Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mahler: Sadness & Pleasure Principle

©2016 Am Ang Zhang

Farewell                      Wang Wei (701-761)
Dismounting, let me share your farewell wine  
Where, friend are you heading now?
Choking, fate has not been kind to me
Will retire to the southern slopes to seek rest
Enquire no more when I am gone 
Till the end of clouds, endless white clouds!

Pleasure Principle:

Sigmund Freud’s Pleasure Principle is well known, but his other small “contribution” to mankind, i.e. his unofficial discovery of Cocaine, is probably less so. He in fact became quite an enthusiastic user of cocaine, in addition to smoking a large quantity of cigars, up to 20 a day. He developed jaw cancer and had to endure 33 operations and eventually died of it. 
I am not here to encourage the use of cocaine or cigars (as if people who used them needed encouragement). 
Instead I am going to talk about some of my pleasure pursuits. I have from an early age been interested in music though I have never played any instrument except the “gramophone” if you can call it an instrument. It can also be said that I play these instruments by “proxy” through my children. I have always had a multitude of hobbies: photography, electronics (I built my own radios and valve amplifiers), and snorkeling to name a few. Arriving in London in the early 70s allowed for easy access to France and French wine and food remains one of my most pleasurable pursuits, though my interest in wines has now been extended to Port and other non-French wines. 


In life one goes through difficult times and we Chinese are fairly philosophical about it – unhappiness is often viewed as something secondary to external circumstances such as loss and bereavement, political injustice (which has afflicted most of our families) and other life events that are beyond our control. Our classical poets wrote about such sadness and generally accepted what life befell them. 

When life events do not go our way, some turn to religion, although more and more people nowadays turn to the “happy pill” (drugs). One can also seek comfort in Music, Poetry, Photography, Writing (and blogging), Painting, Fishing, Knitting, Travel and of course Food and Wine. 

In an age when people sought happiness in all ways possible we need to remind ourselves that sadness has been the driving force behind many writers and composers.

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.

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