I read somewhere that every day one should have an experience drawn from each of the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical realms. For physical, my abilities are now somewhat compromised, but I do still manage to walk two or three miles every day.
For mental, when I have given up trying to figure out what is going on in the world just now, I pursue my more than fifty-year quest to understand the basics of philosophy. The latest iteration of this mission is to work through A C Grayling’s new book on the subject, assisted by various BBC In our Time episodes. For day to day brain lubrication, I do the puzzles in the newspaper. I find that a combination of numerical and word exercises keeps me moderately alert.
Spiritual is problematic. As a committed non-believer in any sort of supernatural existence, experiencing ‘spiritual’ is tantamount to impossible. The nearest I ever came to what I imagine spiritual to be like, was when as a good Catholic boy I used to trudge to mass every Sunday. On the occasions when I was to receive Holy Communion—for which in those days it was required to fast from the previous night—I really did feel a strange ‘otherness’. This I identified as a spiritual closeness to God. It was only many years later that I recognized, during a long and meal-less hitchhike though Europe, that the feeling was hunger …
But emotional is no problem: I turn to music. Wagner’s Ring cycle does it for me, as do Elgar’s choral works, particularly Dream of Gerontius; but for real knock-down, drag out raw emotion, give me Mahler.
Eighteen years ago at the Proms, Simon Rattle conducted the National Youth Orchestra, plus five choirs and eight soloists, performing Mahler’s eighth symphony; total headcount, around 750. It was recently repeated, and is on iPlayer for the next nine months or so. The finale of this work always makes me cry; the combination of the glorious music, the massed voices, and the transcendent words is quite overwhelming.
The latter are taken from the end of part II of Goethe’s Faust. This is not the Faust who gets dragged down to Hell by Mephistopheles—that was part I. Part II is a mystical and epic journey around classical Greece with Mephistopheles in tow. Faust meets various legendary figures including Helen of Troy, with whom he has an ‘intellectual’ relationship; he also encounters fauns, dryads, satyrs, griffins, sphinxes, a chorus of ants, some lemurs, a few early Greek philosophers, and even some plants reciting poetry.
It turns out that Faust didn’t suffer eternal damnation after all, and in the finale of part II he is finally redeemed by ‘The one penitent’—Gretchen. She is/was the virgin he seduced and left to her fate; the angels had rescued her from a condemned cell and conducted her up to Heaven.
The very last lines, sung by the ‘Chorus Mysticus’, are difficult to translate from the German—judging by the five different versions I have read. The English used in the subtitles of the Prom seemed to me to be the least obscure:
All that is past is merely a dream
Eternal womanhood shows us the way
Not PC of course, but it is undeniable that Faust was saved by a woman. If Mahler used the text as a paeon to his beloved wife Alma, he was to be sadly disappointed. Just before the world premiere of the symphony in Munich in 1910, he discovered that she was having an affair with the appropriately named Walter Gropius.
All that aside, and notwithstanding some of the mystical mumbo-jumbo, this was a stupendous performance of a great work; it was made all the more poignant for me by the youth of the orchestra. Simon Rattle told us that their ages ranged between thirteen and nineteen years, and only around 50% of them would become professional musicians. He said something like, ‘I think we can safely leave our future in their hands…’ Amen to that.
This was a reminder that there is real culture and civilization in a world gone mad.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs