As we struggled to process the murder of Alton Sterling, we learned of the murder of Philando Castile. The Washington Post tells us 509 people have been killed by police this year. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune tells us that 148 people have been killed by police in Minnesota since 2000 and no officers have been charged in any of the deaths.
Then Dallas happens.
And we are reminded that one of the greatest strengths of America–its diversity–is also one of the greatest sources of societal fragility. We are only strong when we value others as highly as we value ourselves. We are only great when we recognize where we have failed our fellow citizens and alter our course.
Maybe because it happened in Dallas, maybe because it happened on the 156th birthday of Gustav Mahler…whatever reason, I was thinking about Leonard Bernstein’s response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Two days after Kennedy’s death, Bernstein conducted a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a live CBS television broadcast.
(This is the only fragment of that historic performance that is available on YouTube.)
On the surface, Mahler’s second symphony seems like a curious choice to memorialize a great tragedy. It’s the “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s a triumphant work with one of the most ecstatic conclusions in all of music. Why Mahler 2? Why not something with a little more emotional weight, like a Requiem…or the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony?
The day after the live broadcast–also the day of President Kennedy’s funeral–Leonard Bernstein explained his choice in a speech at the United Jewish Appeal Benefit that has since become as famous as it is inspirational. (His conclusion, pictured, has become a meme that gets shared–overshared, tbqh–in classical music circles in the aftermath of tragedy.)
Reading from handwritten notes, Bernstein said:
“Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony—“The Resurrection” –in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the “Resurrection” Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the “Eroica”? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow father strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.”
Bernstein chose to perform music that inspires the resurrection of hope in the midst of shocking, tragic, and seemingly hopeless circumstances.
This has so much relevance for us today, as our nation continues a contentious conversation about race and power and guns and fear and we seek to find answers to extremely nuanced and complicated problems.
Through art, we express and confront the deepest emotional trauma we face as well as vivid aspirational visions of what we can achieve as a human race. Art showcases the best that humanity has to offer.
We can do better. We must do better. It is not easy. Life’s most important challenges never are. But with Leonard Bernstein’s words ringing in our ears, “we must somehow father the strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving.”
This has been a hell of a week. A lot of weeks are hell. And when we don’t have the strength inside of ourselves to resurrect any hope whatsoever, thank goodness we can turn to music.
Mahler’s second symphony begins with a defiant funeral march. We grieve, angry that we have once again been forced to grieve. The symphony ends in triumph with words, written by Mahler himself, that remind us that death is not meaningless when it is transformational.
“O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
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 shall it carry you!”