Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

[from HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, by Sylvia Cranston and Carey Williams, research assistant, 3rd rev. ed. (Santa Barbara, CA: Path Publishing House, 1999; c. 1993), pp. 495-6.]


Gustav Mahler

Until his death in 1911, Mahler received little attention as a composer. It was as a conductor that he was renowned in Europe and later in America. His symphonies and other compositions were in advance of their time and were received with puzzlement rather than acclaim. He prophesied, “My time will come,” and so it has. He is now regarded as a great master.

In 1895, Mahler began his third symphony. Although his earlier symphonies are tragic in character and disclose bitter disillusionment with life, the third was titled “The Joyful Knowledge,” and according to noted Mahler authority Deryck Cook indicated “a new-found optimism, or rather a kind of mystical revelation of the validity and purpose of existence.” 

What was this joyful knowledge? In a biography of the composer, Mahler’s close friend Richard Specht records a conversation with him in Hamburg in 1895. According to Specht, Mahler said with great conviction: “We all return; it is this certainty that gives meaning to life and it does not make the slightest difference whether or not in a later incarnation we remember the former life. What counts is not the individual and his comfort, but the great aspiration to the perfect and the pure which goes on in each incarnation.” The third symphony could be said to depict the reincarnation of life through the kingdoms to man and beyond.

Cook quotes a letter in which Mahler states that he wanted to express in the work an evolutionary development of nature that hides “within itself everything that is frightful, great, and also lovely.” He notes that the composer added: “Of course, no one ever understands this, It always strikes me as odd that most people when they speak of “nature” think only of flowers, little birds, and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan. There now! You have a sort of program — that is, a sample of how I make music. Everywhere and always, it is only the voice of nature!

The vast first movement, says Cook, represents “nature in its totality . . . awakened from fathomless silence that it may ring and resound.” The subsequent movements portray the stages of reincarnational ascension from vegetable and animal through mankind, back to the omniscient, omnipotent Divine Source.”

It was through another reincarnationist, the distinguished conductor Dr. Bruno Walter — a protégé and intimate friend of Mahler — that the present writer learned of the composer’s belief in rebirth. This conviction, I was told, rose through association with some Theosophical acquaintances whom he met in the 1890s. Dr. Walter was kind enough to direct me to the book, Gustav Mahler, which recorded Mahler’s conversation with Richard Specht.