Oh dear, did I write that Mahler is the greatest composer of all time in my last entry? But I've been saying that about Stravinsky too. And Britten. And Sibelius. And Mozart. And ... many others. Oh dear, it shows how unfaithful I am, eh.
Anyway, I do think that Mahler is one of them, if I have to mention my top 5 composers. Since I was listening to his great (and long! It's a bloody 70-minute piece) "Das Lied von der Erde" last week, I couldn't help uttering my total admiration and blind love to that music. And I do admit, I am obsessed again, as I have been about 10 years ago with him. So, in the course of 5 days, I have listened to "Das Lied" about 4 or 5 times complete, from beginning to end. And I plan to do it again one of these days. More than once, most probably.
What I have been lately thinking is about the "alcoholic" elements of the poems which Mahler used for "Das Lied", and how it became an important part of this Sturm und Drang thing of those Romantics. Some poems are by the Chinese poet Li Po, and in his poems he poignantly mixed the drunken euphoria with a deep sadness. A translation in English on one of his songs which I googled would sound sort of like this:
"The wine in the golden cup calls us, but first let me sing you a song of sorrow which shall ring laughingly in your soul. When sorrow comes the gardens of the soul lie waste, joy and song fade and die: Dark is life, dark is death. Master of this house! Your cellar is full of golden wine! This lyre I shall call mine, for emptying the glass and sounding the lyre are things that go together. A full beaker of wine at the right time is worth more than all the riches of this world: Dark is life, dark is death. The sky is endlessly blue, and the earth will long remain, and bloom in Spring. But you, Man, how long will you remain? Not even a hundred years shall you enjoy all the mouldering trinkets of this earth! A wild, ghostly figure crouches in the moonlight on the tombs - it is an Ape! Listen, its howling cuts through the sweet scent of Life. Now, drink the wine! Now is the time, comrades! Empty your golden cups to the lees! Dark is life, dark is death."
That reminds me of another dark, pessimistic and "alcoholic" poem, "The Age of Anxiety" this time by a Westerner, the great W.H. Auden, which I also have been obsessed by, many years ago. The poem talks about man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world, set in a wartime bar in New York City, the most capitalistic spot on earth then (if it were now, I would say Hongkong or Singapore, eh? Or even Jakarta).
In both works of art, drinking becomes the symbol, a part of communal existence in the search of the meaning of life. One just wants to remain intoxicated .. and to sing, either with poetry or with a symphony. Both deal with the loss of personal identity and the gaining of total identity in a Bergsonian idea of the all and the nothing being equal. And both end with a farewell full of agony, once the effect of the alcohol dried up. All the four characters in Auden's poem thus said their farewells:
MALIN: "My deeds forbid me
To linger longer. I'll leave my friend,
Be sorry by myself. I must go away"
EMBLE: "I must slip off
To the woods to worry"
ROSETTA: "I want to retire
To some private place and pray to be made
A good girl."
QUANT: "I must go away
With my terrors until I have taught them to sing" (W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety)
But also I was struck by a tweet by a certain @ravatama at twitter who said (and I retweeted it yesterday) : There are only two types of honest people in the world, small children and drunk people.
And therefore I believe them: Li-Po, Mahler and Auden. Apart from them being drunk I also believe that they remain small children when they wrote those mentioned works. No grown ups could create such masterpieces.