Mudlark No. 41 (2010)

Strains of Existential Despair

From early in the Tang Dynasty,
a millennium and a half
before Gustav and Alma Mahler
left Vienna for New York,
Li Po had been heard in Europe.
“Dark is life, is death,”
he had said to Judith Gautier in French.
Years before Mahler’s strenuous opening season
as premier conductor at the Metropolitan Opera,
Gautier had spoken for the Tang poets
to Germany and to Hans Bethge,
in whose Die Chinesische Flöte
Li Po was heard by Gustav to sigh
“Joy and singing wither and die.”
The following summer, oppressed
by his daughter’s death, his own ill health,
bitter memories of his ousting in Vienna,
and Alma’s discontent in their marriage,
but incited by cues for a Tang song-symphony —
perhaps the Mitteleuropean spire of his career —
Mahler retreated to his composing hut at Toblach.
“The sun of love is a mirage,” sings the tenor,
the contralto, in his Das Lied von der Erde,
Wang Wei’s lonely soul bidding farewell
to dear earth, its pavilions, its misty lakes,
flutes and gongs sparsely, intimately Asian,
drunken Tu Fu raging, brassy, discordant,
violins dissolving into horrid silences.

Oliver Rice | Mudlark No. 41 (2010)
Contents | Where, Deferring to No One