Bob the Demon: Hey Gustav, whatcha doin’?
Mahler: I’m composing a symphony. What do you think, that I’m staring at a fly on the table?
Bob: No need to get snitty. But why waste precious time on composing music for people you’ll never meet?
Mahler: Well, so I can rid myself and others of demons like you.
Bob: Hey, that was nasty. I pay you a nice, friendly visit and this is the way you treat me? Whadddd’ I do to you?
Mahler: Well, it’s not so much what you do to me. It’s what you do to all unwary humans. You haunt people all around the world with doubt, fear, loneliness, all kinds of suffering barely expressible in words; mute, frozen soul-less suffering, paralysis of spirit, guilt for just being different, judgment of those different souls. You slip open their heads and start whispering your dark messages of despair, gnawing at their confidence. You are Iago’s helper, telling Othello that his beautiful Desdemona has been unfaithful. You corrode happiness with your insidious apprehension.
Bob: Well, it keeps me busy. Otherwise I just sit around and watch reruns of “Angel” all day. That guy thinks he knows demons, HA!
Mahler: I don’t have a TV. So, I compose music I hear, what nature tells me, what people tell me, what my heart tells me. When we listen to our hearts, our fears disappear. So my music helps get rid of you.
Bob: Well, I’m a popular guy. Everyone knows me. By comparison, who’s ever heard of you? Huh? You think your music will change hearts. Dream on Gustav. You’ve been getting too much fresh air. You’re a hopeless romantic who cries after stepping on a flower. Geez, what a weak, wimpy, sissy, little nothing! (farts loudly) See, I even get gassy around you, you’re so pitiful. Nothing to work with.
Mahler: In fact, I can compose the whole worlds’ sorrow and joys and ecstasy in an hour’s worth of music. I can swallow the worlds malcontent within one symphony. I can heal suffering by exalting in it.
Bob: No Way!
Bob: Show me. I gotta see this.
Mahler: Well, in my 4th symphony, the first movement starts dance like, in a wintry, cozy atmosphere, with sleigh bells signaling a festive, happy time. Dance is healing to humans. The movement carries you through the Alps, wisping through little towns of happy souls reveling in the cleansing exertion of dance.
The second movement is also a dance, a giddy waltz, but a macabre one. The rattle of skeletons from everyones closets is lightened by the satirical tone. The orchestra even makes fun of itself. In one spot, the second clarinet suddenly sticks his bell up and blasts out the melody, even though everyone else is playing softly. Through this movement we can smile at our fears and mistakes. We can face them and chuckle, knowing our conscience can be cleared if we did our best.
Bob: Yeah, yeah. I see everyone dancing. La Di La. But how ’bout when they get home and their loneliness comes back to haunt them? I love doing that part.
Mahler: I’ve haven’t finished with the symphony yet. Now we get to the slow movement. It starts with this sort of hymn of gratitude from the strings, with a heartbeat thumping of pizzicato from the basses, and a yearning song of thanks from the cellos at first, then from the violins. At one point the violins are floating way up high on one note, very close to the sky, while the rest of the strings stay earthbound with reverence.
At the end of this peaceful introduction, a wise old storyteller comes in the form of the oboe, someone who understands the pathos of our lives. He shows us our pain, helps us acknowledge our shared loneliness. His story carries us into our hearts to touch our sadness with tenderness. The strings pick up on this, weeping openly, which leads everyone to heavy hearted passion. We descend several times into this dark hole of desolation…
Bob: Wait a minute. You’re doing my job here. Wait’ll my lawyer hears.
Mahler: No, no. Just wait. I’ve taken the listener here for a reason. After opening up the soft pains of the heart, I bring them to a warm, comfortable room to sooth these vulnerabilities. We dance again together, with a new tenderness. Then the clouds come back, along with the oboe storyteller and his friend, the sad English Horn, and the French Horn. They tell us our pains and desolation is never far, the abyss always looming. The mother who’s lost her child, the grandmother left to die alone, the friend deserted or betrayed, all are family, all are embraced by this pain. I bring them together in their pain.
Bob: Man, these are gonna be some neurotic people. All the more fun for me to play with. He-he.
Mahler: (ignoring Bob) I bring them back to the dance, the joy, the fever of the moment. Then a circus comes through, and in whirl of frantic ecstasy they whiz by in a flurry, thrilling the listener, before they fade and disappear.
We are left with the thankful hymn from the beginning. Our lives bring us joys, they bring us sorrows, innumerable each, indescribable, complex, perfect, never old. We are lulled to sleep in this sweet gratitude. Then, a surprise!!
At the quietest moment, when all are cozy in a trance, the gates of heaven crash open, the sky blazes with golden fireworks, the boom of thunder announces the glory of an infinite place. As the fanfare dies away, an apparition appears to us, a ray through the sky, a stairway to heaven, a shimmering distortion of the air, a path of light. We are drawn upward effortlessly. As we take the first step, another curtain of sky opens, each more dreamy and crystalline, more ethereal. This happens several times. Each time we think we know where we are, the scene blossoms, as if we are stepping through time, beyond it. We finally end in ethereal bliss, with the highest tones fading gently into the distance.
The last movement is a child’s song of heaven, where delight and good food abound. It ends with a lullaby.
So, Bob, what do you think of my music?
(there is no answer)