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We all face bad patches in life, when miseries seem to come in threes. While it’s often hard to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, the outcome can be heightened self-awareness and constructive plans for the future. Artists go even further by transforming their despair into insights that enable the rest of us to cope. The triple crash for Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) came 100 years ago, in the summer of 1907. His 10-year reign at the Vienna Opera, then the most prestigious position in the music world, had just ended amid bitter artistic rivalries, personality clashes, and anti-Semitism. Upon arrival in the Alps for the customary family summer vacation, his daughter Maria suddenly became ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria, to which she succumbed two weeks later. The third blow soon followed — when a local doctor treated his wife for exhaustion, Mahler sought distraction by asking to be examined himself and was found to have an incurable heart valve defect, a diagnosis soon confirmed by a Viennese specialist. The impact of these ordeals was immediate and profound. As characterized by biographer Henri de la Grange, Mahler faced the ruin of his life as knew it and had to gaze at the world from afar. Ordered to rest, he was forced to forgo the excursions that inspired him. Although his past vacations had been frantic with composing activity, Mahler viewed his diagnosis as a death warrant and was unable to work. Friends found that his formerly demanding personality had dissolved into numb resignation. He wrote to his closest colleague and acolyte Bruno Walter that he had lost his peace of mind and stood face to face with nothing. THIRSTIER THAN EVER None of his massive, dynamic symphonies held further meaning. Rather, Walter noted that while all Mahler’s previous work grew out of his sense of life, his remaining work would be written in the shadow of death. Yet, although doomed, Mahler wrote: “I am thirstier than ever for life,” but on new terms: “At the end of my life, I must go back to living like a beginner and learn how to stand again.” Thus he began a process of rediscovery and intense introspection. Mahler was especially vulnerable to such feelings. He once wrote that he considered himself “thrice homeless — as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcomed.” The deep roots of Mahler’s sadness began with a childhood warped by a brutal father. Nor was death a stranger — seven of his 13 siblings died in infancy, his favorite brother died at 12, another became demented, and yet another shot himself. Mahler’s most personal prior attempt to challenge mortality had been his 1905 song cycle Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), settings of five poems whose resignation and guilt are finally dispelled by stormy unrest. His wife blamed the work for their daughter’s fate. At some point following his crash, Mahler was given a book that resonated deeply within his troubled soul and enabled him to find new meaning in life. Mahler had always been enamored of German folk poetry and had based most of his songs and several symphonic movements on settings of their texts. The new book was Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute. By the next summer (1908), Mahler had plunged into a new work based on seven of the book’s poems. He wrote to Walter that he felt transformed, having found consolation in his new music. Noted Walter, “As twilight dissolves in the glow of sunset, the gloom his illness had cast upon his spirit passed into the radiance of approaching departure.” Mahler was deeply superstitious. Having already written eight symphonies, he was afraid to write a ninth. He was keenly aware that of his two most illustrious symphonic predecessors, Beethoven never passed that limit and Bruckner died trying. To alleviate his fear of succumbing as well, especially in light of his heart diagnosis, Mahler did not number his new work. (Yet fate was not so easily fooled — thinking the danger had passed, Mahler titled his next work his Symphony No. 9, and he died while composing its successor, the 10th.) EXPANDED CHINESE Although The Chinese Flute purported to comprise authentic direct translations, in fact, Bethge knew no Chinese at all but rather “borrowed” his material from other intermediate sources. Each, in turn, had expanded the original poems by filling in ever-greater detail and personality, adding natural imagery and defining the psychology, all of which are merely implied in the originals. As Bethge pointed out in a afterword to his volume, although surviving Chinese poetry is up to three millennia old, it remains fresh for several reasons: Chinese culture reveres its ancient literature as a living art, the language had barely evolved, and it was untainted by foreign influences. (Westernization and then the Cultural Revolution would change that, of course.) Bethge recalled that upon first encountering these poems, he “perceived a fragile, quasi-evanescent tenderness of lyrical sound, .�.�. a fully realized imaginative art in words that illuminated .�.�. the riddle of existence, .�.�. tremblingly delicate, .�.�. pregnant with symbolism .�.�., flower-like in its graceful rendering of emotion.” Apparently Mahler, too, was taken by their subtle power and found in them a means by which he was able to confront his fate, sublimate his fears, and regain his creative urge. At first intended as a mere song cycle, Mahler’s work evolved into the hourlong Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) comprising six movements that alternate tenor and contralto as vocal soloist. It culminates in Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), which is based on complementary poems by two 8th century friends who meet one last time to bid farewell. Mahler added four final lines to end the work on a deeply personal and indescribably moving note — a perfect blend of hope and resignation, of yearning and peace, of renewal and completion, of faith in eternity tinged by the knowledge that he soon would take his leave. A SURVEY OF LIFE The poems are exquisitely beautiful and efficient, alluding to complex expressive truths beneath their shimmering, realistic surface and reflecting a pervasive sadness that comes from viewing life remotely. So, too, with Mahler’s music — despite augmented forces, the orchestration is restrained, as if to reflect the sparse coloration of Chinese prints. It begins in swaggering confidence and at turns becomes wistful, frightening, delicate, snarling, sweet, and even wryly humorous — a survey of life to prepare for the somber reflection and poignant searching of the finale. Many commentators over the past century have grappled with the novelty of Mahler’s conception. Some seem fascinated by its melding of Eastern philosophy — which views life as sparse and nature as a cycle of endless repetition — with the Western outlook of richness, dramatic confrontation, and goal-oriented progress. Others hail the work as an innovative hybrid between the two disparate musical elements: intimate, lightly accompanied, and strophic song and monumental, richly orchestrated, and complexly structured symphony. Yet others view it as having a psychological structure through which Mahler presents an exploration of life and its outcome in a metaphoric autobiography. I’ve never heard Das Lied in concert, and frankly, I wouldn’t want to — it’s far too personal and intimate, and thus ideally suited to the privacy of recordings. Indeed, Mahler had told Walter that he feared it was too intense for an audience, and after completing the orchestration he stashed the score and never sought a performance. Walter led the premiere on Nov. 11, 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and made the first recording only in 1936. Even then, the work apparently was deemed too obscure to risk the expense of studio sessions, and so its 14 sides were cut live at a Vienna Philharmonic concert to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death. Mahler had marked the end G�zlich esterbend (completely dying away), yet his was a restless farewell — in the background, trombones, oboe, flute, celesta, harps, mandolin, and strings flit by, varying the texture in rhythmic fluctuations that suggest the Oriental view of the continuity of life, perpetually changing yet somehow always the same. Mahler was not about to go silently into the night, but rather than loudly protest his fate, he internalized his emotion and affirmed his essential humanity as a guide for all who might follow.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. More information about Das Lied von der Erde and its recordings is available online.

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