Mahler in the Time of Pandemic

I listened today to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” from the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. It was an online broadcast of a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performance from 2016. The scheduled live performances of the 2020 Mahler Festival have all been cancelled during these catastrophic early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The notes from the Mahler Festival website include the following:

“In August 1892 a cholera epidemic struck Hamburg as Mahler was on his way there to conduct another season at the Stadttheater. Faced with possibly drastic consequences and defying orders that he return to his workplace, he decided to retreat to his summer vacation spot in Berchtesgaden until the worst was over.

Faced with a pandemic affecting all of us, we, too, must act prudently, so it is both understandable and very sad that the Mahler Festival 2020 cannot take place as scheduled this May. Mahler Foundation has worked hard to support Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam in preparing this celebration of Mahler’s life and works.

Our thoughts go out to all of the musicians and organizers and to all of you.

Mahler survived the crisis and shortly thereafter set to work on his next creation: The Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2).”

The performance broadcast was preceded by a short documentary “Death and Resurrection” about Mahler’s writing of his Symphony No. 2. The much-beloved mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman, much-mourned since her death in September 2019, sang in The Resurrection Symphony many times. In the documentary, she comments that in his text, “Mahler speaks from the depths …,” and then quotes from Mahler’s text: “Humankind is in trouble … we have an emergency … we live in pain …” How prescient were her words given our current context.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 resonates deeply with me.

In early 1977, my partner Bill was in hospital, six months after we had first met, fallen in love, and started living together. Bill was in hospital because of severe pain and mobility difficulties that had arisen and now he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One day in the depths of that dark winter as I waited to go to the hospital, I put on our LP recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin and with mezzo-soprano Maureen Forrester and soprano Kathleen Battle. I conducted the 90-minute symphony through tears.

It was at that time a profoundly moving work of art for me and has remained so throughout my life.

Bill died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in August 2009, two short weeks after he had been diagnosed. I wrote a memoir “August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance” that chronicled those two weeks. I followed that up with a novel “Searching for Gilead” that is half fiction and half semi-fictionalised autobiography in which Tom, the narrator, and Jonathan, his partner, endure a series of family tragedies over the course of their long relationship culminating in Jonathan’s death.

The novel concludes with an epilogue in which Tom attends a concert of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 performed by the Toronto Symphony under the direction of Peter Oundjian, a concert that I attended in real life in September 2010, a year after Bill’s death. In the novel, Jonathan has recently died and Tom’s grief is all-consuming. During the concert, Tom hallucinates a conversation with Gustav Mahler. The words that Mahler speaks in this dialogue with Tom are drawn from Mahler’s own writings in which he spoke about aspects of Symphony No. 2 and what he had in mind for the various movements.

After listening to the broadcast of Symphony No. 2 from the Mahler Festival today, I went back and reread the epilogue from “Searching for Gilead.”

I’ve heard many performances and recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 over the years. It moved me deeply in 1977 as I waited to visit Bill in the hospital, it moved me when I attended the TSO performance in 2010 as I was working on “Searching for Gilead”, and it moved me again today listening to it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

* * *

Searching for Gilead

Epilogue

Are you sure that you are up for this, Mein Freund?

            The unfamiliar voice and the presumptuous question startle me. Irritated, I glance around, having been interrupted as I perused the program notes for the opening concert of the Toronto Symphony’s fall season.

The seat beside me at Roy Thomson Hall—Jonathan’s—is vacant. I could have offered it to someone. As much as I love Sheila, I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate her chatter. Not on this, my first time back to a TSO concert since his death in March. Carolyn and Wajdi are in Kabul for a brief visit with their film crew. Margaret is at home with Walter. There is no one else in my life, no one close enough to invite into this intimate time and space.

For the past six months, I have found solace only in solitude. Tonight will be no different.

The other long-term subscribers who usually sit around us have not yet arrived. They are probably lingering over dessert and coffee at the opening night patrons’ dinner next door. I had made an early, discrete exit, exhausted by the condolences from acquaintances who hadn’t seen me since the funeral and by the effort that it took to lie in response to the inevitable “How are you doing?”

The Kitteralls take their seats in the row ahead. Jonas and Babs smile at me, nod, and then, thankfully, leave me in peace.

I turn back to the booklet to pick up where I had left off.

Interesting piece of programming for you, all things considered. I called the first movement Todtenfeier. Jonathan, being the fine German scholar that he was, could have told you what that is. It means funeral rites.

I stare at the page. Mahler isn’t looking directly back at me but rather off to the right—his left. Wireless glasses, much like my own, rest on his nose. The artist’s rendering makes him appear more serene than actual photographs of him in the 1890s, and younger looking than the thirty-four years he was when he completed the Second Symphony. The mouth forms too much of a smile in the drawing, but the eyes are good. Tense. Brooding. Windows of the soul.

Shuffling sounds around me indicate the arrival of the almost-latecomers. The lights dim. I close the program booklet and drop it onto the floor. I shake my head vigorously back and forth a couple times and bring one hand up to my face to stretch the skin around my eyes, strategies for waking myself up from whatever this was.

Peter Oundjian stands with his hands clasped in front of his waist and pauses, head bowed, letting the murmuring in the hall subside. When all is quiet, he slowly raises both arms to shoulder height.

With a taut, almost imperceptible jerk of his wrists, a crevice breaks open—a kilometre wide and a universe deep.

 

The violins and violas pounce on to a fortissimo G. Not a vibrant G of a major key but a menacing G from the depths of C minor. C for Compton. Minor—not in stature but in tangibility. Immediately, a tremolo to pianissimo. I hover above the abyss, weightless, shuddering.

I am knocked off balance by the sudden growl of cellos and basses. A run of five-sixteenth notes, including one strategic accidental. Aggressively triple forte. Then repeated fortissimo, elaborated in length, with more accidentals, transforming into triplets at a diminishing volume until they reach pianissimo. All the while backdropped by the vaporous, shimmering violins and violas, neither light angelic, nor dark demonic. Just watching, waiting, guarded, intimidating.

For seventeen bars. Half the number of years we had been together. Capturing the essence of my precariousness. Nothing to grab a hold of. Vulnerable to plummeting. But somehow, not plummeting. Caught. Suspended. Somewhere.

The oboes and English horns place a sliver of stability under foot. Piano. Not insecurely, deliberately, self-confidently. Quietly posing the questions, giving no answers.

Like the, ‘Is there life after death?’ that is whispered in my ear. He is back. Or hasn’t left.

If I believe my lecture to Jonathan on his death bed about love and memory, I should be less distressed than I am. Regretfully, the platitudes have lost their vibrancy. “He’ll live on in your heart.” “You’ll be comforted by all your wonderful memories.” Like hell. My memories serve not to comfort. Rather, they reinforce how much I have lost.

            I was missing a person who I loved deeply too, when I wrote this. Hear those plaintive horns, rising with ever increasing intensity, and those repeated chords crashing one after another? I was standing by his coffin, trying to make sense of his life with all its struggles, passions, and aspirations. I kept asking myself, ‘What now? What is this life and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it?’

Well, Gustav, old man, don’t look to me for answers. I have a question of my own.

Where is that balm of Gilead to make our wounds whole, to heal our sickened souls?

 

Peter Oundjian takes what seems an extended pause after the climactic conclusion to the first movement.

            I like this. I had originally decreed a five-minute break between the first and second movements to allow the audience to make the transition.

Well, I think that would be a bit excessive for the modern concertgoer.

            It’s important that one not be in such a rush that you miss out on life’s essence.

I chuckle. Oops. Did I do that out loud? Babs turns around and gives me a modestly scolding glance. Now look at what you made me do. I was laughing about your ‘life’s essence’ remark. From what I understand, you indulged quite a bit in life’s essences with your tempestuous love affairs.

            And what of it? My time with my various mistresses was full of life and vibrancy and excitement, as well as the drama and heartache. But Mein Freund, let your mind wander as the orchestra plays the second movement. It is so light and graceful and exuberant. Think back. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone who was very dear to you, and then, as you leave the gravesite, you remember some long forgotten experiences of shared happiness, and it is as if a sunbeam sweeps into your soul, obliterating, for a moment, the reality of what you’ve just been through.

Peter brings up his baton. I close my eyes. The strings begin delicately. Three-quarter time, a quiet, affectionate waltz. I smile as the music evokes candlelight and laughter, as at a party in a Jane Austen novel.

And then a succession of other images flood in.

 

  • Snuggled together in our cabin suite, we watched the sun set over Venice as the Orient Express pulled out of the station. After dressing into our tuxedos, we were ready for dinner. Just as we came out of our compartment, the train lurched slightly to the side. Jonathan caught me and gave me a gratuitous squeeze. We made our way through the bar car, where Jean-Jacques winked at us as he played “Misty” on the grand piano. Andreas met us at the dining car entrance, greeted us with a warm smile and a ‘Buona sera, i signori,’ escorted us to our table, held our chairs as we sat down, and then handed us the evening’s menu. To the annoyance of a couple across the aisle that seemed anxious to use us as their audience, Jonathan and I secluded ourselves in our own romantic bubble, conversing softly, laughing regularly, and making our way through several bottles of fine wine with the various courses. We finished dinner just shy of midnight, and we headed back to our cabin. Once inside, I pressed the steward button. Vincenzo tapped lightly. I opened the door and gave him an order for two cognacs. Some considerable time later, I slipped out from Jonathan’s sleeping embrace and into my own bed.

 

  • Margaret and I smiled at each other as we simultaneously noticed Jeremy pacing with nervous excitement outside the front door of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He ran toward us and grabbed hold of Margaret’s arm, almost throwing her off balance as he rushed her through the front door. We were surprised when he led us, at breakneck speed, not toward the exhibition of new contemporary Canadian art where his The Kiss was on display, but instead into a smaller room of recent Aboriginal acquisitions. With laughter and tears intermingled and with arms flapping hysterically, he jumped and skipped in front of the vibrant Norvel Morrisseau painting, Self-Portrait—Devoured by His Demons, extolling to us his unfettered ecstasy at the passion that it exuded.

 

  • The rain kept us inside the tent playing cards. Eventually, Patricia, Carolyn, and I were sufficiently exhausted to be persuaded to bed with only modest protests. About two o’clock in the morning, a horrendous crash jarred all of us awake, stupefying Mom and Dad and terrifying us kids. Hours worth of rainwater had accumulated in the sagging roof of the add-on, eventually reaching a weight that overwhelmed the aluminium poles holding it erect. The supports gave way, and the mini-lake exploded down onto our doorstep, with more than a little water seeping in through the zippered front flap. We slept for the rest of the night in the car, initially somewhat traumatized, but by morning, we were quite thrilled by the unexpected addition to our summer camping adventure.

 

            Sweet memories, Tom.

Yes. You are right, Gustav. Thank you for that.

 

The timpani reverberates into my reveries like a crash of thunder.

            Sorry. I feel compelled to awaken you from that blissful dreaming and force you to return to this tangled life of ours.

The jarring introduction to the third movement progresses into a sweeping series of orchestral waves, some of which appear lighthearted and others of which exude robust energy. But there is something untrustworthy going on, an ominousness disguised as innocence.

            It may easily happen that the surge of life, ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing, dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside, in the dark—and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. Then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless. You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life becomes meaningless. He despairs of himself and of God, losing the firm footing that only love affords. He cries out in a scream of anguish.

You’re preaching to the choir here. ‘Life becoming meaningless’—that’s my theme song these days. It’s not only the personal losses.

I dedicated my career to trying to make the world a better place and to reduce suffering. So little to show for all the effort. Emissions keep on racing higher …

The orchestra is barreling along at an ever more frenetic pace, the brass pushing the adrenalin to almost intolerable levels. Shrill, acerbic sounds pierce through the hall.

… and really, my professional despair is not for myself. I’ve got a roof over my head. But what about those millions of poor whose roofs are being blown off, whose fields are becoming deserts, whose lives are now all about searching for scarce water or fleeing the raging cascades of too much?

            You’re asking, ‘Why did I live? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke? Do our lives have a meaning?’

A climax is reached. A progression of repeated, exhausted, descending chromatic scales reduce the volume and tempo until one sole horn stands alone, quietly holding a muted and dissipating note.

Damn, I’m tired. You’re right, Gustav. I am despairing of myself and of God. Where, by the way, is he in all of this? When are we going to see some evidence that he does give a damn about “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”?

I’m tired.

 

The program says Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano. With my sincere apologies to you, Susan, I’m not hearing you. I seem to be channeling Big Mo.

Maureen Forrester, contralto.

The stillness in the hall is riveting as the fourth movement begins. The whispered voice, making an ineffably sublime entrance, lays the opening phrase on our hearts, like someone placing a rose ever so gently on the coffin of a lover. A two-beat rest. Muted brass enter softly and play a melody with the most luxurious, choral-like harmony.

            Thank you.

Maureen/Susan re-emerges with slightly increased volume, yet the same intense, understated emotion. The beauty is of such intensity that I’m hardly able to breath.

Do you understand …?

Yes, you don’t have to translate. “Man lies in deepest need. Man lies in deepest pain.”

            And we do. I did. Now you do.

An oboe solo brings the first stanza to a serene conclusion.

A quickened tempo shifts the atmospherics toward a sort of pastoral light and then into an affirmation, composed and sung not just to express hope but also to assert a seemingly unequivocal conviction of heart and mind.

That’s right. Ich bin von Gott und will weider zu Gott.

I am breathing again, not from an infusion of oxygen, but to placate my consternation.

How can you write that when you’re not particularly religious? “I am from God and will return to God.” Do you believe that?

            Well … it is the actual text of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn …

So, you’re just using it for artistic purposes. You don’t really believe it.

I didn’t say that. I do believe in God … I guess, though I’m just not sure who or what God is …

But this profession of faith in God in the fourth movement is at such odds with the angst of the tortured soul in everything that has preceded it in the symphony. Is it that simple? You just say that you believe in God and eternal life and all the existential and spiritual questions are suddenly resolved? Give me a break.

            We’re not done yet.

 

Gustav is right. The tranquility of the fourth movement is blown apart by the crashing, cacophonous opening of the fifth and final movement. People around me jump. Just as unexpectedly, the bravura fades into a complex and extended orchestral passage, initially very quiet and then giving way to full-bodied dynamism. Throughout both the soft and the blaring moments, there is an ethos of otherworldliness. At times, some of the brass is literally distant, playing offstage, their notes emerging as if from some far-off place. Eventually, the instrumentation resolves down to only a few horns, a flute, and a piccolo, offering a quiet and mystical fanfare. Leading to what?

Initially unaccompanied, the mass choir enters stunningly, at a whisper, with a prayerful interpretation of a resurrection-themed text. Gradually and gently, the orchestra, starting with strings, undergirds them as they give voice to a faith in the surety of immortal life.

            I discovered that text quite unexpectedly. I was struggling with how to bring the symphony to a satisfying culmination when I attended a memorial service for my sometimes-mentor, sometimes-antagonist, the composer Hans von Bülow, who had died in Cairo on January 12, 1894. At the memorial service held for him in Hamburg a couple months later, a children’s chorus sang a very moving hymn using this text by Friedrich Klopstock. I knew, then and there, that this text gave me the solution to my dilemma about how to conclude the symphony.

Gustav, your musical accompaniment for it is so incredibly beautiful …

            But?

You may have been able to resolve your compositional dilemma, but I can’t as easily resolve my spiritual dilemmas.

            We’re not done yet.

You said that before.

Listen now, my dear Tom, to the conclusion of the symphony, starting with this alto solo, then the lines by the soprano, and then the final two stanzas by the full chorus. This is no longer Klopstock’s poem. I wrote this text myself. I know it’s not the rigid, traditional theological interpretation. But it’s where I was at that moment in my life.

I am back in the here and now. Maureen Forrester is gone, laid to rest herself in June, three months after Jonathan. Now, sitting in Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday, September 23, 2010, I hear the actual corporeal voices of Susan Platts and Isabel Bayrakdarian, under the baton of Peter Oundjian:

 

O believe, my heart, O believe:

Nothing is lost with thee!

Thine is what thou hast desired!

What thou hast loved,

What thou hast fought for!

 

O believe,

Thou wert not born in vain!

Hast not lived in vain,

Suffered in vain!

 

What has come into being

Must perish!

What has perished must rise again!

Cease from trembling!

Prepare thyself to live!

 

O Pain, thou piercer of all things!

From thee have I been wrested!

O Death! Thou masterer of all things!

Now art thou mastered!

 

With wings which I have won me,

In love’s fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

to the light to which no eye has soared!

I shall die, to live!

 

Rise again, yea thou wilt rise again,

My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!

What thou has fought for

Shall lead thee to God!

 

The audience is on its feet applauding. I sit and stare straight ahead.

Auf wiedersehen, Mein Freund.

 

The steward, a small pile of discarded programs in her hands, stands for a few moments at the end of my row. Everyone else has left.

She coughs, quietly.

When I don’t look up, she says, softly and apologetically, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I nod and get up, holding onto the back of my chair for balance.

As I walk up the stairs to the exit door, I pause, turn around, and take one more look at the dark, deserted stage.

I am not the one leaving.

I am the one who has been left.

And left with a shattered heart.

A heart, which, I hope and pray, ‘wilt rise again’. Someday.

I walk down through the lobby and out into the night air.

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