But it was the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, writing almost eight decades after the Mahler’s opus was written discerned something unique in the music. Dr. Thomas had been listening to the symphony probably for decades, taking comfort in its wonderful intent. Then at the height of the Cold War and the arms race between the superpowers, it started to mean something totally different to him. Dr. Thomas let his thoughts dwell upon the last movement – the adagio.
Dr. Thomas states that there was a time when the final movement of the piece meant a great deal to him. He states that once, this piece of music used to fill him with “a mixture of old melancholy mixed with high pleasure.” He admits that (especially) the final movement was an “…open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for 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.” He wrote in this magnificent essay, “The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to experiencing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler’s 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…”
Almost imperceptibly, Dr. Thomas discerned hope (in death and life everlasting) in the “almost vanishing violins, all engaged in a sustained backward glance… edged aside for a few bars by the cellos. The lower notes pick up fragments from the first movement, as though prepared to begin everything all over again, and then the cellos subside and disappear, like an exhalation.” He used to hear this, he says, as a “wonderful few seconds of encouragement: we’ll be back, we’re still here, keep going, keep going.”
Hope indeed, but no more, when he found a pamphlet describing the weapons of the Cold War – MX Basing – published by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The publication went on to describe “alternative strategies for placement and protection of hundreds of (these) missiles, each capable of creating a hundred Hiroshimas, collectively capable of destroying the life of any continent…”
So now, listening to Mahler’s 9th in the context of the weapon-capability and the ever-present threat of destruction of the Cold War, Mahler’s 9th – especially the final movement – that once filled Dr. Thomas with so much solace – now reiterates the violence of death and its finality… not the everlasting life.
The Cold War changed civilization, as we know it, forever. The production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction gave us a new and final sensed of mortality – almost like eating forbidden fruit in real life! And this has made us a much more violent society, with a greater propensity to kill. Dr. Thomas’ life must have changed forever. But he was much more concerned with us: He put himself in the shoes of a teenager of the time – one of us baby-boomers – and felt certain that we would feel the same sense of horror… “I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged,” he concludes. In many ways the reaction of the rap of The Last Poets and Chuck D and Public Enemy was a reaction to the world coming unhinged. (Racism was the precipitating factor). I would be remiss if I did not say that I do not condone the often-expressed demeaning of the woman and the gratuitous sexual and other violence, expressed by rap and hip-hop artists, although I can understand where Tupac was ‘coming from’.
I felt the world coming unhinged in the 60s too. The music was saying ‘love’. Everything else was saying just the opposite! Woodstock was a case in point. So were the events at Newport. As a student of ancient civilizations, I believed that human history was a record of crime, bloodshed and wars of incredible ferocity. The normal state of man and woman was alienation. People were alienated from each other: There was hatred, lying, injustice, oppression, and open or covert hostility, not to mention ignorance and sheer folly. War after war has drenched the earth in blood and now, our propensity for violence was threatening the very future of the planet.