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Post details: Ying Yang in the sky

Ying Yang in the sky

On the dark velvet stage of the musical Universe, in the depths criss crossed only by wolf tracks of our hungry imagination, Beethoven and Mahler are eternal beacons of brightly shining stars.

Their musical careers unfolded in very different times, yet they seem connected by a ligature of common patterns. Perching strategically at the turn of their respective centuries, each composer's mind synthesized the musical elements of the outgoing era and pointed to the advances of the incoming one. Beethoven ushered in the 19th century, the era of romanticism with its emphasis on live emotion. Mahler served us the 20th century on a tray full of doubt albeit with an effort to preserve a semblance of coherence in an increasingly fragmented world.

One similarity which I noticed only recently was a strange deviation from the norm they both had offered towards the end of their creative cycle and entrusted to the form they loved most - which in Beethoven's case was piano sonata and in Mahler's symphony. Even though these forms have traditionally 3 and 4 movements respectively, both composers decided to bid farewell to their lifelong series with a 2 movement piece. Beethoven in his Piano Sonata Nr 32 in c minor and Mahler in his 8th symphony in E flat.

(technically you could argue that Mahler's 8th is not his last symphony, but it is the last one in the traditional sense. His last 3 are intellectually so different that it really pays to view them as specimens of a new musical form altogether)

But the parallel between these Masterpieces goes much deeper. Not only have these crowning achievements two movements only, but it seems that they have a similar floor plan. Their dual nature harbors distinctly male and female attributes, as if they were forming a magical ying-yang symbol. In my opinion, in both cases the first movement represents the male element, while the second one forms the complementary female part. Perhaps they wanted to make a statement that union of these contradicting elements is the true building force of all creation. And the tension between them is the primordial polarity which drives all motion on this Earth.

The first movement of Beethovens Last Sonata is forceful and youthfully unapologetic. You would think that the spirit Eroica came to life again. A simple theme invades the keyboard and soon rules supremely over its 7 octaves. The second movement - Arietta - is much more subtle and comes in the form of increasingly involved variations. An initially low keyed theme is instilled into the air and then gently tapped by hands until it blossoms into a geyser of fantasy, springing forth from unfathomable depths of composer's mind.

Mahler's 8th begins with an old hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" and the sheer volume of sound leaves no doubt about the forces Mahler's intellect had to tame. Its overall tenor is very reminiscent of the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Sonata. The first movement end in a mood that is forceful and straightforward. It is the triumph of an emperor. Enter the empress. In the second movement Mahlers casts away the trappings of power and lifts the narration into the rarefied plateau of imagination. Having the advantage of text, Mahler is very clear that it is the "ewig weibliche" (eternal femininity) which draws us higher above the simplistic framework of male mind. I got so used to this movement that it is hard to read Goethe's Faust without hearing Mahler's trumpets at its end.

But we are not finished yet. Beethoven and Mahler share a bit more than the ying-yang of their last oeuvres. After they celebrated the union of male and female elements, they both disappeared into the same mystical realm - into the deep space of human psyche. Into an intricate labyrinth of the soul. Beethoven chose his late quartetts (Nos. 12-16) as the vessel for this journey while Mahler used his last three symphonies (9th, 10th and Das Lied).

What they found there was the Kantian dictum "Das Moralische Gesetz in uns und der gestirnte Himmel uber uns" (the moral law within us and the starry heavens above us). Which in some sense if the male-female duality in a different garb. The eternal ying-yang of human race that you can see above you whenever you raise your eyes and inside you when you humbly lower them.



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