The 18th variation (andante cantabile) of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini has was so carefully integrated into the texture of the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time" (starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour) that it may come as a surprise that the music of Rachmaninoff does not appear in the book that inspired the movie. Instead it is Mahler's ninth symphony.
In 1975 Richard Matheson (b.1926) wrote a novel called "Bid Time Return." The title is a reference to Richard II "O, call back yesterday, bid time return," and was changed to "Somewhere in Time" in all editions subsequent to the movie. Matheson wrote more than a dozen episodes of "The Twilight Zone," and also wrote "The Enemy Within" for the first Star Trek series. He is a prolific writer of both novels and short stories.
On Sunday, November 14, 1971 Richard Collier was escaping from something unnamed in his dark blue Galaxie. He had no plans, no destination: "heads north, tails south." He carried two bags. One with clothes. "In the other suitcase, my phonograph, headphones, and ten Mahler symphonies." Collier is likable.
As in the movie Collier is drawn to a photograph of Elise McKenna. He begins to pursue her:
"I'm listening to Mahler's Ninth now: performed by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. I agree with Alban Berg. He is quoted on the record jacket as saying (when he read the manuscript) that it was 'the most heavenly thing Mahler wrote.' And Walter wrote, 'The symphony is inspired by an intense spiritual agitation; the sense of departure." Of this first movement, he wrote it 'floats in an atmosphere of transfiguration.'"
Walter premiered the ninth symphony and worked closely with Mahler. The 1961 stereo recording by Walter is still around on LP.
By Wednesday the 17th Collier was studying Priestly's "Man and Time," and attempting to "make use of the nontemporal part of his mind." Still, Collier's attempts to enter 1896 fail:
"Another solution occurs to me! [...]Since the sound of my voice distracts, let me eliminate that sound. I'll write instructions to my subconscious--twenty-five, fifty, a hundred times each. As I do this, I'll listen to Mahler's Ninth Symphony on my headphones, let it be my candle flame, my swinging pendant as I send written instructions to my subconscious that today in November 19, 1896."
"An amendment. I will listen only to the final movement of the symphony. The movement in which, wrote Bruno Walter, 'Mahler peacefully bids farewell to the world." I will also use it to bid farewell to this world--of 1971."
Essayist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) wrote "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," in which he chronicled how the sense of farewell inspired by Mahler nine had become magnified by fears we came to understand during the cold war:
"I cannot listen to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," wrote Thomas, "with anything like the old melancholy mixed with the high pleasure I used to take from this music. There was a time, not long ago, when what I heard, especially in the final movement, was an open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquility connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature. The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to expressing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death."
"Now all that has changed," wrote Thomas, "I cannot think that way anymore. Not while those things are still in place, aimed everywhere, ready for launching." Thomas begins to hear the work as a farewell to all life.
The notion of the ninth symphony as a form of farewell comes directly from Bruno Walter and was developed and perfected by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein described the final movement as a form of "church-music." He described parts of it as being "Eastern" and "like a form of meditation." Later in the work he said “it is as though [Mahler] is trying on for size...disembodiment." He seeks "to be part of the universe...to be molecular.” Continuing to alternate and push these two final extremes Mahler pressed this movement into a thirty-minute epic. Until “finally at the end of the movement,” observes Bernstein, “there is nothing but a series of spider-web strands.” This is Bernstein at his most convincing.
The Walter/Bernstein view of farewell is predicated on the notion that Mahler's tenth symphony would never exist; that the work as left at the time of Mahler's death was too fragmentary to be reassembled. Reassembled it has become, and increasingly it has entered the repertoire. As it has done so, Mahler's tenth symphony many, like Simon Rattle, have come to understand the ninth symphony differently: it is often viewed as being life affirming.
I last wrote about Mahler's ninth symphony in a preview article for the Hartford Courant. There I wrote:
"The symphonic repertoire is vast and deep. There are works that seek to entertain, to reveal bewildering virtuosity; there are works that dance with regret, and others in aerobic celebration. There are works that laugh and others that are philosophical puzzles in sound. But the repertoire has only one Mahler nine—-because it seeks to accomplish all of these things. No other work in the orchestral literature has the mystique of Mahler’s ninth symphony."