Resurrection —- Brooding between Gustav Mahler and Egyptian Funeral Belief

Sitting in the dimly lit living room, I was listening to Mahler again. And again this time was his second symphony. Simply put, maybe I am just too lazy to change the CD.

Mahler once said: My time will come. But Hans von Bulow, the life long friend of Johannas Brahms, after listening to Mahler playing Todtendeier (the first movement) in piano, said: ‘If what I have heard is music, I understand nothing about music. Compared with this, Tristan is a Haydn symphony. At least, Bullow was partially right. While Wagner epitomized the 19th century’s music in its grandeur and drama., Mahler opened the chapter of modern music not by adding too much to the existing music terminology but by broadening up what music yearns for. In other words, Mahler wrote his music in the conventional language of the 19th century yet with the mind to suit the 21th century audience.

His music is all about contrasts, which, unlike those stoned in Beethoven or Wagner, refuses to be simplified as a mean of rhetoric reasoning and instead projected the deepest emotions of human beings. The complexity of humans’ minds and emotions of the 21th century cannot be categorized into a single mood or a single word: It is exactly the opposite, our sentimentality has welled up and grown vague at the same time. That rapid swings from contentment to fury or the juxtaposition of despair and tender are music reflections of humanity of modern times: wounded, distressed, defensive, anguished and occasional hysterical, all wrapping around the innocent purity of love, and all are echoed in Mahler’s music.

Mahler programmed his second symphony with a long break (more than 5 minutes) after the first movement. Literally, the person is dead. It should be proceeded with silence. After about another 50 minutes, the spirit in the music rises again and returns in triumphs.

For a long time, the gigantic first movement is so rich and profound that it intimated me from continuing the journey. Last year in Cleveland I listened to the whole symphony and found the energy and passion that had been funneled in the end. Mahler’s view of death and resurrection is universal. He believed in incarnation through purification which can be traced back more to Buddhism’s nihilism than to Christianity. But if so, why such a person, who said he was not afraid of obliterate of past and memory as long as the incarnated spirit was purified, would bear such a tense fear of death that cast its permanent shadows on every of his symphonies?

Perhaps there is no easy answer. These days I have been reading Egyptian belief in immortality. The seemingly contradict between the fear of death by worshiping gods in splendid temple and the desire of entering paradise with funerals, offerings and stunning tombs showed that perhaps even in ancient Egypt ordinary people know the importance of grasping immediacy because the enjoyment of afterlife depends on the labor, treasure, reputation of the real world and thus may never materialize. In one of the ancient tombs archeologists even found a written essay from an anguish voice asking the meaning of revering the deceased. It pointed out that no one had seen any deceased ever come back to his world. All those offerings — food, drink and daily little need are better off to be enjoyed NOW. The evidence of ancient Egyptians’ uncertainty in afterworld is further proved by their peculiar emphasis on the levels of security of offerings to the deceased for his or her survival (such as real offerings, images hieroglyphs and model offerings).

Mahler probably felt the same predicament. He certainly loved the world even after the doctor prohibited him from hiking because of his heart problem. But the death surrounded his childhood had shown the cruelty of losing life, at least with respect to the impact of family members. He must begin to seek the meaning of life from witness the funerals of his siblings: If life will be short, how to make it meaning? For him, the belief that a purified spirit can stand up again blessed and re-energized is not a psychological relief that death will not annihilate the relations and traces of the current life, but instead is a inspirational force that drives him to work enthusiastically on the music that matters the most. In his own words, “that is why I have to live ethically, to spare my Self a part of the same road when it returns.”

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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