Monday, May 16

Finding the Heart of Gustav Mahler

Its been the driest of Mays in my little world. The swamp has fallen into drought. I shudder to think of how my daughter's grades have fallen. In the middle of the night, my kitchen and living room flood and I shudder to think of all that is still not mended. A move-out date is looming on my calender and festering in every unpacked corner of my apartment while a clouded air of insipid vacations, unpaid debts, and uncertain relationships loom.

In the midst of these ominous ramblings, I went to a lovely performance of the Houston Symphony on Sunday afternoon which is notable because my mother and I usually only attend three of four concerts a year. Classical music is a bond we have had since I was child who played the double bass quite well and she was a devoted mother who drove me across the universe to attend private lessons, orchestra rehearsals and various performances. My mother gave me a lot of her time and a lot of herself.  She taught me how to walk away from an unreasonable argument, to appreciate artist expression even when you don't understand it, and to love classic movies. I like to think that my short lived career as a child musician helped my mother appreciate classical music, even if she doesn't fully understand it.

Symphonic music at its best expands our capacity to feel, to enter the compassion and the pain of being human.  Classic music holds joy deeply, and for the time we are experiencing a composer's work we borrow his passions and make them our own.

Such was the case of Sunday's performance of Mahler's 10th, and unfinished Symphony. When Mahler wrote the sketch for his final symphony he was a man living on borrowed time. Doctors had discovered he suffered from an incurable heart condition and it was uncertain how long he would live. He had learned too that his wife, Alma - an insatiable flirt - was having an affair. As unfinished works go, the sketch Mahler left behind was quite complete. Mahler wrote out all his basic melodies and cords and filled the margins with his notations of regret for the life he would not live and the heartache brought on by a cheating wife. When he died in 1911, two years after starting his final work, Mahler left us not only the bones of a symphony, but a memoir of human suffering.

And yet, despite the shrinking high A of his trumpeter and funeral march of his bass drum, the final movement of Mahler's final symphony leaves us with an uplifting melody. The kitchen floods, the grades slide, the good man is gone, the lawn turns brown, but with Mahler you come back to basics: Do I regret this life? Is it, despite all our brave words, a cheat and a waste? Does it make any slight difference to the universe that we are present?

Spending an afternoon with the Symphony simply is an extravagant gift from the heart of the performers to the hearts of whoever is sitting nearby. Life is good, no matter the disappointments — O God the disappointments. Just square your shoulders and give them your utter best. As the late great Marilyn Monroe said, "I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful." Life is insurmountable, but we mount up every morning and ride forward.

1 comment:

The Bug said...

I'm so sorry you're having all these disappointments. Hope you're moving somewhere where the kitchen doesn't flood.

This is a good way to consider classical music. Sometimes I work too hard trying to find the hook, the melody, when I should just let the mood wash over me.