Monday, July 27, 2009

The Most Beautiful Song in the World

Is this the most beautiful song in the world?

Poem by Friedrich Rückert
Music by Gustav Mahler

It certainly is in my book. In fact, it stands alone. There are plenty of beautiful songs in the world, but there is nothing else quite like this.

It is frequently referred to at the saddest song ever written, but I think that is based on recent performance practice, and not on the essence of the song. The poem which Mahler set to music is simplicity itself and yet easily misread:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

It is often sung in a valedictory manner, a sad farewell to life, but that also misses the point. The poet is describing an ecstatic state, in which the noise and vanity of the world ceases to matter and all that matters is his heaven of love and song. It is a farewell in the same way awaking is a farewell to a troubled sleep. Good bye, yes, but to everything that doesn't really matter in order to embrace what really does. That is why the music is quiet, intensely spiritual in character, as simple as sunlight on water and as gorgeous. It is so beautiful it makes us cry.

Deby once wondered aloud why beautiful music that is not dramatically sad makes us cry. I suggested that it is because it plugs us directly into that which is greater than ourselves and our consciousness, with other worlds if you will, what the Romantics referred to the Sublime. We are humbled and exalted in the same moment, and that moves us to tears just as an intense orgasm can move us to tears, and certainly not from sadness. We experience ecstasy.

When Nature, the foremost teacher of all great art, presents us with the sublime -- the first glimpse of the waterfalls tumbling into Yosemite Valley, the extraordinary blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea seen from Tiberius's villa on Capri, Big Sur or the Dolomites at dawn -- it is without affect; it has no emotional content. It is a pure expression of the beauty and majesty of creation. It takes your breath away but does not necessarily make you cry.

To the pure light of Nature's beauty, Art applies the prism of human consciousness and emotion; the beam is refracted into its component colors and woven into patterns for particular effect. Humanity is added to impersonal nature and it is this experience of our humanity, of or our common emotional life, that is so particularly powerful and touching. We know, in that instant, that others have trod the same path, that our planet is inhabited by others with hearts like our own, that we are not alone in the universe. The message makes our souls dance.

Recently this song has been sung very slowly. The mournful oboes and clarinets against the soft harp arpeggios, the muted strings, are elegiac, quietly dirge-like. Jessie Norman and Zubin Mehta take an inertial 8 minutes. Janet Baker clocks in at 6:47, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at 7:13.

An earlier generation of artists took a faster tempo. Kathleen Ferrier's version is 5:38. That seemingly slight change of tempo changes the entire mood of the song.

Irmgard Seefried clocks in at a mere 5:10 in a performance that is a revelation. From the opening bars the song has more in common with the innocent rapture of the last movement of the Fourth Symphony, where the light childlike soprano sings Das himmlische leben (Heaven's life), than it does with the truly mournful Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, its twin sister in line and orchestral texture.

Seefried's voice is immediate and unaffected; she is in touch with the source of this music and she is clearly on a spiritual journey as she sings. At the end she is not sad at all; she is filled with radiant joy. Her smile says it all.

So why do I cry?

An exquisite flower fills me with joy and does not make me cry. But at the end of the song I am filled with joy and I am crying. It is because this heady emotional cocktail is suffused with gratitude and wonder at being alive and able to experience such beauty. That is what the song is about: being set free from the squalor and the madness of the world so you can experience its beauty and express that joy.

As the poet says,

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

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