Mahler and Timelessness

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There was an occasion when the composer Gustav Mahler was taking a train journey. Not only was he director of the Vienna State Opera, all the way down from orchestra, singers, scenery and lighting, and stage hands, to box office returns, but in his ‘spare time’ (otherwise known as summer ‘holidays’) he also composed ten (plus an unfinished eleventh) of music’s greatest symphonies, not to mention some of its finest songs. He packed two or three lifetimes into one. When he died at the age of 50, he was so ill and worn out, that he looked 30 years older.

To return to that train journey, Mahler characteristically took some work with him, to make best use of the time. That ‘work’ was the study of a musical score, which he was evaluating in order to decide whether or not to perform it in the Opera House. We could say he was ‘reading’ it, but not, I fancy, in the way that you and I ‘read’ things. He was ‘hearing’ it, in his musically saturated mind. How else could he have composed his last two symphonies, neither of which he ever heard performed but which are matchless masterpieces, in which not a single note asks to be changed?

When the train arrived at its destination, the passengers departed to their various homes. An hour or so later, a cleaner working methodically through the carriages, came upon one in which Mahler was still sitting there, totally lost in the score, and oblivious to the fact that the train had reached its destination! This recalls another occasion when Mahler, as a young boy, was taken for a walk through a forest by his father. The latter suddenly remembered something he urgently needed to do. Leaving the boy sitting down amidst the trees, he said he’d soon be back. Hours later, when he finally returned, Mahler was still sitting there, entranced, absorbed, lost in the sights and sounds of the natural world enveloping him.

Experiences such as these, even if less intense than Mahler’s, are among life’s most precious and memorable. They’re moments in which self-awareness fades away. We feel we’ve been ‘taken out of ourselves’. We’ve become lost in something wider, deeper and greater, that transcends our ‘normal’, day-to-day experience, and which is somehow meaningful, rewarding and fulfilling. We’d love to just stay in that place but, sooner or later, everyday life insists on reasserting itself. The carriage cleaner appears and tells us it’s time to go, so the daily tasks of life can continue.

These experiences sometimes come ‘out of the blue’. They come when walking in the outdoors or climbing in the hills. They come through reading a novel or a poem, watching a play or an opera, looking at a painting or a sculpture, dancing or listening to music – a Mahler symphony or song perhaps. They are, to me, indistinguishable from ‘religious’ experiences. They’re telling us we’re part of something that includes us, but is greater than our individual ‘selves’; something that includes all ‘selves’; something that’s perhaps the ultimate ‘Self’ if such there be. We needn’t try to describe it in words, nor to imprison it in dogmas and creeds, but simply enjoy, appreciate and value it, if and when it comes.

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