mahler struggled to learn, is that in real life women are not simply an embodiment of the Queen of Heaven. A woman is flesh and blood, not just a projection of a man’s soul. Most women will confess that it is nice if men show them respect and worship them a little. The majority of men like to do it too, if they have any soul at all. But the same women will also say that it drives them mad if they have to live up to that ideal all the time and not be valued for their humanity, which is as incomplete and imperfect as everyone else. That is a greater challenge in many ways than worshipping an idealised image from afar. Relating to another person depends on an understanding of what Goethe calls our dual-nature; that we are both human and divine.

Mahler’s symphony and Goethe’s poem are a great education in that duality. By this insight we can also better understand the stylistic differences between parts one and two of the symphony. In part one, we enter a constructed world – a world of conventional forms and clever counterpoint with many human voices all striving for unity, but remaining  separate nonetheless. Music is the spiritual force that binds people together. In this movement, divine spirit finds form n a masculine process that requires the acceptance of boundaries and limits to create order and stability. It is the realm of earthly Logos. By contrast, part two expresses Eros – where the form is freer and the music flows seamlessly as a series of transformative tableau where angels and mythical figures fly about freely. The soul sheds its earthly body, and the musical form seems to do the same. The music grows free of formal boundaries. At the end of the work, there is a feeling of homecoming, as if the collective human order of the first movement reemerges, but now in its original heavenly manifestation. Part one is then a kind of humanised version of the archetypal symbols in part two. The stylistic contrast suggests –  here below, that is earth…while up there, that is heaven. They are the same and yet totally different.

Goethe puts it well in those final lines of Faust when he tells us…all that we experience on earth is but a vague copy of what is in heaven. But here is the paradox. Music can only ever be a symbol of what is in heaven, so expressing a moment of transcendence such a this can only ever be a gesture. We feel a bit closer to heaven, but this is still music belonging to this earth. But because the freer romantic style mirrors a sense of release from worldly conventions and constraints, it allows Mahler to make his point. That is why at the end of the work, we feel Mahler is still straining to reach heaven just beyond his reach. Remember the end of the Fourth Symphony, where the text says…no music like this exists on earth…yet we are hearing this heavenly music on this earth, and we thereby get an intimation of what music from another world might be like.

So we don’t need to worry about the stylistic difference between parts one and two. It makes Mahler’s point about the difference between what is above and what is below, between the masculine and the feminine, Logos and Eros. Nor do we need to get into a tangle of political correctness about Gretchen and Alma. Mahler, like almost every man before and since, struggled to relate to women as they really are and not as he would like to them to be; that is to relate to women truly as a grown man and not as a boy. Equally, many women are often tempted to mother a man without realising that it perpetuates the problem of his immaturity. The problem works both ways. Mahler did at least understand what the essential and eternal aspects of the feminine are, and that is a head-start in resolving the battle of the sexes.

Peter Davison

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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

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4 comments on “Expert’s Perspective- Mahler 8, What is “the Eternal Feminine?””

  1. Nick Palmer

    I would argue Part I is also feminine. First, there is a long tradition of regarding the Holy Spirit as the feminine in the Trinity. Second, the ideas in the verses Mahler selects from the Pentecost Sequence strengthen that notion: take rest in our hearts, comfort us, enlighten our eyes, scare away the evil spirits that frighten us, etc… Third, the music itself recalls an older notion of the feminine in music, via key relationship (Eb-Ab-Db-) and even a IV – I cadence at the end of the movement.

  2. Peter

    I would agree that Mahler finds many subtle interconnections, musical and philosophical, between the movements and that underlines that they are not in every sense polar opposites. You might say that the first movement is a masculine response to the influx of feminine spirit. It is inspired in a very real sense, and Mahler of course dedicated thew work to his wife. The main point is that masculine and feminine aspects reinforce eachother, rather than being antagonistic. Divine inspiration has masculine force, but it is felt through feminine feeling, yet results in a robust masculine form filled by a feminine flow of lyricism.

    Yet the contrapuntal and archaic character of the first movement derives from Christian patriarchy (the words are by an archbishop !), while the second part, which is more improvised in form, is the fruit of the free-thinking Romantic period. The Christian symbols become feminised, more personal and unorthodox. Where previously collective orthodoxy and hierarchy had prevailed, now the form is loosened and expression aspires to the boundless and esctatic.

  3. Gregory Marsh

    It would be easy to oversimplify this symphony into a feminist vs. misogynist reading. Thank you for going beyond that. “Relating to another person depends on an understanding of what Goethe calls our dual-nature; that we are both human and divine.” This gets at the heart of what I hear Mahler saying: you have to recognize others as divine, but you have to live with them as humans. Thanks for this piece.

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