Year of Centenaries Jayati Ghosh

Leap years have a certain mystique and even a mythology to them: they are seen as special, and often have of way of becoming just that, somehow living up to the expectations that people have of them. Certainly the year that has just started will mark many significant anniversaries.

It is the centenary year for many events that have either shaped subsequent history or simply got embedded into our collective consciousness: the construction of New Delhi as the capital city of Imperial India; the maiden – and final – voyage of the “unsinkable” Titanic, the ship that famously struck an iceberg and sank in mid-April; the announcement of the formation of the Chinese republic by Sun Yat Sen and the abdication of the last Q’ing Emperor; the “discovery” of the South Pole in Antartica; the end of the Meiji era in Japan upon the death of the last Meiji Emperor.

In Europe too, a century ago was a time of ferment – perhaps even more so than today. Vienna, Austria at the turn of the century (the fin de siècle) epitomized the cultural churning that reflected the political, economic and social changes that people were trying to absorb and come to grips with. Writers like Robert Musil and painters like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt captured the sense of decadence of the dying order and the search for new meanings and structures to organise life. The social and cultural mood – which obviously was also to be soon reflected in the politics that led up to the First World War – was brittle, volatile and slightly ominous.

Perhaps this sense of portent was most potently expressed in the music of the time. The non-verbal nature of music often makes it the best way of expressing ambiguity and emotions that cannot be easily crystallised into words. The pre-eminent example of this may come from the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. His Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna – a year after its composer died in May 2011 without ever having heard it performed. In fact he was superstitious about writing it all. He feared (correctly, as it turned out) that, just as had been the case for Beethoven and Bruckner before him, it would turn out to be his last symphony and indeed his last major work.

Certainly this is music written in the shadow of death. Two years before, Mahler and his wife Alma had lost a beloved child, a young daughter. Then he lost his job conducting at the Vienna court opera. And then, in the course of a routine medical examination, he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. All of these events must have underlined the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability of mortality.

But by the time Mahler was working full time on the symphony, his frame of mind was happier than it had been for some time. His health was much better, as he worked in the serenity of a summer retreat in the hills, he had just returned from two very successful seasons conducting orchestras in New York and looked forward to a professional tour of the United States. In fact, he is known to have been anticipating a time when he could accumulate enough to retire from conducting and devote himself full time to composition.

So the Ninth Symphony contains so much more, and is so brilliantly complex even at its most shattering, that it cannot be seen in simple terms as a harbinger of death. Indeed, fellow composers saw it as immensely life-affirming even in its acceptance of the certainty of death. Alban Berg wrote to his wife: “The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being – before death comes, as it does, irresistibly.”

Much later, the physicist-philosopher Lewis Thomas, in his famous essay “Late night thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”, described how his own response to this music evolved with time. He heard the music not as an ultimately peaceful affirmation of death but a clanging nightmare of destruction, emanating from the growing possibility of nuclear war.

“I cannot listen to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with anything like the old melancholy mixed with the high pleasure I used to take from this music. There was a time, not long ago, when what I heard, especially in the final movement, was an open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquility connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature. The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to expressing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler’s idea of leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death.

Now I hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity.”

However one chooses to interpret this extraordinary and powerful work of music, what is also evident is that it expresses forcefully the instability and yearning of those times. Musically it is not on firm tonal ground: despite being formally structured in major and minor tonalities, it is marked by the use of chromatic harmonies and even dissonance. Thematically, it is marked by contrast, with often conflicting themes vying for supremacy.  Emotionally, it moves from tranquillity to aggression to irony to reflection. There are several false climaxes or anticipations of them, and so the actual climax, even at its most reverberating, is but a part of the transition to quietude. For the symphony closes very slowly, softly, with long hushed phrases only on string instruments, fading away almost imperceptibly into silence.

So this is music for uncertain times, even though it contains within it certainties of different kinds. No wonder it appeals so strongly to us a century later. Europe, and indeed the whole world, is now faced with another period of political and economic volatility. As old and not so old orders collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, there is social yearning for some security even with the knowledge that much of what exists is neither just nor tolerable.

In Europe, the events that unfolded later as a result of what occurred in 1912 turned out to be significant. For example, the first Balkan war in southeastern Europe (in which, incidentally, Greece was involved) led to a chain of events that culminated in a world war. The eventual official collapse of the Gold Standard (by which major currencies were linked to a precise weight of gold) was presaged by the growing tendency of the major powers to “cheat” the system and print more money than was justified by their gold reserves. Across Europe, there was social and political ferment as workers marched for their rights and protested against the inequality and injustice of the economic system.

Does any of this sound contemporary? But then, that need not be only something to be feared. As Leonard Bernstein said of the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: “It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.”

(This article was Originally published in Front line Vol29:: No 1, January 14-27, 2012)