'A Narrative of Life and Glory' by Gordon Goetemann

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a kindred spirit. His artistic courage, humanistic passions and spiritual depth have held my admiration since I first heard his music 50 years ago. Mahler was a visionary and a romantic, which is not to say that he was an escapist or incapable of confronting reality. Far from it. Mahler sought the means to resolve the dilemma of being both human and godlike. The underlying ideas for the Second Symphony are to find freedom in the face of adversity, courage in the face of dislocation, and eternal life in the face of human decay.

Mahler’s canvas was the world; human emotions were his colors; sound was his vehicle. His music vibrates the soul. It pierces, shatters and terrifies. It nurtures and transports. It is joyful, mournful, satirical, dramatic and above all, romantic to its core Sound in his work is so beautifully orchestrated that one can see what their ears hear. The motif of yearning expressed toward the end of Movement One by two extended notes, erodes one’s sense of confidence and well-being until the mournful reality becomes pervasive. That yearning grows, and in Movement Three reaches a level of intensity that, as Mahler said, puts one on the brink of despair and screaming out in anguish. This deathly crescendo of sound changes abruptly in Movement Four to an atmosphere of primal light created by two soloists who sing of hope and salvation achieved through willful belief. This sublime mood is broken again when the scream returns to start Movement Five. This time the sound does not express mere despair, but rather, sheer terror.

With this masterful contrasting development of musical motifs, Mahler has set the stage for the Symphony’s final resolution The Day of Judgment is at hand (5A). All souls awaken from their graves and form a procession. Fear and trepidation govern their gestures and ponderous cadence as they move toward Final Judgement. Suddenly the mood changes. One hears from off stage the Voice of the Caller and with it, all worldly sounds begin to fade. Silence prevails and the procession emerges into a state of radiant splendor (5B). A monumental affirmation of eternal glory ends the Symphony (5C).

The scale of the Second Symphony, requiring an expanded orchestra of 48 musicians playing 23 sets of instruments, two soloists and a chorus of at least 200 voices, establishes the grandeur of Mahler’s conception. It fills listeners with awe and wonder and moves them persuasively to accept its meaning.

My introduction to the Symphony came at a formative time in life. I had just completed seventeen years of Catholic education and, in 1956, had enrolled in a MFA Program at the State University of Iowa to prepare for a life as artist and teacher. My roommate, a timpanist with the University Orchestra, arranged for me to attend all the rehearsals and discussions which prepared the musicians for the performance. Mahler’s vision and the conductor’s insightful narrative affected me profoundly.

Mahler’s idea of autonomous individuals making authentic choices to arrive at essential understandings paralleled the philosophical tenets of existentialism, a worldview explored by many students and faculty of graduate programs during the 1950s, and that influenced the thinking of artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement.

This was the foundation for my values and aesthetic as I began my professional life. The Iowa experience convinced me that great art should have something relevant to say beyond its subject matter, that it should exhibit both formal and moral integrity and that it should admit a sense of presence that is clear and unified. For 40 years I worked with Benedictine monks and sisters in Liberal Arts colleges in the state of Minnesota. In 1998 I retired from teaching and moved permanently to Gloucester, Massachusetts. I began to think about what I might do in this late phase of life which would challenge my beliefs, my aesthetic knowledge, and skills. I chose Mahler’s Second Symphony as the fountainhead upon which to start a new journey. For five and one half years I worked on fifteen paintings which expressed my visual interpretation of his Symphony. I could not have made a better choice than to revisit Mahler in this way. The results have gone far beyond my expectations. I hope my audience will agree.


Gordon Goetemann first came to Gloucester in the summer of 1954 to study with Umberto Romano. The experience set the course for his painting career. He received his M.F.A. from the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, and has taught at universities and colleges in Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, and Canada. In 1998, upon his retirement from teaching, he moved permanently to Gloucester. Goetemann’s work has been accessioned into the collections of the Cape Ann Museum and the Aldrich Museum of American Art, as well as many private and corporate collections. He and his wife Judith Steele Goetemann, also an artist, maintain a studio on Rocky Neck.