Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Infinite

Gustav Mahler (Classical)
Track: Adagio from The Ninth Symphony (1909)

When as a teenager I first heard the celebrated adagietto (slow movement) from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, I was stunned to discover music so expressive and emotional.

The yearning suspension of each melodic line seemed to cancel out time and evoke deep, eternal emotions. The adagietto has continued for many years to be one of my favorite classical pieces.

Mahler was the quintessential post-romanticist, a bridge between the masters of classicism (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert) and the expressionists of the so-called “Second Viennese School”.

innovators included his student Schoenberg as well as Webern and Berg. They represent perhaps the last hurrah of modern classicism before it collapsed, rendered impotent by the visceral impact of pop.

Vienna stood at the center of each of these movements, and Mahler famously transformed the repertoire and reputation of the Vienna Opera at a time when that city was the great capital of Europe’s artistic and intellectual life.

After causing a sensation with his stewardship of both the Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, Mahler achieved world fame, only to fall seriously ill before dying
in 1911 at the age of 50.

Intense and troubled, Mahler remains a controversial figure. For some (me included) he is to be revered for his emotional and spiritual honesty.

For others his music tends toward mawkishness and sentimentality, even exhibiting a manic-depressive psychology. Indeed, Mahler briefly underwent analysis with Freud.

I'll admit there are elements in Mahler's music which verge on melodrama, but for me the composer always preserves the right balance between grandiosity and moments of profound stillness. It's in the tension between the two that Mahler expresses the transcendent.

The extended adagio of his celebrated Ninth Symphony is where Mahler’s expression of the infinite reaches apotheosis. Listen to this masterpiece in the wee hours or when you are in need of reassurance.

However, do not be surprised if your emotions get the better of you. On many occasions I've been left with tears in my eyes after listening to the adagio. It's one of the most heart-shattering pieces of music you’ll ever hear, a hymnal meditation which expresses a profound serenity.

In the course of the adagio, the calm is disturbed by magnificent outbreaks of dissonance. It’s hard not to read them as forebodings of the impending cataclysms of the twentieth century as well as shadows of the tragedies that occurred in Mahler’s own personal life - the death of his young daughter and the declining health which prevented him from communion with his beloved Austrian Alps.

But despite the disharmony, ineffable moments of stillness return, and when the clouds finally part it is to reveal the most glorious sunbeams. Mahler’s final message then becomes one of redemption and at-one-ness with all of creation.

When heart is open and your soul ready to receive, there are few moments in music as affecting as Mahler’s adagio. Though it's an exhausting emotional journey, it’s one which rewards the listener with a joy almost too deep to express - an unmistakable reconciliation between nature and humankind.

It is, in the words of Leonard Bernstein, “terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate ... in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think your e-pinion is pseudo-intellectual. Sometimes the higher art forms deserve a higher response. Interesting line about 'rendered impotent by pop'.