Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Scarlet Fever & Mahler: Sadness and Creativity!

After decades of decreasing scarlet fever incidence, a dramatic increase was seen in England beginning in 2014. Investigations were launched to assess clinical and epidemiological patterns and identify potential causes.                              Lancet.

The strangest finding is that there is no evidence of any genetic mutation of the bacteria concerned nor resistance to antibiotic treatment. Perhaps we need to look closely at Ed Yong’s masterful new book, I Contain Multitudes, which tells the stories of the microbes that swarm within and around us.

Are we too clean? Do we use too much "Antibacterial" laced cleaning things? Or is the new near religious fervour in not using antibiotics to blame? We simply do not know.

But Scarlet Fever reminds me of Mahler.

 ©2013 Am Ang Zhang

Mahler wrote Kindertotenlieder to five poems written by Rückert. Rückert wrote 428 poems following the death of his two children from Scarlet Fever. 

Mahler lived in an age when bacteriology was very much in its infancy. There was still little understanding of the role Streptococcus played in a range of illnesses from Scarlet Fever to Rheumatic Heart Disease and Radium was often used to treat Streptococcal related conditions.  

Mahler’s own daughter tragically died from Scarlet Fever four years after writing Kindertotenlieder and Mahler himself contracted Rheumatic heart disease. When there was still little understanding of the etiology of diseases, superstition came into play so much so that Mahler did not want to write a ninth symphony. It was the start of the Curse of the Ninth Symphony.

Das Lied von der Erde was indeed the result as it was composed after his Eighth Symphony and he did not want to name it his Ninth. 

Mahler conceived the work in 1908 when he was already unwell with his heart condition. A volume of ancient Chinese poetry under the title of The Chinese Flute (Chinesische Flöte) repoetized by Hans Bethge was published in German and Mahler was very much taken by the vision of earthly beauty expressed in these verses. Fate he felt has been unkind to him but he felt able to accept it in his own fashion.

                                                          

Mahler died on May 18th 1911 in Vienna.

"I think it is probably the most personal composition I have created thus far."    Gustav Mahler

The first performance of Das Lied von der Erde was conducted by Bruno Walter after Mahler's death. 

Bruno Walter described it as: "the most personal utterance among Mahler's creations, and perhaps in all music."

My first encounter was in the early 70s with the recording by Janet Baker and Waldemar Kmentt (with Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). I still think it is one of the very best performances of Das Lied von der Erde.