Conductor Daniel Barenboim is doing three farewell concerts this week with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). After about fifteen years of leading this great orchestra he will be moving on to other musical challenges in Europe. Barenboim chose three great pieces for his last three evenings with the CSO: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I was privileged to hear the CSO’s masterful performance of Mahler’s Ninth last evening. I was given this special evening of music as a birthday gift (my birthday was actually more than three months ago) by my dear friend, our ACT 3 board chairman and my own pastor, Dr. Wilbur Ellsworth. Wilbur is himself a highly trained musician thus his insights and commentary helped to make the evening even more memorable.
What can I say about Mahler’s Ninth? It is a very moving composition that reflects Mahler’s obsession with death. In various ways Mahler reveals musically how deeply shaken he was about his own demise. There is both majestic beauty and haunting silence in his music. Mahler died very young, May 18, 1911, at only 50 years of age. Sadly, his life was filled with great concern for his own future but with no real evidence of relationship to the true and living God. The symphony ends, much like death comes, gradually slipping away. I was deeply moved and yet felt great sadness about Mahler’s life. Classical music, at least in the pre-modern era, has so much power to move the soul. Mahler’s Ninth is one of the greatest such pieces ever written and thus moved me very deeply.
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I read this post, and I kept thinking to my self, “Don’t covet! Don’t covet! Don’t covet!” Throughout much of Barenboim’s tenure, I, who live in Philadelphia, have had a serious case of CSO envy. (Notwithstanding that the Philadelphia Orchestra ain’t such a bad band either!) Barenboim is such a wonderful musician, and certainly one of the few top-flight artists alive whose musicality is rooted in the wonderful Central European traditions that were so vital up through the mid-twentieth century.
When I was an adolescent, I always found the last movement of the Ninth deeply moving. Listening to it would leave me weeping, but I always found the experience cathartic. Likewise, I had (and continue to have) the same reaction to the final song of Das Lied von der Erde, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”). Alas, over the past twenty years or so, the last movement of the Ninth has lost its power to move me to tears, an experience that I miss dearly.
I do think that Mahler is one of the most important composers for Christians to consider, because his works register the failure of the project of secular modernity with a keenness unrivalled among his contemporaries. As a figure himself himself from the margins–a Bohemian Jew in fiercely anti-Semitic Vienna at the fin-de-siecle–his symphonies and songs continually usurp normative late-nineteenth-century musical expectations. Mahler’s symphonies are compendia of things that aren’t supposed to happen in symphonies. They are in a sense “unsafe” for comfortable middle-class listeners–and that’s one reason they didn’t begin to hold firm places in the symphonic repertory until fifty years after Mahler’s death.
Incidentally, the best interpretation of Mahler’s works remains Theodor W. Adorno’s brilliant but difficult and even depressing 1960 monograph on the composer. It’s the best book on music that I’ve ever read.
This is simply the finest and most reflective such comment listed in response to this type of blog that I can remember. There is much here for many of us to profit by if we are musically inclined at all. Thanks “Musicology Man” for taking the time to edify a bunch of us.