Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mahler and the Shekinah

Went to hear Boulez conduct the Mahler 8th the other night - that's the one you probably have not sung in the shower, as it is the Symphony of a Thousand and they wouldn't all fit. They didn't fit in Carnegie Hall either. (And Loren Maazel is doing it next month as his farewell to the Philharmonic - or rather, four farewells - he never can say goodbye, no no no.) The text of this leviathan (or do I mean behemoth?) is in two parts, first a setting of the 8th century hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus ("Come, Creator Spirit"), the second a setting of the last scene of Goethe's Faust, Part 2: Faust's soul saved from damnation by the intercession of A Penitent (i.e. Gretchen from Part 1) with the Triple Mother-Virgin-Goddess (so addressed), and the Eternal Feminine Calls Us On from above.

That was appropriate, as I'd sneaked in without a ticket and had to climb the stairs to the top of the building (puff puff puff). At the first performance of this work in New York, Anna Mahler was present and said to an usher friend of mine, "Not one of Papa's best." I have to agree with her. Though I thought otherwise the last time I heard it, under Levine, with the BSO. (Another friend suggests the Metropolitan Opera House would be the right size for this symphony. John G, who was present on this occasion, says only the Royal Albert Hall is the right size with the right size organ, and we all know how important that is.)

As I reached the top of the stairs, I found the evening's usher was a stranger (to me), a tall, lanky, sexy, long-haired youth. Before I'd located an empty seat (sparse at these Mahler concerts), a guy I know slightly named Greg arrived, and began to harangue the young usher on the Faust Legend, its medieval and operatic and Goethean variants. As I'd written about the Faust legend for Opera News and the Met Opera program, I listened intently; later, Greg explained to me that the usher is a young genius and leader of a "dark metal band" (whatever that means) which has dealt with satanic themes (don't they all?), but that he is also interested in the late romantic orchestral-operatic equivalents for death-thrash-metal (equivalent may be the wrong word here), and Greg is trying to introduce him to unfamiliar mythic concepts (such as music without electronics), which desire is perhaps lust-inspired on his part, but what the hey? A natural adjunct to pedagogy in many ancient societies, is it not? And this kid is definitely of age. (Plus, I think Greg is hot, frankly: chunky bronze Sicilian.)

Then Greg turns to me and says, "How do YOU think the parts connect in this symphony? Why did Mahler put them together?" really not knowing. And I hadn't ever thought about it myself (late Mahler not being my specialty).

But suddenly it was all very clear, because I'd just been reading Carl Jung's Answer to Job, which discusses the "divorce" between God the Will and God the Creative Spirit, and how that Creative Spirit is personified in Jewish mysticism as the Shekinah, and in Greek-Christian mysticism as Sophia, and how that spirit was necessary (and necessarily feminine) to God's creation of life itself, and his plans for the earth, and his assault on Job took place because Sophia was on sabbatical or something (Satan merrily slipping into her advisor's place), and her return and unification with God solved Job's dilemma by assuring him that God would be born as a human and find out what he'd been missing, an event only made possible because Sophia was to be incarnate as Mary. (I'm very dubious about all this as EVENT, or theology, but it makes sense as MYSTIC BELIEF.) (Mystics will believe ANYTHING. As you know.)

And suddenly it seemed to me that what Mahler was up to (a Catholic convert of somewhat mystical bent, and married to a femme fatale named Alma, of all symbolic names) was to join the invocation to the Judaeo-Christian god as Creator Spirit to Goethe's guilt-ridden self-invented pardon for Faust (his own questing, amoral, inventive spirit) by an eternal feminine who is given many names and many roles in the poem (Mater Gloriosa, Maria Egyptiaca, etc.) but who is clearly, in all cases, a synthesis subdivided by whole in the supernal Mary (bearing a very slight resemblance to any human Mary), queen of heaven, consort of God and (since God can only be one) his female alterity, anima to the divine animus, in short Sophia-Shekinah. Thereby invoking pardon for his (Mahler's) sins (whatever they were) and justifying his life as the manifestation of God's creativity, just as the original text (completed only a year before Goethe's death after forty-odd years of work, was a similar justification of his life as such a manifestation. (Could Goethe believe in a God who was not an aspect of Goethe? I mean, we all have that problem, but he had it especially rough because it seemed so very obvious to everyone that He was.)

So entirely by chance - the chance that I was reading Jung (on the recommendation of my friend Fritz Muntean of The Pomegranate magazine) - I think I have solved Greg's and everybody else's problem about why Mahler put these two texts together in his magnificent setting. Even if it's not one of Papa's best. (As, say, Das Lied von der Erde or the Wayfarer Songs are.)

Of course Jung's interpretation of Job as a prelude to the necessity for God's incarnation as Christ is, well, Jungian mingling of anima and animus, and does not entirely convince (probably because I don't believe the author(s) of Job had the slightest notion of an incarnation down the pike). But it's a terrific book nonetheless, and a terrific key to certain theological mysticisms.

1 comment:

infanttyrone said...

Dear John,

"...the late romantic orchestral-operatic equivalents for death-thrash-metal (equivalent may be the wrong word here)..."

Could I interest you in "corollary"?

Per Merriam-Webster (def 2b): "something that incidentally or naturally accompanies or parallels"

Tranquilo, Senor Chips, Webster is un hombre fuerte y dulce tambien. No debes tener un coronary, mucho menos un coronacion...and whatev'r ya do, doan let yer O'Tool get ben' outa shape behind it.

Ov'r-arc-ingly yours,