Hammer Blows of Fate

mahlerI am angry and upset in the midweek Quaker meeting. If you proposed to me possible reasons for this- being unemployed, issues in the Quaker meeting itself, my father dying two months ago- I would agree these seemed reasonable, but did not fit.

Gustav MahlerEventually, I put it down to listening to Mahler’s sixth symphony last night. The Hammer Blow is a huge fortissimo chord with tympani ostinato, three times in the last movement. I knew it was there, I knew it was coming, but the last such chord shocked me. Liz, of course, knows the work and knows exactly what I mean. If you see the orchestra playing, and sit with the audience, it is a different experience- perhaps cathartic; but if, after, there is no joining in thunderous applause, just me and the silence, it is different. These works were meant to be a shared experience.

It is not as if I was not warned. G told me of the Hammer Blows, and how they related to incidents in Mahler’s life, including the death of his daughter and his dismissal from the Vienna Opera: but I had not known that the symphony was composed before these. He revised the symphony repeatedly, and took out that last Blow, but my recording and others reinstate it: the ending without it is a cop-out.

Without the woodI sat in contemplative stillness for most of the work, with a break between the second and third movement. It starts in darkness, with a relentless march in the minor key, but has a sweet slow movement.

I read “upset” is a symptom rather than an emotion: but it fits that moment before fight or flight, where unconscious systems have not chosen between them: or the alternative to fight or flight, which is curling up in a quivering ball. Over coffee, after, I chatted with Charlotte, who cannot usually come on Sundays, of difficulties in the CAB, of how the system slowly became more difficult so that I seemed to achieve less and less; with Liz of Immigration and how the Home Office’s systems seem entirely punitive, to protect the fearful British from parasitic foreigners; and with S on leaving social work. She found the service users fine, but hated the bureaucracy, and how it was all about finance, and it seemed to me one would either hate the system, or hate the clients: stuck in between one could not value both.

I went for coffee at K’s house and talked deeply, then to the bank. Tired, I left my card in the machine, and a passer-by brought it into the bank: a lesson of my own carelessness and the kindness of strangers. Then to the Library, where I admired these beautiful pillars. Rachel Whiteread won the Turner prize with her hollow house, and a few years later these pillars are in Swanston, plaster echoing wood. I had my catharsis, but only other people could make it bearable.

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