Throwback Thursday: Gustav Mahler and the Kennedy Assassinations

The revolutionary Austrian composer, born 156 years ago today, twice scored a nation in mourning.

It was 156 years ago today that the world was blessed with Gustav Mahler, the revolutionary Austrian composer who sought to distill in his works the entirety of the human condition, conjuring entire universes from the sounds of oversized orchestras while grappling with the greatest questions of existence.

His Second Symphony, in particular, encapsulated all that piece of music could and should be. From its calamitous first notes, echoing the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth and often interpreted as its hero shaking his fist at the heavens, to its finale of otherworldly triumph, the Mahler Second is a transformative work that leaves a lasting effect on even the most casual listener.

“If there is one work of our times which will speak to the coming generations, which will reveal to them the musical zenith of our epoch and tell them in the language of tones of our nature, of our woes and of our longings, of our anguish and of our love,” wrote Richard Specht in a December 1908 program, “which, ‘almost equal to the spoken word, will still say infinitely more,’ to quote Mahler himself, it will be this work which tells of much more than ourselves, our age and its heart throbs, which bespeaks its own creator and the greatness by which he has lifted above the ephemeral.”

“There are few pieces of music that are so riveting, that so envelop us, that we truly feel that we have become the music,” said Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, in 2013. “The music has become us.”

President John F. Kennedy and Mahler had much in common. Both men dealt with long-term illness: on top of Addison’s disease, Kennedy struggled with chronic pain, while Mahler suffered from an arrhythmic heartbeat, which he wove into his ninth and final symphony. Kennedy faced scrutiny as the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, while Mahler was forced out of the Vienna Court Opera in 1907 as anti-Semitism took hold in his native Austria. Death stalked the Mahler family, taking the composer’s parents, two brothers, sister, and daughter, just as it famously had the Kennedys.

Just as the Kennedy pedigree ran through Boston, Mahler had his ties to the Hub as well. His Ninth Symphony received its American premiere at Symphony Hall, under the baton of legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Lawrence native Leonard Bernstein, then living in a studio apartment on Huntington Avenue, caught a performance of Mahler’s work in 1942, six years before he led the BSO in a wildly successful performance of the Second Symphony. Hell, two episodes of Cheers were focused on Mahler.

And of course, both men were taken from us much too soon.

Two days after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic gave a nationally televised performance of the Second Symphony—not a requiem or Beethoven’s Eroica, which the orchestra had played through the weekend. It was the first time the piece had ever been performed in its entirety on television.

The following day, Bernstein addressed the United Jewish Appeal Benefit and explained why he chose Mahler’s Second. From his prepared remarks, republished in his 1982 book Findings:

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.

Five years later, it was time for the nation to mourn again; Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Bernstein returned to Mahler, but this time, he chose the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. The movement—scored for just strings and harp, in contrast to the chaotic crashes and stentorian horns of the larger piece—filled St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, as Ted Kennedy buried another brother.

“The reason it has this intense sense of anguish is because he uses what we call appoggiaturas, which are notes that require resolution” explained Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop, who played the piece in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, in 2007. “And of course, I think that’s so much about what love and life and death are all about.”