Mahler and Me: Triggering Transformation

It’s funny how something as seemingly-unimportant as a piece of music can cause such an upheaval in one’s life.

gustav-mahler-kohutYesterday, I bought a copy of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from a local charity shop, a 1987 recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), then under the direction of Simon Rattle. I used to have it as part of a CD box set, but I got rid of it. I can’t really explain why, but I found having all 10 of Mahler’s Symphonies in one set was a bit overwhelming. Hunting down and spending time with each one individually works much better.

I’ve loved this piece of music ever since I first heard it – it normally takes a symphony 4-5 times to work its magic on me, but Mahler’s 2nd slapped me in the face with its brilliance. When I listened to the final five minutes earlier this morning, I felt as if I wanted to burst out into tears. I’d never felt that way before about this music – why now?

My mind was cast back to the last time I played it in full: It was the day I learned that my paternal grandmother had died. That was just over 3 years ago. To save writing reams of family history, my parents split up when I was 8 years old and, after that, family relations got a little icy – especially towards my dad’s side of the family – so any contact I had with them was minimal. I used to visit my nan from time-to-time as I studied at Dudley College and she lived about 15 minutes walk away, a stone’s throw away from where comedian Lenny Henry grew up. I could tell back then she was showing signs of Alzheimers. When I started university and taking part-time jobs, I saw her less and less – within a few years, her memory had degenerated so far that she was moved to a local care home.

I never went to visit her at the home. When I heard she’d passed away, I felt guilty for not paying her a visit or showing her her new great-grandchildren, and for letting family politics get in the way of seeing her more before the dementia set in deeply. At the same time, I was glad I never saw her at her worst – I had some very fond memories of her, and they remain untainted. If I did go to see her at the home, she wouldn’t have recognise me: I’d heard from other family members that, in her mind, I was still a young child.

That lunchtime, I felt I needed to play Mahler 2. I don’t know why – I was just drawn to it.

It spoke to me.

That’s when the transformation began.

My then-regular church life fell apart as I tried to comprehend and validate it all. I’ve already written about that part of the story. Last year, my mental health worsened and I was signed-off for a few months with anxiety and depression, at which point I took one-on-one counselling with cognitive behavioural therapy to help improve my mood, cope with all the pressure I was under, and deal with my almost non-existent self-esteem. Earlier this year, when I was at risk of losing my job, I knew I needed to change who I was. Not so much ‘change’, but scrape away the ugly parasites clinging on to my true self. I’ve already written about that part of the story too.

But what has Malher got to do with this? Looking back at it now, the words in the final choral movement of his second symphony are quite profound:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

The music in the final five minutes of the piece is, without question, the most perfect finale I have ever heard. When I hear it, I picture music so powerful it will open the pearly gates themselves, revealing the glory of Heaven to the mortal world.

The symphony represents the finality of an old life, and the powerful creation of the new, condensed into 80 minutes of music.

The symphony represents my new life.

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