A top ten list of things prone to put me in a foul mood would certainly be headed by 1) my mail, paperwork, bills, matters of accounting; 2) daytime television after 10 AM (not coincidentally when Charmed ends). So: off goes the TV. But I have to confess it took some time and mental energy for me to choose some music to put on the stereo. I cannot deal with the mail in silence.

I reasoned thus: if I’m going to be grumpy, let’s take it all the way! So on went some late Schubert: Schwanengesang. It was the perfect choice. Admittedly, long periods went by where no documents were fondled, where I lay on the floor, feet propped up on my bed, blood rushing to my head, eyes closed, and I pretended to myself I was productive in a worldly way, while letting the music wash over me. It was a nice relief from the effort of trying to produce the music myself. Nice that I was patient enough to truly listen, and admire. The bubble of my ego must have temporarily burst.

Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are both pretty familiar to me, but this last cycle (not really a cycle), even after many listenings, still feels wonderfully, powerfully alien. Not confined to a single plot, or dramatic arc, it ranges from subject to subject, from world to world: the familiar dialogue of lover with nature, with the brook; meditations on the unhappiness of Atlas; a man confronting his shadow; a barely-sketched-in scene of a tearful, fateful encounter on a beach (between lovers? friends? who knows?); the tender cliché of the letter, posted in longing and love. All these people, characters, populating Schubert’s plane of existence; they would never meet in “real life.” The music is often classical, no doubt; it calls on its own classicism, say, for comfort, and sometimes simply because there is nothing else; its simplicity is often heartbreaking; but between the classical lines (exploiting them) the austerity occasionally takes over and leads to bizarre, spare harmonic and melodic moments… the equivalent of musical empty space? I imagined a stretch of desert, in which ruins of Greek temples (disturbingly) rise from the ground intermittently instead of mountains, rocks, or mesas. Was the blood rushing too much to my head?

I don’t think the desert that far-fetched. There is definitely a sense of being on a frontier: at the edge of truly desperate, extended emotional states, depressive places. The one-two-three punch of Die Stadt, Am Meer and Der Doppelgänger … I mean, really… how are we supposed to survive these three songs in a row? Why don’t I just stop listening and go shopping at the Gap? I feel like Mahler took the DNA of Am Meer off to his lab in the mountains, mad scientist that he was, and cloned it into his entire, angst-ridden oeuvre. If I were a more diligent blogger, I would find the passages in Mahler directly copied from this song and display them (trophy-bearing hunter of lineages) proudly on this page. It is an extraordinary song; it seems to distill some Viennese vein of thought, of musical pain; distilled it enough that Mahler could then dilute it without loss. I had listened to this song for years, not knowing the text (for shame), and therefore was surprised to see what was there:

… The tears poured from your loving eyes.

I saw them fall onto your hand, and fell on my knees,
and drank the tears from your white hand.

From that hour my body has wasted away,
and my spirit is dying of desire.
The wretched woman has poisoned me with her tears.

First reaction? THIS poem is the one Schubert devoted THAT music to? It did not seem to “deserve” it. The music seemed more metaphysical than that, not just a lover’s farewell (?… which it could be, but may not). But the composer, in setting it to music, has reread the poem for you… has found preemptive meanings. I began to think more about “my spirit is dying of desire” (“die Seele stirbt von Sehnen”–what an unbelievably German line), the triumvirate of tears, poison and desire… Things became clearer; the barbed, enigmatic poem began to grow into the song.

And I ran across these lines from Montaigne:

Why does no one confess his vices? Because he is still in their grip now; it is only for a waking man to tell his dream. [Seneca].

The diseases of the body become clearer as they increase. We find that what we were calling a cold or a sprain is the gout. The diseases of the soul grow more obscure as they grow stronger; the sickest man is least sensible of them.

Diseases of the soul. The man who sees his terrifying double image; who is poisoned by his own desire; visited by apparitions of loss. I feel I can connect Schubert’s spare austerities, these extenuated harmonies, those enharmonic slippages, to this sense of encroaching disease…classical harmonies and phrases visited by anomalies, by small and large symptoms. Another image (hallucination?) came to mind while my feet were propped: the music, or was it the way it was being performed… had the eerie quality of a child singing, but the anachronistic sentiments of a dying, hopeless old man. Does the child believe what he is singing? Is Schubert sensible of this disease (this disconnect, this rift), or is he too sick to tell us his dream?

You can see how low the mail can take me. Wow. You’ll notice I blame the mail and not Schubert.

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted October 7, 2005 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    The flowering carcass, indeed. Schubert’s songs have a way of rendering common, intense human relationships [a separation, an illness, a death] into something abstract and altogether inhuman, into the realm of contemplation and impossible connections…your Greek temples in the desert. The beginning of the B flat major sonata always reminds me of the beginning of the fourth Chopin Ballade—the same intense simplicity, unfulfilled yearning, the cadences resolved with difficulty, the promise of anguish. These are the most private moments. “The soul selects her own society/ and then closes the door.”

  2. Sarah Louise
    Posted October 7, 2005 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Mail=grumpy for me too. I’ll have to try that Schubert. I have a feeling reading your blog continuously will give me a lot of good “new to me” music. Thanks!

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