Early Inspirations: Gustav Mahler

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I’m not sure when I was first introduced to Gustav Mahler’s songs, which seduced me with their mournful sounds of despair and suffering. I must have been young or old enough that his music settled in the depths of my sensitive, suggestive soul, but most probably stems from about the time I began attending those memorable inspiring days in creative writing classes at Tyler School of Art.

This was an emotional time in my life, when I quit my job with the Army Signal Corps, (with no foreseeable income to speak of), an uncertain future job-wise, and then, where would I live when my parents ultimately moved to Florida?

Perhaps it was in the creative writing classes that I looked forward to with one of my favorite English teachers, Harper Brown, who wrote his commentary about our assigned writings, with pencil, on our weekly papers. To one student, who complained that he couldn’t read the teacher’s writing, Mr. Brown retorted: “If I have to decipher your writing, you will have to do the same with my written comments.”

More than anything I believe, was the class’ modus operandi, the relatively free give-and-take in the class, that bolstered my ego to the point that I began to emerge out of my shell and recognize that I was an entity unto myself, who also had something to say. I don’t believe anyone who has listened to the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” songs of Gustav Mahler, could deny the depth of pathos in the sounds he created with words and with his music. The words, whether in German or in English translation, tell the story of a foreboding hopelessness for life and the future, which led me to include the black-robed figure of the “Zeitgeist” in my illustrations (zeit = time; geist = spirit, understood meaning in German: “the spirit of the age and its society.”)

Of course, it was most likely a product of Mahler’s time – mid- to late-1800s – as well as his personal struggles with death (he lost five of his brothers and sisters to diphtheria). In addition, he struggled with self-identification that fomented his thoughts, agonies and musical sounds, all through his life. He was born a Jew and converted to Catholicism, struggling to find himself and his purpose in life. To me, this is revealed in the sounds, the music and words, which I played repeatedly from my LP recordings until they became a part of my own creative aspirations to find the source of life, living and creating.


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