Gustav Mahler and Friedrich Nietzsche are two of the most important figures in twentieth century culture, broadly—to say nothing of their impact on their respective fields of music and philosophy. Mahler’s titanic symphonies incapsulate the beauty, banality, and anxiety of modern life, while Nietzsche’s ideas have informed nearly every important political and philosophical movement since his death. That these two figures intersected not personally but intellectually is a fascinating example of cross-cultural exchange and an important study in the relationship between art and politics.
My initial attraction to this topic was the coalescence of two of my own enduring interests—the first in music history and the second in political philosophy. It was not much more than chance that while I was an undergraduate, I found myself reading Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality in my introductory political theory course while simultaneously reading Adorno on Gustav Mahler in my symphonic literature survey. (Incidentally, Adorno is himself an important link between Mahler and Nietzsche.) It was this confluence of subjects that led me to think seriously about the links between art music composition and political movements, not only at the surface level of dedications and mottos, but in deeper terms of how art music can engage and reflect political realities and aspirations.
The Mahler-Nietzsche relationship suits this kind of exploration particularly well because of its opacity; As I explore in the introduction to Mahler’s Nietzsche: Politics and Philosophy in the Wunderhorn Symphonies, Mahler’s comments about Nietzsche are enticing but pithy while Nietzsche is notoriously flexible in both style and substance. Nonetheless, the alignment of Mahler’s invocations of Nietzsche, including his description of the finale of the Third as “God! Or if you like, the Übermensch” and the symphony’s one-time title “My Gay Science”, with his most unique and important compositional choices (use of colliding musical perspectives, victorious choral finales, and not-quite-programmatic musical programs) seemed to deserve attention and explanation.
By looking at the commentaries and activities of Mahler’s peers at the University of Vienna, a loose collective of future writers, dramatists, historians, and politicians known as the Pernerstorfer Circle, I was able to reconstruct elements of the group’s Nietzsche reception. The links between Nietzsche’s ideas and the respective interests of the members of the Circle, including the revitalization of the dramatic arts, the multicultural makeup of Austria, and socialist political change, permitted an understanding of how Mahler’s musical innovations dovetailed with political thought and, consequently, what his Nietzschean invocations could mean. Without suggesting that Mahler himself held strong or particular political beliefs, his introduction to and engagement with Nietzsche nonetheless was formed in an environment suffused with a specific “version” of the philosopher and one that can be traced in the composing choices of his early symphonies.
As arguments concerning the exact relationship between art and politics are reanimated today in the wake of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Mahler’s Nietzsche sheds light on how music intertwines with social and political change, even when it does not outrightly declare such intentions. In the case of the Wunderhorn symphonies, political values circulating in fin-de-siècle Vienna, including the harmony of diverse voices, the interrogation of conventional structures and coherences, and the integrity of parody as well as genuine receptivity to a perceived other, are conveyed sonically. Revealing music’s ability to reflect societal attitudes beyond making specific political statements, Mahler’s engagement with Nietzsche is a profound illustration of how music and politics intersect.
This guest post was written by LEAH BATSTONE, a musicologist working at the intersections of art music, politics, and philosophy in Central and Eastern Europe. She received her PhD in musicology from McGill University and holds a Master’s degree in musicology from the University of Oxford.