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The Skies Above Us... The Decay Down Below: From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

By Published: March 27, 2008
First of all poetry and music are plucked from the same string, struck on the same skin. The rhythm and meter of both music and poetry emerges triumphantly from the same wellspring—and has done so since time immemorial. From the psalms and ancient monastic chants to the work of Langston Hughes and Kamau Brathwaite... Abbey Lincoln and Charles Mingus.

Second—and most significantly—the artist exists not in an abstract, elevated state, but in a very deep relationship to his or her ethos. Their work holds up a mirror to society... civilization and culture. And so their work or opuses may be looked upon a history of a people. Cavafy's poem reflects a society on a downward spiral, as does this Mahler's, Mingus,' Ornette Coleman's... The fact that there is continuity here, chronologically speaking must count for something. Perhaps it is the fact that the artist is the first to spot the advent of his/her decaying civilization. Or perhaps it is the fact that only the artist will ever admit to the decay itself!

Between 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler composed his "9th Symphony in D Minor." This is one of Mahler's most intense works. It has been recorded that around the time, Mahler became aware that his wife was being unfaithful to him. He sought solace in music. The "9th Symphony" was a result of this sojourn. Its last movement—a stirring contemplation of death and eternal life—bears a striking similarity to the hymn, 'Abide With Me' and also quotes from Beethoven's "Les Adieux" (piano sonata 26—opus 81a). Its effect on audiences and other artists was profound: Most however concerned themselves with the work in isolation. For instance, Otto Klemperer believed it to be his greatest achievement and Herbert von Karajan called it, "Music... from eternity." Leonard Bernstein, "It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate... in ceasing, we lose it all, but in letting go, we have gained everything."

But it was the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, writing almost eight decades after the Mahler's opus was written discerned something unique in the music. Dr. Thomas had been listening to the symphony probably for decades, taking comfort in its wonderful intent. Then at the height of the Cold War and the arms race between the superpowers, it started to mean something totally different to him. Dr. Thomas let his thoughts dwell upon the last movement—the adagio.

Dr. Thomas states that there was a time when the final movement of the piece meant a great deal to him. He states that once, this piece of music used to fill him with "a mixture of old melancholy mixed with high pleasure." He admits that (especially) the final movement was an ..."open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature." He wrote in this magnificent essay, "The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to experiencing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler's leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death... Now I hear it differently..."

Almost imperceptibly, Dr. Thomas discerned hope (in death and life everlasting) in the "almost vanishing violins, all engaged in a sustained backward glance... edged aside for a few bars by the cellos. The lower notes pick up fragments from the first movement, as though prepared to begin everything all over again, and then the cellos subside and disappear, like an exhalation." He used to hear this, he says, as a "wonderful few seconds of encouragement: we'll be back, we're still here, keep going, keep going."

Hope indeed, but no more, when he found a pamphlet describing the weapons of the Cold War, MX Basing that was published by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The publication went on to describe "alternative strategies for placement and protection of hundreds of (these) missiles, each capable of creating a hundred Hiroshimas, collectively capable of destroying the life of any continent..."

So now, listening to Mahler's 9th in the context of the weapon-capability and the ever-present threat of destruction of the Cold War, Mahler's 9th—especially the final movement—that once filled Dr. Thomas with so much solace—now reiterates the violence of death and its finality... not the everlasting life.


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