Remembrance of things past

My favorite composer of classical music is Gustav Mahler. In my view, the music of Mahler, especially his symphonies, has a range of emotions and a depth of meaning possessed by no other composer. Mahler’s final completed symphony, the ninth, was written after the death of his four-year old daughter in 1907 and the simultaneous diagnosis of his own fatal heart disease.
As I write this article I am listening to the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. This symphony – outwardly traditional, yet in a musical sense, internally subversive – uses a central technique known as “anamnesis” as it builds the structure of the symphony.
Anamnesis is the process of remembering what we already know. For Plato the philosopher, it was “the process by which the soul remembered knowledge gleaned from previous incarnations”; in Christian liturgy it became “the ritual remembrance of Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension”; in secular medicine it is “the patient’s narration of their own history” and, for Freud, “the return of the repressed to consciousness”.
So, when applied to a variety of disciplines, anamnesis is “the uncovering of the truth through a restorative process that leads to enlightenment, wisdom, healing or even salvation”. The process can also be applied to story-telling, as in theatre, film or the writing of novels, where the remembrance of things past brings justice and the resolution of conflict. It can, however, also bring further suffering. These factors – justice and the resolution of conflict, and further suffering – are the stuff of “tragedy” in literature and music.
In the above sense, the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler properly deserves to be called ‘tragic’.
In the sleeve-note of my version of Mahler’s Ninth (Karajan, Berlin PO, 1982), the music critic and commentator, Arnold Whittall, says that: “From one standpoint, it is a resolution representing the defeat, or acceptance, of all the horrors revealed earlier in the work, and progressing to a peaceful ending of the most profound restraint. The other view gives greater emphasis to moods of regret, rising to outbursts of despair and sinking to abject resignation, the music of a man who knew – as Mahler did in 1909 – that he might die at any time.”
Death haunted Mahler all his life and permeates his works. Apart from his symphonies, the subject is strongly present in his song cycles, most notably The Song of the Earth and Songs on the Death of Children. The immanence of death is wordlessly present throughout the Ninth Symphony. One critic goes so far as to state that “the faltering rhythm of the opening motif mimics Mahler’s irregular heartbeat”.
The final movement of the symphony, one of my favorite movements in the whole of Mahler’s output, is an elegy and, unless I am mistaken or my memory is playing tricks with me, has a main theme which recalls the famous hymn Abide with Me. The musicologist and Jungian analyst, Sally Kester, speaks of the work’s “emotional program” and how, in its final moments, the music is to be played “as if dying away”. This sense of “farewell” may be seen as reflecting Mahler’s life history.
When Mahler left Vienna for New York in 1907, among the group of admirers who gathered to farewell him at the railway station was the symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession, Gustav Klimt. Klimt is said to have murmured as the train pulled away: ‘It’s over.’ He said more than he knew.
Humphrey Bower, a music critic with the Australian publication Daily Review stated: “The Ninth Symphony is not just Mahler’s swansong but a lament for the passing of an era, perhaps even an entire civilization. Crucial to the emotional and technical progression of the symphony as a whole is the effect of things remembered: feelings, thoughts, melodic and rhythmic fragments, musical forms and structures – both endogenous to the work itself and from other sources – which change their meaning and become transfigured by the process of memory itself.”
The evidence of anamnesis in the music of Gustav Mahler is incontrovertible. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by the anecdote (divulged by Mahler during his brief analysis with the Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud) about the composer’s childhood memory of fleeing the house during an argument between his parents and encountering an organ-grinder in the street playing a banal popular tune; or the similar experience towards the end of his life of overhearing the muffled drumbeat from a fireman’s funeral through the window of his apartment in New York. Such sounds were incorporated into his music.
Arnold Whittall described Gustav Mahler as “the great tone poet of existence and extinction in confrontation”.
I am not too sure what it was that motivated me to listen again to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Perhaps, amongst a variety of reasons, musical or otherwise, it was the surfeit of recent exposure to that other monument to existence and extinction and of things past. I speak, of course, of the war memorial.
The Family section of one weekend newspaper carried an article called “A poppy for Archie” and told the story of how, exactly 100 years to the day after her great-grandfather met his death in a first world war POW camp, Camilla Palmer and her family searched for and found his grave. The article gives a poignant account of why this expedition to the former East Germany was so important to the whole family.
The important underlying motivation for the visit to Germany by this family was that “they wanted to find Archie’s grave and say hello and goodbye in one go.” But why? Why is it that we’re so often fascinated by long-dead people we never knew? Perhaps the reason is to be found on the war memorial they visited. The words “Their Names Liveth For Evermore” were written bold on the memorial stone.
Camilla Palmer was clear as to the meaning for her of the crusade to Germany. From the moment, in September 2014, her mother had called her from “the Tower of London’s Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red installation as soon as she’d seen the red moat, the falling stream of poppies.” It’s about feeling connected to her family, both dead and alive. It could be called “family anamnesis”, the remembrance of family things past, the family’s narration of its personal history.
Gustav Mahler wrote his ninth, and final, completed symphony following the death of his daughter in 1907. Mahler himself died in 1911, never having heard the Ninth Symphony performed in public. On March 12, 2014, the Palmer family visited the grave of Captain Archibald Alfred Sutcliff, a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, 100 years after he died of typhus looking after patients at the Wittenberg POW camp.
On this day, three years ago, I left the UK for Melbourne, Australia. I returned to my home city in order to conduct the funeral service of my mother. Anamnesis, remembering what we already know, a restorative process that leads to enlightenment, wisdom, healing or even salvation.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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