What Is the Purpose of Your Life?

Mahler Symphony2
Look up! © Charles Thibo

Gustav Mahler. This composer gives me trouble. Usually I do not feel attracted by his music, I hardly ever listen to his works. But if you would press me to give you a reason, I would not know what to say. Prejudice? Perhaps. Nevertheless, every now and then I end up in a concert hall and have to listen to one of his symphonies. And then it strikes me that I do not listen to his works more often. And perhaps the reason for my ambiguous feelings are the simple dimensions of his works.

Take his symphony No. 2 also known as the “Resurrection Symphony”. It is huge, a typical performance takes between 80 and 90 minutes. It is massive as it requires a huge orchestra, a chorus, a soprano and an alto singer. It is also massive in terms of sounds, massive, impressive, oppressive, frightening. Huge. And of a striking beauty. Emotionally intensive. I read somewhere that Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 took the music to the outer rim of symphonic music as such, a bit like a spaceship crew may travel to the outer rim of a galaxy knowing that the fuel will only be sufficient for a one-way trip. Mahler has passed the point of no return with this work. When he finished it in 1894 and presented it to the public the world of symphonies would no longer be what it was before.

Mahler is not at the origin of the title “Resurrection Symphony”. It has its origin in a hymn written by the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock called “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection). The composer had heard a setting of it for choir and organ at the funeral of Hand von Bülow, a German conductor, pianist and composer of the Romantic era. “It struck me like lightning,” Mahler later wrote, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He used the first two verses of Klopstock’s hymn, then added verses of his own that dealt more explicitly with redemption and resurrection. Originally the symphony had four movements, but Mahler expanded the work by adding “Urlicht” (Primal Light), a song he had written earlier, between the third movement and the finale.

This symphony commands respect, it also requires an attentive audience. Mahler’s work has multiple layers of music and only a focused mind can absorb it altogether and grasp the deep emotions that Mahler intended to express and the to fathom the importance of the question that Mahler saw embedded in this majestic work: What is or was the purpose of your life?

I recommend the recording by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

© Charles Thibo


A Mass Composed in Monastic Seclusion

tintoretto crucifixion_edited-1
The ultimate sacrifice, painted by Tintoretto in the 16th century.

Today Christians all over the world commemorate a man’s ultimate sacrifice: A man sacrified his life for a cause he believed in. And when I watch tens of thousands of children and teens all over the world standing up each Friday to make us grown-ups aware of the dangers linked to climate change, I am wondering how much we grown-ups are willing to sacrifice to give these children the feeling that we are not letting them down, that we think about their life and well-being too? How much of our present way of life are we ready to sacrifice? We are not asked to give our life. We are perhaps asked to fly less, to drive an electric car, to insulate our house more efficiently. We are being asked a sacrifice infinitely smaller than the one that man from Nazareth was ready to give.

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Emilie Takes up the Challenge of Composing

That smell… © Charles Thibo

Andante maestoso is the mood of the first movement of this work, Emilie Mayer’s Piano Trio in D major op. 13. And majestic the opening is, but don’t you trust appearances, it is almost immediately balanced by a delightful melody, a Romantic signature, of course. Emilie Mayer has already been introduced in an earlier post, I will not repeat myself. The trio was composed in 1859 at the latest and by then the composer was living in Berlin. She was part of the generation of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, but she could not have met either of the two. She moved to Berlin in 1847, the year both Mendelssohns died, which explains why she is neither mentioned by R. Larry Todd in his excellent biographies of the two Mendelssohns, nor in the Mendelssohns’ letters.

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A Romance for an Intimate Circle

© Charles Thibo

I remember that first evening. It was a cold autumn day, and I had nothing to do. I decided to visit a woman I hadn’t seen for a long time. She had bought a house, and I was curious about her, the house and her life in it. It was the very house I live in now, but it looked very different then. The focal point of the living room was a red couch that now serves as a guest bed. And while we sat on that cozy couch, a funny incident in the kitchen made me jump. The woman laughed out loud and before I could say anything, she got up and said: “Dinner is ready!” More laughter.

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