Death has ridden its steed throughout the history of music.
Since instrumental classical music excels at evoking emotion and telling stories without words, it has had a special role in soothing fears about death, comforting those who are bereaving and stimulating imagination about what may come after.
Many a composer has taken up the subject, but few obsessed more about death than the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and few wrote with eternity in mind more than his older countryman, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896).
Over the next two weeks, music director Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform symphonies by each of these titans that pursue, question and ultimately affirm life after death in the composers' minds: Bruckner's majestic Symphony No. 7 (1883) and Mahler's exquisite Symphony No. 4 (1901).
Even for a composer whose works are often the outpouring of a devout Catholic faith, Bruckner's Seventh goes beyond in its celebrating of the, well, beyond.
- Who: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano.
Bruckner's Symphony No. 7; Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor."
- When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Who: Honeck, Gil Shaham, violin; Sunhae Im, soprano
Mahler Symphony No. 4; Haydn's Violin Concerto No. 2; Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 2.
- When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
- Tickets: $12.50-$85; 412-392-4900.
"With the Seventh, Bruckner made a transition. His inner voice went deeper and more clearly to his soul," says Mr. Honeck. "It is about eternity, death of Wagner and that [Bruckner) was getting old."
Indeed, the soaring strains of Bruckner's long melodic lines and slow harmonic progressions suggest contemplation of heaven, but the second movement Adagio deals with death specifically. It is an unabashed memorial to Richard Wagner, the controversial Germanic composer who pushed music into extremes of subject matter and chromaticism in the 19th century.
Wagner split the music world into pro and contra camps, and even though Bruckner was a church organist steeped in tradition, as a composer he sided with the progressives. And he viewed Wagner with an admiration that occasionally slipped into obsequiousness.
The devotion was sincere:
"One day I came home and felt very sad," Bruckner wrote to a friend in 1883, the year of Wagner's death. "The thought crossed my mind that soon the Master would die, and just then the C-sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me."
In what would become the Seventh Symphony's second movement, Bruckner adorned that theme with a quartet of dark Wagner tubas, a cross between a French horn and a tuba Wagner conceived himself. Bruckner then makes allusions to his own "Te Deum" and the words "Let me not be confounded forever," which pushes the movement to a universal statement of eternal life in a glorious climax.
"The words in the 'Te Deum' are about never [being] lost in eternity," says Mr. Honeck. "He goes from the most pianissimo and goes like a wave, and then creates this big bang. It is redemption."
There is even a cymbal crash and raucous ringing of a triangle, something that Bruckner didn't originally have in his score but it appears he agreed were appropriate when the conductor Arthur Nikisch approached him about it.
"It has the feeling of broadness and power of sacred music -- tremolo and crescendo," says Mr. Honeck.
But the conductor is quick to point out that amid the serious and adulatory, the Adagio also contains a lighter and more earth-bound view of death:
"In the second movement there is a small waltz. I don't like this to be in a sacred atmosphere. It is a fun element. You have sacred and eternity, but also dancing. You have the wiener schnitzel society."
The third movement opens with a powerful trumpeting of a rooster's call. "In earlier interpretations I did it more [rural], but [now] I do it more in Mahler's world. I do it more as a death march -- a little darkness and demonic power, instead of heavy."
The last movement brings a heavenly response, although still blending "solemnity and humor in festive grandeur" as one scholar puts it. "At the climax in the end you have all four themes together," says Mr. Honeck. "It is so fantastic. It is like the organ."
Mahler's Fourth Symphony (1901) is more obvious in its referencing of afterlife. It concludes with his earlier setting of a folk poem, "Das himmlische Leben (Life in Heaven)." Taken from the collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn)," it is a child's view of heaven, resplendent with things the hungry youth would really like on Earth: food.
The double layer of meaning of life/afterlife is played out through the entire symphony, beginning with themes in the first movement that are overly naive and simple. At the time, Mahler's Fourth, approximately an hour in length, was criticized in large part because audiences were anticipating a follow-up to his gargantuan and groundbreaking earlier symphonies and failed to understand Mahler's irony here.
"It enraged most of its first hearers," writes the late Michael Steinberg.
"People who heard the First Symphony heard a revolution compared to Beethoven and others," says Mr. Honeck. "In the Second he added a choir and the Third he added a movement. Living in the time of Mahler you would be very disappointed when you came to a harmless symphony. People were surprised and disappointed."
Even today, the work can be misunderstood -- and misinterpreted, says Mr. Honeck.
"It cannot be that you play this like a simple piece, like a Haydn symphony," he says. "There are so many things that cry out, and there is always something wrong with what is going on."
From the beginning's strange sleighbells accompanying the flute and clarinets to the end when the music drops back to earth in plodding steps, there is always something keeping this music from achieving the glorious apotheosis of Bruckner's Seventh.
"At the end, Mahler is saying we are still in the earth," he says. "It starts high and goes lower."
And that's not to mention the tuning of the concertmaster's violin "scordatura," or up a tone, to create a harsh sound symbolizing the dance of Death of the second movement scherzo.
So is the composer of such affirmative works as Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," suddenly pessimistic about God?
Not to Mr. Honeck, who feels Mahler is instead questioning anyone who longs for eternal life and return to innocence as if it will come without struggle.
"He is questioning the human who is longing for eternal life, showing the elements which disturb [dreaming of it]. He describes desperation as belonging to our life. You need desperation to accept eternal life. He experienced that in his life."
Andrew Druckenbrod blogs at Classical Musings on post-gazette.com/music. Reach him at email@example.com . First Published January 20, 2010 5:00 AM