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April 11, 2012
Resurrection in music
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Of all the fine arts, music is the most powerful to move the human spirit at its core.  

In this post-Easter essay, I would like to comment on three of many musical compositions that bring resurrection joy the spirit. Two are quite familiar: Händel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from his oratorio, “Messiah,” and Beethoven’s Ode “To Joy” from his Ninth symphony.  But Mahler’s second symphony, “the Resurrection” is less known and deserves some attention.

Händel’s “Messiah

Belonging at the beginning of the Eastern section, the “Hallelujah” chorus has not only retained its popularity since its first performance in 1742 but has also gained in appeal since then.  For whatever reason, it is often performed during the Advent-Christmas season.  After Händel had finished composing the piece, he exclaimed with joy,” I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”  The text of the music tells us what to believe, the music, what to feel:

Hallelujah! (Repeated);
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah! (Repeated);
And he shall reign forever and ever.  Hallelujah! (Repeated).
King of Kings and Lord of Lord.
The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.
And he shall reign forever and ever.  Hallelujah!
(Repeated).

Most of us can hear the music even while reading these words. With the dramatic introduction, the full-throated chorus bursts forth with the first word which comes from the Hebrew, hallel, which means the spontaneous and joyful praise of God to God.  The text proper proclaims the reign of the omnipotent Lord God (Rev 19:6; 11:15; 19:16). The music itself bursts forth with vitality.  The string section skips with exuberance while the brilliant Baroque trumpets and thunderous timpani alert the spirit.  In concert halls and even in churches, audiences stand when listening to the “Hallelujah” chorus as they follow the lead of King George III, who in 1743, stood in utter amazement at its glorious sound.  The music rouses the whole person to feel Christ’s Resurrection and one’s own.  

Beethoven’s Deafness

By the time the Ninth symphony was composed in 1822-23, Beethoven was completely deaf.  He had spared no medical effort to regain his hearing.  He cursed his fate. He prayed for divine compassion.  To grasp Beethoven’s spiritual maturity in his Ninth symphony, we must look to his indomitable will which drove him to speak and thus to change the course of music history. 

Slowly, he began using his pain to intensify his creativity.  How he did this we can never know, but with God’s grace, he made peace with suffering. 

Dissonance was resolved into harmony. As he integrated the inner battle with his life-vision, his final compositions express this integration.  Not death, but life. 

Beethoven’s Ode “To Joy”

Beethoven’s last period (1815-27), though marked by isolation because of his total deafness, is one of intense creativity, even mysticism.  If the Fifth Symphony finds meaning in life despite suffering, the Ninth Symphony discovers meaning through suffering.  In the final movement, his Ode “To Joy,” Beethoven unites himself with the universal human family, children of a heavenly Father. 

The refrain of the text, written by Frederick Schiller reads, "All men shall be brothers under your protective wing.”

Shouts of freu/Freude/Freunde (joy and friendship) convey his inner joy and delight, never to be taken from him.  The phrase, mit Gott (with God), climbs to the heights as though he has been granted a vision of God.  Suffering becomes enlightenment. History records that at the conclusion of the first performance, the audience stood to give Beethoven a thunderous ovation.  With an assistant at his side, he had kept the rhythm going throughout.  But with his back to the audience, he could not hear the  applause.  The leading soprano led him to the edge of the stage where he could see for himself. The tears in his eyes said it all!  Beethoven’s faith expressed in his music is one man’s view of universally-held beliefs.

The New Millennium

When the first sounds of 2000 began to ring in the Far East and then across the continents, Beethoven’s Ode “To Joy” pealed majestically in a world searching for meaning to life.  Beethoven found not despair but joy, not nihilism but meaning in life. His candle  had to burn itself out in order to give its light! His cross was his resurrection.  He chose “the road not taken,” and in the final analysis “that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost, from “The Road Not Taken”).

Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Gustav Mahler (d 1911) suffered from a difficult marital and professional life.  He rose to high acclaim in Viennese musical circles, but hostility from an anti-Semitic press convinced him to convert from Judaism to Catholicism.  Mahler was then better situated to secure the prized directorship of the Vienna State Opera Company.  Universal questions plagued him: why am I living, to what purpose is suffering, and has life been a huge, frightful joke?  These questions found expression in his highly emotional symphonies which attempt at a response to this threefold question.  When one symphony ends with tentative hope tinged with doubt, he asks the same question in the next symphony.  His “Resurrection” symphony seems to be his best attempt to answer the question.  Despite anxiety, anguish, fear, and pain, his final movement struggles with the pursuit of love that leads to enlightenment and elevation:

Believe, my heart. O believe, naught shall be lost to you ...
O believe: thou wast not born in vain!
Thou has not lived and suffered in vain!
All that has sprung passed must rise again!
Now cease to tremble!
Prepare thyself to live!

To soar upwards to the light which no eye has penetrated! 
Its wing that I won is expanded and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live. Rise again, yes, rise again. 
Will you, my heart, in an instant!  That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

The text, most of which Mahler composed himself, is neither explicitly religious nor confessional.  Yet, it is man’s innate hope that reaches out to God.

9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, the “Resurrection” symphony seemed to express the unimaginable pain that was thrust on so many.  With 9/11, the country was plunged into physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering which pushed reason and faith to the very edge.  They alone could not address the massive tragedy.  Many turned to God for consolation. Others could not even touch the pain. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Allan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, chose to perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony at a “Concert for New York.”  He meditated:
On 9/11, we witnessed devastation, bravery, and heroism.  We joined agony with hope … When the boundaries of our reasoning are strained, what do we do?  We listen to music, we speak through music, we question through music. 

His preface responded to a largely secular audience still conflicted with aspirations of hope yet tinged with doubt.  Christians however did sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for them.  In the face of 9/11, Christian hope was possible only in the light of Christ’s redemption “in the coming of absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world” (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 161-2.). Jesus in his Incarnation suffers in solidarity with us. 

While he brings us to the cross, the last sound is not shrieking despair but a symphony of resurrection.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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