How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer's 150th birthday
I know I do too many posts on this blog about notable musical dates, but you'll just have to forgive another, 'cause this one means more to me than all the other important anniversaries put together. And I know the title of this post is a wee bit melodramatic, but you'll have to indulge me on that, too. It's really not too much of an exaggeration anyway, since my life would probably be completely different had I not discovered the music of Gustav Mahler, who was born 150 years ago -- July 7, 1860.
I'm still as hooked on Mahler as ever. I never "outgrew" my passion for his symphonies, my fascination with his all-too-short life (next year marks the centennial of his death). I had a basic appreciation for classical music before I first heard a note of Mahler's, but I had no thought of making it a substantial part of my life. I was more into pop and jazz. And any thoughts of a career were of the political variety (I was sure I would run for some sort of office one day -- and be fabulous at it, of course).
But then I happened to see "Death in Venice," the film by Luchino Visconti based on the Thomas Mann novella. I frequently bore people by describing the extraordinary sensation I felt as the movie opened. There was no discernable image on the screen at first, only the sound of harp and strings playing the Adagietto (as I subsequently learned) from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Gradually, the sight of gentle waves appeared and, as the music swelled, I felt myself drawn as forcibly into that sound-world as into the gorgeous film.
When I read Mahler’s name in the credits, I set out to learn more about him. I found a recording of that Adagietto, then decided I had to hear all of the Fifth Symphony. I was blown away. I did not know music could do that, could go where Mahler took it, could hit me in some deep emotional place that hadn’t been awakened before.
I had barely begun to digest that symphony when, by coincidence, I tuned to a classical music station in DC on my car radio one evening on the way home and heard a wildly dramatic bit of music that I sensed must be by Mahler. When I got home, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the car, lest I miss a note, so I stayed outside listening (and wearing down the battery) for more than an hour, until the shattering conclusion of what I found out was the Sixth Symphony. That did it.
I soon had to buy all the Mahler symphonies, then all his other works. And in this process of getting Mahlerized, I realized that
classical music really meant something to me, so I forgot about the political science courses I had planned to take in college and kept adding electives in music until that became my major. And that’s how I got into the critic racket – a couple of my teachers encouraged me to think about reviewing music for a living. So, you see, Mahler really did save my life, or at least redirect it.
The 150th anniversary of the composer's birth makes me want to pause and acknowledge my debt. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said about Mahler’s works. I can only repeat that they move me, involve me, transform me. Lots of other music does, too – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Poulenc, Shostakovich, lots of the usual suspects. But, to this day, Mahler simply touches me in a different way. I feel as if he’s talking to me, living my life, not just his. I feel like I can see what he sees, the darkest and brightest elements of this life, the glimmers and shadows and promises of the next one.
I’m hardly alone in this, of course. Mahler fans inevitably react along these lines. If you’re one, too, I’d love flor you to share your feelings about the man and his music.
It’s impossible for me to settle on what my favorite Mahler work is. Naturally, I still hold the Fifth and Sixth in great regard, since they pushed me into Mahlerian fever. The Second, Third and Eighth put me in an exalted space. The Ninth and “Das Lied von der Erde” shatter me. I love the colorful journeys of the First, Fourth and Seventh, and the drama of the much-neglected “Das Klagende Lied.” And then the songs – how rich they are, too.
I decided that I should settle on only one musical clip to end this post, and I was surprised at how quickly I made a choice. It’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – “I am Lost to the World” -- from the “Ruckert Lieder.” If these were the only six or seven minutes of Mahler I could ever hear again, I’d still be content, for they capture everything I love about his art. (This song has the added appeal to me of being a kind of companion piece to the Adagietto, with a very similar sound and melodic arc.)
Here’s the text:
I am lost to the world, where I used to waste so much time. It has heard nothing from me for so long that it may very well believe that I am dead. That is of no consequence to me ... for I really am dead to the world, dead to the world’s tumult. I rest in a quiet realm. I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song.
This performance with mezzo Magdalena Kozena and conductor Claudio Abbado beautifully communicates the subtle power of the words and music:
SUN FILE PHOTO