Mahler’s 6th Symphony and Psalm 88


Okay, seeing as how we have had posts here on the Rabbit Room about westerns, vampires, rock stars, chimps, Michigan, fame, banjo players, apples, poetry, and who knows what else, I figured it was high time for a post about classical music.

Kicking off their 2009 concert series earlier this year, the Nashville Symphony performed Gustav Mahler’s Sixth symphony (and being the Mahler freak that I am, I attended all three performances). Mahler wrote nine symphonies in all – and started a tenth before he died – and after hearing them, it becomes difficult to try to put his genius into words. Of course, one could say that one reason art exists at all, the reason we have symphonies and paintings and jazz and dance, is to express that which we cannot put into words. So maybe it is better to say the same thing about the creators – the sub-creators, as C.S. Lewis called them – and not try to reduce their work to the written word. Still, at times, we search for ways to describe to others the effect art has on us, to explain, to ourselves as much as to our friends, why we were so moved, why we found tears in our eyes or felt our deepest secrets were laid out in the open or saw laid out before us the way we should go.

So as a starting point, I would use the word epic to try to describe Mahler’s symphonies. At the performance I saw there were one hundred and eight players on stage, and the piece is almost eighty minutes long. Compare that to another piece on the same program that evening, Haydn’s “Fire” symphony, for which thirty-two players were required and lasted a brief seventeen minutes. The sixth symphony is sometimes called the Tragic Symphony, a title Mahler himself attached and then later removed, desiring the work to be experienced on the basis of the music itself, without the aid of a program. The concluding paragraph from the program notes that night offer a concise summary of Mahler’s work. “Mahler excelled at plumbing the depths of tragedy, in part because the tragedy is not unrelieved. Even in this, his most tragic work, he presents love, nostalgia, serenity and ecstatic vision, which is what makes the tragedy so excruciating when it is all subsumed by the hopelessness of the conclusion.”

The ending evoked the same visceral reaction in me as did the ending of one of the best films of 2007, No Country for Old Men. I have argued – and will continue to do so – that No Country for Old Men ends on a hopeful note. An uncertain note, yes, but still a hopeful one. Mahler ends his sixth symphony on what could easily be called a nihilistic note, which makes the beauty and peace of the ending of his ninth and final symphony so breathtaking. (Warning: I am now stepping fully into music nerd territory.) All throughout the piece, over and over again, you hear an A major triad, held for two bars, changing to an A minor triad – hope and despair, if you will. Sometimes the A major to A minor chord is played by the full orchestra, and other times it is providing a foundation for a melody played over it, always changing from major to minor, major to minor. But then, in the last minutes of the piece, we hear only the A minor chord. The presence of hope, the major chord, is gone. And the ending, a strong fortissimo with everyone in the orchestra playing the A minor triad, quickly dying away under a timpani cadence to a final string pizzicato on a soft unison ‘A,’ is devastating.

As I was reflecting on the despair of the final bars of the piece, Psalm 88 came to mind. Quick Hebrew lesson (with thanks to my friend Michael Card for this information): We’re all familiar with the Psalms where the author cries out against God, demanding to know what on earth He is doing. The questions that most of us find ourselves asking, at some point in our lives, are there expressed: Why does evil exist, why do the wicked prosper, why am I oppressed, where is God, and on and on our questions go. All of these Psalms, Mike told the small Bible study he was leading, have the “vav adversative,” usually translated “and” or “but,” somewhere in the Psalms. For example, in Psalm 73, after reading the psalmist’s complaints, we find, “but then I entered the sanctuary of God,” and, “saw the whole picture.” The one thing they all have in common is that the “vav adversative” does not appear in the same place. Sometimes we see it at the front, sometimes in the middle of the psalm, and sometimes not until the very end. But they all have it. All, that is, except Psalm 88. Psalm 88 starts out with a plea to God for salvation, saying, “God, you’re my last chance of the day.” After a heart-rending cry for help – “I’m written off for a lost cause,” “You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit… I’m battered senseless by Your rage,” “Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?” – the psalm ends with a soul-rending cry of despair, “The only friend I have left is darkness.” No resolution, no hope, no rest. Only darkness. Only despair.

I’ll end this with a song featuring Andy Osenga, Jeremy Casella, and Sandra McCracken, written by Jeremy, based on The Message’s rendering of Psalm 88, “Last Chance.” And next time you have an hour and half to immerse yourself in the listening experience, check out Mahler’s 6th on iTunes. If you have a chance to hear it live? Do whatever it takes to get there.



  1. David Van Buskirk

    Stephen. . . You are really smart. ; )

    Your analysis of the symphony amazed me and opened my eyes to a depth of music appreciation/analysis that I was not aware of. very cool stuff.

    I am definitely going to check out Mahler’s 6th.

  2. Mike

    As one who has flirted with classical music but never really take the time to develop any real love for it you post reminded me of a Jerry Clower story about the classical pianist coming to the little one room school house. When asked by the teacher what the students saw as the piece was played, a little girl talks of a babbling brook with deer drinking from the crystal clear water. The boy of the group said he didn’t see any of what the little girl saw but he heard the dam when it busted.

    You have piqued my interest in Mahler however and will check it out. I have always been amazed that any symphony could be written especially on that takes 80+ people to play.


  3. Stephen Lamb


    Yep, that’s it, Matthew. It’s a rather unusual collection of artists, pulling together artists like Building 429 and Over the Rhine on the same CD. My favorite tracks are the aforementioned one with the Square Peg Alliance members, the Over the Rhine track, Kendall Payne’s song, and the Dave Barns/Matt Wertz/Chris Rice collaboration.

    The other footnote I meant to add is that the Bible study I mentioned is one Mike Card was teaching while writing his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, using the study to flesh out ideas for the book. It is a much-needed look at laments in scripture and the role they should play in our lives today, giving us access to vocabulary to express the full breadth of our stories, not just the happy parts. There’s more info on his website here.

  4. Dale

    I don’t really know what that music nerd stuff means, but the way you described it made me believe. I smiled and felt a sudden burst of desire to listen. Devastatingly beautiful.

  5. Micah

    I love Mahler. His 2nd is my favorite right now. The title is ‘Resurection’ and it is one of the most profound pieces of music I have ever heard. The last two movements almost always bring tears to my eyes. But at an hour and a half in length, its not exactly easy listening. I have heard the sixth, but have yet to truly listen to it. I will make a point to do that.

  6. Stephen Lamb


    Thanks for the link, Paul. That is a good recording; Bernstein is well known for his Mahler interpretations.

    David (and others interested in digging beneath the surface of classical music), I highly recommend a video Bernstein did of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. It consists of Bernstein conducting the piece, interspersed with his comments about it. Bernstein described Mahler’s 9th as “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” with each movement saying goodbye to something else – one nature, one family, etc. After seeing it on a VHS loaned to me by a friend, the 9th became my favorite symphony. I just checked and found the whole video on youtube. Here’s the page that lists the 6 parts of the video.

  7. Seth Ward

    Stephen, My favorite Mahler recordings are St. Louis Symphony Mahler 2 with Forrester and Battle- Just awesome, and Chicago with Solti with Bud Herseth on the trumpet.

    Also, I think you’d enjoy a video called “The Art of Conducting.” It has some of the most amazing clips of the great conductors that you will ever see.

    Great post!

  8. Kate

    Stephen, Thank you for this post. I didn’t know much about Mahler until a couple of years ago when I saw his 5th symphony performed. Going to the symphony is usually a moving and emotional experience for me, but that performance was something beyond what I am normally a part of, and I was hooked. His work is amazing, and I appreciate the way you tied his 6th to the chapter in Psalms. I’ll be thinking about that for a bit.

  9. Roger Wagner

    Thanks for the post, Stephen. I was surprised to see Mahler’s 6th in the Rabbit Room, though classical music deserves a place among the interests of those who write for RR. I’ve been a Mahler fan for 35 years, and just recently I’ve developed a new appreciation and enjoyment of #6. I have about seven performances on CD by various conductors (most recently the new Haitink performance with the Chicago Symphony and an older recording, but great EMI quality, by Barbirolli). I also picked up a performance on DVD by Claudio Abbado from the Lucerne Festival — a powerful performance, with the additional treat of the audience sitting in stunned silence for a long time at the end of the performance (no idiot trying to be “the first to clap” which mars so many live performances. I’m rambling… anyway, it was great to read your post, with they tie in to Ps. 88. Thanks. BTW, for your readers who are tasting Mahler for the first time on your say so, if you don’t love him right off, don’t worry (and don’t therefore discount Stephen’s recommendation. Give him some time, try a more accessible symphony (like 4 or the somewhat over-played but beautiful Adagietto from the 5th), come back to the 6th after a while. Mahler is an “acquired taste,” but well worth the effort. And if you really want “died and went to heaven music” go for the last movement of #3 (“What love tells me”).

  10. Stephen Lamb


    Seth, I’ve seen some of that conducting video, but not the whole thing. I need to see the rest of it.

    Kate, I haven’t heard the 5th live yet. I was listening to it in my car a couple months ago, and was blown away when the Adagietto came on. Somehow, I wasn’t familiar with it before then. It is just strings and harp, absolutely gorgeous, 11 minutes long, and is another great introduction to Mahler.

    Roger, I don’t know the 3rd very well yet. I’m supposed to be in New York this fall to hear a concert by the New York Phil that I’m doing all the music prep. for, and I’m going to try and stay a week and hear them play the 3rd, if at all possible.

  11. Micah

    I was reading Run With the Horses, Eugene Peterson’s book on Jeremiah, and came across this quote from Karl Barth. I thought it went well with the ideas in this post.

    “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encouter there – Jesus Christ….The transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point. The hope of His gory emerges for us when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and He becomes to us the veritable and living God. He, whom we can apprehend only as against us, stands there – for us.” -Karl Barth

  12. Stephen

    Roger, following up on my earlier comment about Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, I did hear the New York Philharmonic play it three times last week when I was up there for the concert I had worked on. Here’s the comment I posted on my twitter account when I left the hall after the second performance: “If one were locked in a small room being starved to death, but got to listen to the 6th movement on repeat, they would die happy and content.”

    “What Love Tells Me.” Unbelievable beauty.

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