Los Angeles, 10 April 2018
A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.
I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.
The drinking song of earth’s sorrow
The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!
Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!
The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!
The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.
The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.
A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!
He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’
The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!
Forever . . . forever . . .
As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.
Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River
I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.
I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”
But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.
My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.
Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.