There have been many fine tributes to Mahler today on the centenary of his death, for example Peter G. Davis here in the NYT, Anne Midgette here in the WaPo, Kenneth Woods on his blog here, and a very personal note of thanks here. But, I can think of no tribute more moving than this:
It is now well past mid-night & society dictates that I should stop playing the Abschied. Otherwise I might possibly have gone repeating the last record indefinitely – for ‘ewig’ keit of course.
It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness, & of pain: of strength & freedom. The beauty of disappointment & never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.
And the essentially ‘pretty’ colors of the normal orchestral palette are used to paint this extraordinary picture of loveliness. And there is nothing morbid about it. The same harmonic progressions that Wagner used to colour his essentially morbid love-scenes…are used here to paint a serenity literally supernatural.
I cannot understand it – it passes over me like a tidal wave – and that matters not a jot either, because it goes on for ever, even if it is never performed again – that final chord is printed on the atmosphere. Perhaps if I could understand some of the Indian philosophies I might approach it a little. At the moment I can do no more than bask in its Heavenly light – and it is worth having lived to do that.
–Benjamin Britten, in a letter dated 29 June 1937, writing about “Der Abschied,” the last movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Reprinted in Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death (1985), pp. 339-340.