Mahler and Newton

brightLike most people, the events at Newton left me stunned — the scale of it, the suddenness, the finality.  The hours and days afterwards were defined primarily by silence: I could not talk about what happened, even with family or friends; I would turn off television news or walk out of the room. This quietness both seemed the only possible response, and the void it created was present and palpable.  As a father of elementary-aged kids, I’ve struggled with it since.

Someone recently pointed me to a piece on NPR referring to Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children (Kindertotenlieder) a song cycle for voice and orchestra. Composed between 1901 and 1904, this is a song cycle based on five poems by Ruckert which were part of a larger work written in the early 19th century.  Ruckert had lost two children to scarlet fever and wrote these poems — not intended for publication — to assuage his grief. Mahler set five of them to music.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the death of children was common. Today is is rare. But the grief is neither diminished nor heightened in either case. It is pure.  For Mahler, the song cycle became deeply personal: shortly after composing these songs he lost a child to scarlet fever as well.  He wrote afterwards that in writing the Kindertotenlieder “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.” I know of no parent, no person, who can place themselves in the situation of Newton.

Plato writes in The Republic that music is the most powerful of all the arts, for it alone finds its way into the inward places of the soul.  For me, the Kindertotenlieder has been the first experience that can begin to address the descended silence of Newton — these songs are simple, sparse and haunting, and the tribute they pay begins to fill hollow space. I’ll end with their end, and with a hope for peace.

In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm,
they rest as they did in their mother’s house:
they are frightened by no storm,
and are covered by the hand of God.

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