Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mahler's Farewell To Life

Gustav Mahler had one of the most extraordinary minds in the history of western music. While Mahler was composing his 9th and final completed symphony, he knew he was dying. As Leonard Bernstein commented in one of his lectures, the listener can hear an irregular heart beat at the beginning of the piece. This was because Mahler had a lesion in one of his heart valves. Back in those days, this was a dangerous situation. This can be compared to waves in the ocean, however there is no consistent rhythm to it. Hence, it's irregularity. I think of Mahler's 9th as an extreme of emotions from a zen like mood to an outpouring of fear and sadness. Mahler was not vague with expressing his emotions. After all, why shouldn't he? His wife, Alma had an affair, his daughter died, and he found out about his illness at the same point in time. It is said that he was determined to beat his illness. However, what else can a person do? If I had an incurable illness I would be pretty freaked. I assume Mahler must have been scared.
In the first movement there is this great sense of peace, and then all of a sudden there is this outpouring of emotion. Mahler died three years before world war 1 began. This outpouring of emotion says so much about so many things. I think he knew that something was coming. Mahler is scared in this first movement. His insides are shattered with fear and sadness. It chokes me up just thinking about it. It was like he didn't know who to say it to and it all comes in this first movement.
The final adagio of this symphony is one of the greatest adagios in the history of western music. I must confess that the first time i listened to this symphony I started with the final adagio. I had no idea what I was in for. Something other then myself made me listen to this movement first. What I heard was a man just spilling his guts out. Mahler could be a huge dictator, but underneath he had a huge heart. Mahler could be histrionic in his symphonies, and his movements too long because if it. This movement is like 26 minutes, but Mahler's purpose is clear throughout all of it. This shows how mature he was at this point in his life.
The violas begin this magnificent farewell. The beauty of the beginning of this final movement leaves me at a loss for words. It sounds like the ultimate saddness, yet there is also this great sense of hope for the world. Also, I get the sense that Mahler is having trouble accepting his fate. The extreme emotions of Mahler are really evident here. He can't let gi at first, although he is trying desperately to do so. There are moments where he let's go and accepts things. In the middle of this movement there is music which sounds eastern, like in the first movement. This eastern sounding music could be used for meditation. It is as if Mahler is meditating on his life, and possibly the afterlifeHe goes from that to pleading for help. His fear and sadness just keep coming back and it is heart wrenching to the listener. Mahler was only 51 when he died. It must be hard to accept dying that young. That is not something I can understand. I think that Mahler was getting weaker and weaker as he wrote this adagio. At the end of the movement as the music gets hauntingly soft, I think he surrenders. He gives up control and accepts the inevidable.

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