Saturday evening found my husband and I in Ann Arbor with my Aunt listening to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D major performed by the Ann Arbor Symphony.
I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of listening to the long symphony, over an hour and twenty minutes, with no intermission and no chance to change gears if it wasn’t something I enjoyed. I thought longingly of the concert last month filled with Dvorak and Gershwin. But I figured this one would be good for me.
And it was – in an unexpected way.
You see Saturday morning was the horrific mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Throughout the day I watched updates and wondered, again, how such things continue to happen in our country.
By Saturday evening I was overwhelmingly sad.
Music Director Arie Lipsky gave his typical lecture prior the the concert, explaining bits and pieces of the four movements, giving us a better understanding of the composer’s life and this particular piece. It’s thought to be Mahler’s goodbye, perhaps a foreshadowing of his fatal heart ailment, but, Maestro Lipsky said, the final interpretation of the meaning behind the music would be up to the performers, and ultimately us, the listening audience.
And there he paused, stared down at his score, then looked up with pain in his eyes and quietly dedicated the evening’s performance to the murdered members of the Squirrel Hill Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
My own eyes filled with tears. And as we settled into our seats to hear the music I wondered what my interpretation would be. What would I hear in this long piece on this, such a sad day?
And, it turns out, for me the music was intertwined in the events of the day.
As someone who has experienced the unexpected news about a violent death of a family member, all I could hear in this music was the raw emotion of the families left behind on this horrible Saturday morning. It was as if the music was describing the road each of them will be traveling as they move through their grief in the days and years ahead.
The first movement, Andante comodo, started out innocently, peacefully, much like the lives of the parishioners themselves as they settled into the service, like those people still in traffic on their way to meet friends and family as they probably did every weekend. But about two minutes into the piece there came a foreboding feeling.
Something was wrong.
At 5:45 into the music I could hear the news being spread, tension built, shock, disbelief and confusion were all being felt. The rest of the movement took me through the roller coaster of those first moments, hours and days after the event, the music filled with layers of rage and grief followed by bits of sweet memories and longing, always overcome with the deep swells of pain and sorrow.
The second movement, Im Tempo eines, represented, for me, a time in the future when family members have given themselves permission to be happy again. It started out with a lighthearted, though clumsy, dance. The family was, rightly so, a bit rusty in their happiness. But soon enough the music began to change tempo, to speed up and become a bit manic, as the nightmare of reality interrupts even the simple joy of dance.
The third movement, Rondo-Burleske, is all about the chaos, rage, and disbelief inherent in grief with an almost nightmarish circus motif. It was loud and fast from the very first notes, allowing for no contemplation, only emotion. And the interweaving themes kept pounding at our emotions until the abrupt end which forced a collective gasp from wide-eyed audience members.
There was a longer pause, then, between the third and fourth movement, Adagio, as the musicians seemed to collect themselves, to adjust their mindset from the frenetic third to the quiet resolution of this last movement.
And here, in the fourth, was where my tears fell again. For it was here that I felt the resignation and acceptance, the finality of the loss. The soft tones were contemplative, but there was a hint of joy too, hidden between the layers of deep pain, in the pools of grief.
The joy came from finally realizing that our loved ones, lost to violence, are safe now. And though it’s hard, so very hard, not to have them here with us, it became clear, as the last distant notes faded into the night air, that they are truly and forever home.
I felt a bit silly as I surreptitiously wiped the tears from my cheeks, but I noticed a few others doing the same. And then I stood, along with the rest of the house, to applaud my appreciation
So that’s my interpretation of Mahler’s ninth, heard on this particular difficult day in the history of our country.
If you would like to hear some of this Mahler piece, but don’t have over an hour to devote, I recommend listening to a few minutes of each of the first three movements and then to the entire fourth movement.
I trust Mahler will bring you a similar feeling of hope and peace.