All that is past is but a reflection

by Barbara Maria Rathbone

Alles Vergängliche

Ist nur ein Gleichnis;

Das Unzulängliche,

Hier wirds Ereignis;

Das Unbeschreibliche,

Hier ist es getan;

Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan.”

‘Chorus Mysticus’ from the final scene of  ‘Faust’  ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Many moons ago I sang in two performances of Mahler 8 at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by the quiet, nervous and uniquely gifted Klaus Tennstedt, a conductor on whom Mahler had made an indelible mark.  Those few days changed my life forever.  This is not hyberbole – I was very young and I had just started singing after years as a frustrated pianist, and life was clearly revealing the direction I would take.  In the years that followed Mahler’s music and life was to etch a mystical pattern on my journey that is nothing less than extraordinary. I will spare you all the details, but it is just so.

Mahler 8 is not my personal favourite of the symphonies but the spirit of it levels the most banal of feeling and in moments from Part Two – a setting of the final scenes of Goethe’s ‘Faust’, the gnawing and beguiling essence of the Ewig-Weibliche/eternal feminine is as spellbinding as the hymn that intones it – the elemental Chorus Mysticus. It was clear that Mahler’s life had itself guided him towards this idea of the intense femininity of creation and hope and when his marriage lapsed into difficulties and Alma’s infidelity, he dedicated this symphony to her in a passionate plea for her return to him, a plea which moves the symphony into the ecstasy of those final moments.

That moment years ago, singing the Chorus Mysticus,  seeded the creation of the novel I was ‘born’ to write (a novel distinctly tinged with Mahler) and so over the years, Mahler has flowed into and out of my life, firmly echoing the traces of choices I made, good and bad, guiding me to where I should be. In recent years, completing my book, a book which has certainly changed me and my life for it seems I had written in it my own future, it was the Third symphony with its last movement ‘What Love Tells Me’ and the transfiguring opening Adagio of the Tenth, that coloured my writing and provided the ostinato for my narrative.

The idea of redemption and the absolution of emotion underpins Mahler’s music along with his unerring sense of the spiritual yearnings of humanity and where they take us. It is emotionally unnerving, there is no doubt, but as Jung said – “There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”  It is no wonder then that we hear our own voices stir within Mahler’s sound universe.  For me above all, I can never escape, nor would wish to, that Mahler is always present in my life and the themes return over and over like a karmic incantation much as they did for Mahler himself and for that matter, Alma too. Like the words of the Chorus Mysticus, Mahler is for us the undescribable captured. Bach,  Mozart, Beethoven are all about music. Mahler is about us.  There is no music in the world that so effectively describes us and reminds us that all our emotions – tender, extravagant and passionate, matter and make us. Emotion is self, and self is destiny.

In a perfect confluence of words and music, here is Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Rückert’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. Nothing comes close, in only a few minutes, to describing the prescient emotional  truth of Mahler. Ignore the sentimental overplay of photography – the translation is good and well, as is the magic of Mahler  – you’ll get it. Sung by my lied hero – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.