The Haunting of Mahler

A production by Philip Martin, diligent and definitive. It was the last he was ever to do for BBC - he was half out of the door as he did it; and it was to prove my last work for Radio 3.

1911. Mahler, dying too young, is on his last agonizing journey home from New York to Vienna. With him is his wife Alma - and a third character, Death, a mocking sergeant-figure audible to Mahler alone. Lying bed-ridden in the New York hotel, and even while he is borne on a stretcher to the taxi to the dock, Mahler is toiling to complete his Tenth Symphony, struggling one last time to achieve the blazing final consummating harmony that has all his life eluded him. (Musically, this is technically true: but it is the psychological struggle that counts.) With sarcasm and mockery, Sergeant Death is trying to prevent him, scattering the drafts and sketches, subverting his efforts, weakening his failing powers. No composer lives after his Ninth Symphony. But Mahler is refusing to die, until his triumph is achieved. It is a physical and moral struggle between the two.

From his beginning, Mahler has been near-paralyzed by a morbid fixation on death. With each symphony, he wins through, and asserts the power of love and life - in the music; but each time, in the life, again comes Death with more negatives to bring him down. Sexual difficulties that threaten his marriage. Public assaults on his self-esteem. Guilt as a ‘survivor’, after almost all his brothers and sisters have died in infancy. The death of a child of his own. The loss of his wife’s loyalty. Now, at the last, his failing heart, and the ugly limp in its beat, the remorseless tread of his own approaching death...

1987 New York Film Festival Gold Medal for Screenplay.

Cutting in and out of this last journey are glimpses and scenes from the life. But it’s more the inner, ‘poetic’ life. There is always an expressionistic edge to the narrative, or streak of nightmare - just as there is in the music. And the music itself is heard only in fragments, sometimes obsessionally repeating, like demonic voices heard nagging in his mind. And it always comes accurately from whatever crisis in the life we’re dealing with. The music is an expression of his haunting, and narratively felt as such.

Death’s last appearance: visibly and audibly the same rising-falling shape, but now in the major mode, harmonized, attentuated and resolving onto a chord rooted in the very F-sharp pitch that in its original ‘futile’ form it had persistently failed melodically to reach. From Mahler’s sketch for the ending of his final symphony.

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