I was listening to Gustav Mahler’s 9th symphony while plowing through some of my class readings (he’s an odd choice for background music, I know, but it seemed to keep me more focused than I would have been).
Mahler’s 9th is, as its Allmusic article states, full of “music of profound violence and irony”. The first movement seems to be trying to rip itself apart, the second cycles through banal dance music, the third contains intentionally painful counterpoint. But it also contains many moments of exceptional beauty, like the first movement’s hazy, sunset-like ending.
I remember being emotionally overwhelmed the first time I listened to it; it was one of those intense aesthetic experiences that require some time for recovery before you can go back to your normal life.
But that was also the time when I was living in my own “Gollum’s cave”, where I had allowed myself to become profoundly isolated, with music and literature being the only things animating me to a small extent. So Mahler’s bleakness perhaps struck a chord with me at that time that it no longer does now (I am also sure that part of the appeal had to do with the teenage tendency to wallow in emotions).
Still, I had to halt my reading partway through the fourth movement, which still managed to give me goosebumps. It’s a long, slow, elegiac movement that builds to a thunderous, almost triumphant statement of one of the themes, before slowly fragmenting away into nothing. While other major composers have experimented with a similar effect (Haydn and Tchaikovsky come to mind), Mahler’s is the most unsettling that I can think of, giving a sense of passing into the realm of death which Rilke also captured in his tenth Duino Elegy:
He climbs on alone, into the mountains of primeval grief.
And no step rings back from that soundless fate.
I thank God that I was saved from the living death my life could have become.