In a letter dated 17 February 1897 to Arthur Seidl, a music critic and professor at Leipzig University, the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) wrote, “Whenever I plan a large musical structure, I always come to a point where I have to resort to ‘the word’ as a vehicle for my musical idea. … In the last movement of my second [symphony] I simply had to go through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in search of the right word, the ‘Open Sesame’—and in the end had no choice but to find my own words for my thoughts and feelings” (Martner, 1979, p. 212; emphasis added). This letter is enlightening, as it indicates two central points in considering the issue of Mahler and Bible:

  • (a) Mahler was aware of and had access to biblical literature but
  • (b) never used it directly in any of his compositions.

In what follows, I will examine both of these points and, in the process, touch on Mahler’s upbringing and religiosity as well as biblical themes and echoes in some of his works. As we shall see, for someone who found the Bible unhelpful in inspiring him, Mahler repeatedly employed images and addressed existential issues found in the biblical library.

Mahler’s Background and Religious Belief(s).

Gustav Mahler was born to a Jewish family in the small village of Kalischt in Bohemia in July 1860. Soon after his birth he was circumcised according to Jewish tradition, and the family moved to Iglau later that year (Fischer, 2011, pp. 13, 17). Mahler’s family, like many Jews during this time, tried to acculturate themselves to their surrounding environment, and as such, the family all spoke German. Even so, Mahler’s father, Bernhard, was active in Iglau’s Jewish community, and Mahler later recounted his experiences in the town’s synagogue. In fact, after little Gustav started primary school in 1866, his highest grade was given in religion, specifically “Mosaic” religion (Fischer, 2011, p. 33). Interestingly, there is scholarly debate over whether or not Mahler underwent the traditional coming-of-age ceremony at 13 to become a bar mitzvah, with some scholars arguing that he did (Lebrecht, 2010, p. 29; Karbusický, 2005, p. 195) and others not even addressing the issue (Fischer, 2011). The biographies further disagree as to the nature (orthodox, liberal, or in between?) of the Judaism that Mahler’s family would have practiced (see, e.g., Fischer, 2011, p. 258; Newlin, 1978, p. 179; Berio, 2002, pp. 88–91).

Even with these uncertainties, we can confidently say that Judaism loomed large in Mahler’s early years, and if we are unable to know definitively the extent of his participation in its rituals and/or observances, it seems obvious that Mahler would have not only come into contact with Torah but would have been expected to engage and interpret it on occasion. As such, and as I note earlier, Mahler would have had access to and would have been familiar with biblical literature from an early age.

By all accounts, Mahler left his inherited Judaism behind once he began his studies in Vienna in 1877. It was during this time in his life that Mahler encountered the literary and philosophical works and ideas that would color his apprehension and understanding of reality, including Jean Paul, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Gustav Theodor Fechner, and Nietzsche. Fischer examines these literary influences in depth in his work, and it is telling that nowhere does he mention the Bible (2011, pp. 125–139).

Based on these influences, as well as friends like Siegfried Lipiner, Mahler began to formulate his own idiosyncratic religious worldview (see Fischer, 2011, p. 260). It was this new mix of ideas that found voice so persuasively in the Third Symphony of 1895–1896, with its pantheistic program and text from Also sprach Zarathustra. Oddly, though, the Third Symphony was completed only a few months before Mahler converted to Catholicism in February 1897. This may seem a strange step for someone of Mahler’s religious eclecticism, but there is an obvious, if regrettable, explanation for this decision.

By the mid-1890s, Mahler had established himself as an up-and-coming opera conductor but had always had his sights set on the Vienna Court Opera. Unfortunately for him, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism—sometimes virulent and especially prominent in Vienna—that would bar him from ever achieving that goal. All of the biographies note that Mahler’s decision to convert was less a spiritual than a practical one (see, e.g., Newlin, 1978, p. 110; Fischer, 2011, pp. 249–250).

While Mahler almost certainly converted with the twin goals of overcoming the persistent anti-Semitic views of his work and obtaining the directorship in Vienna, he did have an appreciation for Christianity in general and, more specifically, Catholic mysticism. Even so, after he took up the post at Vienna in 1897, he began to move away more and more from the inherited Judaism of his childhood and the chosen Christianity of his adulthood to embrace a much broader, more diverse worldview in his compositions, one in which biblical literature played only a tangential, thematic role (Cooke, 1988, p. 10; Fischer, 2011, p. 407).

The Bible in/and Mahler’s Compositions.

Mahler, like his contemporary Anton Bruckner, wrote almost exclusively works he called symphonies, although Mahler also composed some 40 songs. Because of space restrictions, in what follows I will focus mainly on four symphonies, even though some of his other works are suggestive, given our topic.

Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.”

Some of Mahler’s compositions have apparent connections to biblical literature, the most obvious being the aforementioned Second Symphony, which Mahler completed in 1894. As Mahler notes in the letter mentioned above, he had difficulty finding the right text to give voice to his understanding of the fate of humanity after death. The Bible evidently offered him no attractive options, despite canonical texts like Ezekiel 37, Daniel 12, 1 Thessalonians 4:135:11, and 1 Corinthians 15, to name a few. It is important to note that in spite of Mahler’s protestations, some scholars feel he is relying explicitly on biblical texts in this symphony; Karbusický quotes Daniel 12 in his analysis (2005, pp. 198–199), and he agrees with Constantin Floros that 1 Corinthians 15 “in general forms the background of Mahler’s lyrics” in this symphony (1993, p. 55). My own view is closer to Mahler’s claim in his letter, that is to say I think he found no aid in specific biblical texts because by this point his personal worldview had evolved into something that could not be contained by either Judaism or Christianity. However, since he was concerned with death and what lies beyond, some of his imagery naturally overlaps with biblical literature. This point becomes clearer as we examine the texts Mahler scores in his Second Symphony.

In the fourth movement, Mahler sets a song titled “Urlicht” (Original Light), one of the selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of folk-poems and songs from which Mahler drew extensively. Sung by an alto after a prescribed five-minute pause in the symphony, Mahler divides the brief movement into four different sections with varying moods, but an underlying sense of serenity pervades. Indeed, as the singer exclaims, “I am from God and will return to God. / The dear God will give me a light, / Will light me to an eternal blessed life!” the strings recede both dynamically and tonally, resolving into the major at the end of the movement and achieving a peaceful conclusion (all translations taken from Cooke, 1988).

The inspiration for the text used in the final movement of the Second Symphony came from an unlikely source. While employed in Hamburg from 1891 to 1897, Mahler met and worked with the famous conductor Hans von Bülow, who was not disposed to Mahler’s music. When Mahler attended von Bülow’s funeral in 1894, he heard a hymn by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and suddenly realized that he had found the elusive “Open Sesame” needed to complete the final movement. However, if this hymn—with its obvious allusions to Genesis 3:19 (referring to a deceased person as “My dust”), 1 Corinthians 15, and Mark 4:1–20 (“To bloom again thou art sown!”), and Matthew 9:35–38/Luke 10:2 (“The Lord of the Harvest goes / and gathers in, like sheaves, / Us who died”)—serves as an impetus for Mahler’s ideas, we must be clear that it is only an initial push toward a larger, more idiosyncratic viewpoint regarding death and the afterlife. As Fischer points out, instead of using all of Klopstock’s hymn, Mahler wrote his own poetic verses that take up “two-thirds” of the text in this movement, substantially altering the traditional theology in the original hymn (2011, p. 205).

Indeed, if one examines Mahler’s contributions to the text of the fifth movement, it seems clear that he is both departing from the obvious biblical allusions and traditional imagery in Klopstock’s hymn as well as positing a new voyage and destination for the resurrected dead. For example, Mahler writes that the dead will “soar upwards / To the light to which no eye has soared,” and at last “What thou hast fought for / Shall lead thee to God!” While it is possible to detect some general biblical parallels with Mahler’s words—“O Death, thou masterer of all things, / Now thou art mastered!” perhaps echoes Romans 6, and it is possible the mention of “wings which I have won for me” might bring to mind Isaiah 40:31 and/or Revelation 12:14—it is clear that his understanding of the resurrection of the dead simply does not jibe well with the relevant biblical texts, despite attempts to claim it does (especially Floros, 1993, pp. 51–78).

Symphony No. 3.

For his Third Symphony (1895–1896), Mahler decided on a much more ambitious goal than examining the fate of the dead. In his largest work to date, he decided to trace through six movements (it was originally seven, but the omitted movement was added as the conclusion to the Fourth Symphony) the evolution of nature from its summertime rebirth caused by Pan to the angelic realm of divine love. The titles of each of the movements indicate his subjects, e.g., “What the Flowers Tell Me,” to “What the Angels Tell Me” to “What Love Tells Me.”

In the fourth movement (“What Humanity Tells Me”), Mahler sets an excerpt of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra before turning to another selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the fifth movement. Sung by a women’s chorus, and employing a Glockenspiel, real bells, and a children’s choir imitating bells, this final movement is mostly innocent and brisk as it tells of St. Peter in Heaven, weeping while asking forgiveness from Jesus for breaking “the ten commandments.” This scene is clearly nonbiblical, but is also clearly based on the actions of Peter in Mark 14:66–72, where Peter denies that he knows Jesus three times, despite vowing never to do so in 14:29–31, the weeping in 14:72 forming an obvious connection with Peter’s weeping in this movement. Only when Peter speaks to Jesus does the movement become more somber, with obvious parallels in content, melody, and orchestration to the final movement of the Fourth Symphony. This solemnity noticeably matches the contrition in Peter’s speech, as he begs for Jesus’s mercy. As soon as Peter’s speech stops, the music gradually regains its innocence as the choir sings of “Heavenly joy,” and the movement ends much as it began, with a doubling of the bells by the children’s choir. The final movement of the Third Symphony is generally acknowledged as one of Mahler’s most beautiful adagios, a wordless evocation of “What Love Tells Me.”

Given his reticence to specifically quote biblical texts in his Second Symphony, the Wunderhorn song depicting Peter and Jesus in Heaven might seem an odd choice, especially coming after a poem from Nietzsche. In the world of ideas evoked by Mahler’s attempt to depict the developmental stages of nature and life therein, however, Mahler’s use of texts for the fifth movement does not seem as peculiar, especially since the first movement has explicitly pantheistic overtones. Mahler wishes to portray what he sees as the ultimate goal of life in the context of the overall structure of the symphony, be that the “deep eternity” of Nietzsche, or the “Heavenly joy” of the fifth movement, what Fischer calls the “ascent of all organic life to the very highest level, which is called not God but love” (2011, p. 276). As such, the fifth movement’s allusion to Bible plays a role in a larger construct and is not representative of any specific religious outlook other than Mahler’s own, which should be obvious from his use of “Love” instead of “God” for the final movement (see Fischer, 2011, p. 407).

Symphony No. 4.

In contrast to the enormous size and scope of the Second and Third Symphonies, Mahler’s Fourth (1899–1901) sounds almost transparently simplistic. Using a smaller orchestral force and a more conservative form of only four movements, Mahler composed his most popular symphony around the discarded final movement of the Third, “What the Child Tells Me.” This movement is composed of a poem taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn called “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), which narrates a child’s experience of Heaven, focusing, as one might expect, on dancing, music, and especially food. The music is suitably pastoral, with an occasional irruption of the main theme of the opening movement, which in that context sounds positively charming, complete with sleigh bells; here, though, it sounds sinister and menacing, giving the impression that all is not what it seems in this Heaven.

The lyrics bear out this apprehensive appraisal, as in addition to a collection of culinary delights they mention animals being slaughtered by Herod and his assistants Saints John and Luke. Given Herod’s role in the “massacre of the innocents” in Matthew 2:16–18, the characterization of him as a butcher in Heaven is disturbing, to say the least. In fact, the Heaven described here is more brutal, less idyllic than one might expect, and it is significant that even though Mahler addresses the same theme here that he addressed in his Second Symphony, namely, the fate of humanity after death, that fate seems much less secure and triumphant here in the Fourth.

Mahler’s letters offer no obvious reason for this new, more cynical outlook, and any scholarly speculation must remain in the realm of conjecture. However, the Fourth is Mahler’s first symphonic composition after converting to Catholicism, and it is entirely possible that this new state of affairs influenced the humor and irony that some scholars find in the vision of “Heavenly Life” here (Fischer, 2011, pp. 336–337).

Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand.”

None of the remarkable symphonies of Mahler’s so-called “Middle Period,” namely, the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh, include either any vocal settings or biblical allusions. The same is not the case with Mahler’s Eighth (1906), his grandest orchestral feat. It is a symphony of song in two parts: Part One is a complex, polyphonically rich setting of “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come, Creator Spirit), a ninth-century Christian hymn written by Rabanus Maurus usually performed during Pentecost, while in Part Two Mahler scores the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, in which angels ascend to the Virgin Mary with Faust’s soul and he is granted salvation. Some may find this a strange grouping, but scholars have noted not only the thematic and musical parallels between the Parts of the Symphony itself (Cooke, 1988, pp. 92–93) but also the parallels between the Eighth and the Second (Mitchell, 1985, pp. 528–529, 588; Newlin, 1978, p. 192).

Essentially, the “Veni Creator” in Part One is a petition for the Spirit, here called in Latin the “Paraclitus”—obviously referring to the Paraclete mentioned in John’s Gospel—to descend into the bodies and minds of the faithful in order that they may receive “knowledge of the Father, / and of the Son, / and of thee, O Spirit” as well as a “foretaste of bliss.” The Spirit is asked to “dwell in our minds” and to fill hearts with “divine grace”—in other words, to provide “life, fire, and love” by illuminating “our senses.”

In the second part of Faust, Mahler found an echo of Maurus’s hymn as well as a further exploration of the theme of the postcorporeal destiny of the soul he explored in his Second Symphony. The former comes from a shared emphasis on love, not to mention the divine source of creativity (Fischer, 2011, pp. 405–407; Mitchell, 1985, p. 575); the latter is seen in the final section of Part Two, the Chorus Mysticus, in which we encounter the “Eternal Womanhead” who will lead souls into higher realms of being, the journey of ascent paralleling the winged ascent to Divine Light in the Second Symphony. Mitchell speaks eloquently of Mahler’s achievement in this final movement, writing that he succeeds “in audaciously dramatizing a philosophical idea” (1985, p. 583).

As significant as Mahler’s conceptual and compositional achievement is here, it is important to note that once again he is engaging ideas and concepts that are rife with biblical resonance, yet he chooses not to set any biblical texts specifically. This decision, as well as the decision to close the Eighth with Goethe rather than Maurus’s hymn, should warn one against seeing the Eighth as some kind of grand affirmation of Christianity (as does Kennedy, 1991, p. 149). Rather, Fischer is probably closer to the mark when he notes that in Faust Goethe had demonstrated “that it was possible to believe in the immortality of the soul and in redemption without being a Christian” (2011, p. 406).


The Eighth Symphony was the last time Mahler engaged any ideas or themes with a strict basis in biblical literature, as neither his Ninth Symphony (1908–1911) nor his song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (1907–1908) contains any texts that can be linked with either Bible or Christianity.

To summarize our main points again, it is clear that Mahler was aware of and had access to biblical texts, a point I demonstrate above and one that is clear from his close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s charming reminiscences, in which she records Mahler several times using biblical texts as examples to prove a point or to make an analogy (e.g., 2013, loc. 1426). Despite this, he never chose to score any material from the Bible, even though many of the texts he chose employed and engaged images and themes found in biblical literature.

This perhaps tells us more about Mahler than about his appreciation for the Bible. His was a restless, searching existence; he was always questioning, seeking to find answers to pressing, even ultimate queries, and this led him to many thinkers, many texts. As Berio notes, though, in the end, whatever question or text is addressed by or set in his music simply “provides us with a key—one of the many keys—to Mahler’s immense universe. But once we cross the threshold, the key may remain in the keyhole” (2002, p. 104).


Primary Sources

  • Bauer-Lechner, Natalie. Recollections of Gustav Mahler. Translated by Dika Newlin. Edited and annotated by Peter Franklin. London: Faber & Faber, 2013. English translation of Erinnerungen an Gustav Mahler, first published in 1923. An invaluable collection of firsthand information about Mahler, recorded by a close friend and companion.
  • Martner, Knud, ed. Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler. Translated by Eithne Wilkins et al. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. English translation of Alma Marie Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Briefe 1879–1911, first published in 1924.

Secondary Sources

  • Berio, Talia Pecker. “Mahler’s Jewish Parable.” In Mahler and His World, edited by Karen Painter, pp. 87–110. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. An advanced inquiry into the hermeneutics of the “Jewish” element in Mahler’s life and music.
  • Cooke, Deryck. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An accessible introduction to Mahler’s music, containing sections for each work with texts and translations included.
  • Fischer, Jens Malte. Gustav Mahler. Translated by Stewart Spencer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. English translation of Gustav Mahler: Der fremde Vertraute, first published in 2003. The finest recent, critical one-volume biography that is also accessible to neophytes, as it contains less musicological content than other biographies.
  • Floros, Constantin. Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. Translated by Vernon and Jutta Wicker. Edited by Reinhard G. Pauly. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus, 1993. English translation of Gustav Mahler III: Die Symphonien, first published in 1985. A detailed study of Mahler’s symphonies, this work is a treasure trove of historical information, even if it pays too much attention to issues of symbolism and programs.
  • Karbusický, Vladimír. “Gustav Mahler’s Musical Jewishness.” In Perspectives on Gustav Mahler, edited by Jeremy Barham, pp. 195–216. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. An advanced article that attempts to recover Jewish elements in Mahler’s thought and music.
  • Kennedy, Michael. Mahler. Rev. ed. New York: Schirmer, 1991. Possibly the best brief treatment of Mahler’s biography and music.
  • Lebrecht, Norman. Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. New York: Random House, 2010. An idiosyncratic portrait painted through the author’s attempt to follow in Mahler’s physical footsteps.
  • Mitchell. Donald. Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death: Interpretations and Annotations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A technical examination of Das Lied von der Erde and the Eighth Symphony by a renowned Mahler scholar.
  • Newlin, Dika. Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. Rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1978. A consideration of three composers and their personal and musical relationships and influences that assumes both biographical and musical knowledge.

Dan W. Clanton Jr.