Like their continental contemporaries, they experimented with polytonality, heterophony, atonal harmony, and forms and rhythms borrowed from other places and other times. But – until recently at least – modern English composers have held back from the repudiation of melody and harmonic sequence.
Serialism has had little appeal for them, and for the most part serious English music in our time has shown an acute awareness of the distinction between the art of music and the skills of the sound engineer. In particular, English composers continue to aspire towards melody – or at any rate melodiousness – and towards music that moves forward on a path that listeners can follow and to which they can respond with sympathy.
The attempt to unite modernist harmony with robust melodic thinking is exemplified in the symphonies of Vaughan Williams, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra and Corelli Fantasia of Tippett, the early operas of Britten, the lyrical concertos of Walton, not to mention those all-but-forgotten works by Arnold Bax, Havergal Brian, George Lloyd and Edmund Rubbra which were aimed at a kind of audience that has now largely disappeared from our concert halls. But the desire to combine modernism and melody continued into my time as one part of the Englishness of English music. And in Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold we have seen a determined attempt to retain the romantic symphony as a paradigm of musical form.
English composers of the post-war generation have been strongly influenced by the kind of melodic thinking that we find in Britten’s later work (Curlew River, for example, the Third String Quartet and the War Requiem) and in the remarkable Triple Concerto and Rose Lake of the aged Tippett. But they have also developed a tonal language of their own. In the concertos for orchestra of Robin Holloway, in the operas of Oliver Knussen and Judith Weir, in the concertos and symphonies of the Matthews brothers, and in many other works by composers of their generation we find what might be called an ‘emancipation of the consonance’, and a tunefulness of inspiration that have been a refreshing experience for the music lover. English music in our time offers a new proof that music has an intrinsic grammar, and that this grammar has nothing to do with permutational algorithms, but everything to do with the conquest of musical space by voice-leading and consecutive harmony.
No-one more clearly exemplifies this current of musical craftsmanship than David Matthews, who is not merely one of the most prolific composers of his generation, but also perhaps the one who has carried forward with the greatest conviction the traditions of modern English music. David’s indebtedness to Britten and Tippett is evident not only from his music but from his brilliant critical appraisals of both composers, whom he knew, admired and (in Britten’s case) assisted during their later years. But – like those two great men, and like so many modern writers and artists in the English tradition – David is a man of universal culture, whose love of the English specificity goes hand in hand with a profound respect for German and Austrian music, for the literature of Greece and Rome, for the art of the Renaissance and for the artistic and philosophical sensibility of Central Europe – not only the Central Europe of Mahler, Bartók and Janáček, but that of Kafka and Zweig, of Havel and Kundera.
His boundless admiration for Mahler shows itself everywhere in his music, not least in the meditative accumulations of melody, such as that which opens the Second Symphony and lasts for a whole movement, or that of the last movement of the Sixth Symphony – an Adagio of Mahlerian proportions in which voice after voice is summoned out of the orchestra to weave its contribution to the elegiac atmosphere. This movement is in fact a set of variations on Vaughan Williams’s hymn ‘Down Ampney’ (‘Come Down O Love Divine’) and works through many cries of pain to a serene coda, in which VW’s lovely tune appears like a thread of light under dark clouds at the end of day. This, perhaps the most English of all the many English works that David has produced, is also a remarkable tribute to a composer who was for decades regarded with disdain by the musical establishment, precisely on account of the idea of England that inspired him.
As with other English composers, landscape has been of fundamental importance to David, and he has explained its influence on his musical thinking and experience in Landscape into Sound, based on his Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture of 1991. But the landscapes evoked in his works are of many different kinds and inspired by many different associations. That which sparked off the powerful Chaconne for orchestra is the battlefield of Towton, scene of the most horrendous conflict in the Wars of the Roses in which 28,000 men died (not to mention the horses). In the preface to the score David quotes Geoffrey Hill’s evocation of a field after battle, which
‘utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.’
‘A medieval battlefield such as Towton,’ David writes, ‘has long since mellowed into the peaceable English landscape, the kind of landscape celebrated by our greatest painters and, in music, by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Tippett. If that pastoral tradition can no longer be sustained in its innocence, perhaps another might replace it, which reconciles our romanticised sense of a picturesque past with the brutal facts of history.’ That last sentence captures a vital current in David’s thinking, both as a modern Englishman and as a modern composer: the search for an undeceived reconciliation between the romantic and the real, and for an experience of landscape which will not be a form of self-centred illusion, but an objective response to the world as it is. One way to achieve this is to concentrate on what is immediate, without specific human meaning, a matter of atmosphere and far-flung suggestiveness. Thus the cello concerto entitled In Azzurro evokes a suffusing blue, a synthesis of sea and sky, inspired by a visit to the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, but also connected through the Arabic word ‘azure’ to places where colours are stronger and more enamelled than they ever are in England.
David may be right that our pastoral tradition ‘can no longer be sustained in its innocence’. But he is capable of writing landscape music that has an innocence of its own, such as the short piece for chamber orchestra From Sea to Sky, which has some of the joyful expansiveness of Tippett in his Double Concerto, and which was inspired by David’s own early morning walks on the beach in Deal. It should be said here that the reference to landscape is not used to invoke sentiments of a nationalistic kind. His country of birth is only one of the many places that are visited in David’s scores, which are the lyrical responses of a wanderer, who is never fully at home but always resonating to new places under new skies. He is possibly the only composer to have included a Tango as the scherzo movement of a symphony – and it sweeps along with Latin panache, until stumbling over rhythmically contrary woodwind chords scattered like broken glass on the dance floor. He has included Mahlerian cowbells and Steve Reich-ish marimbas into his scores, and ranged widely in the geography and history of Europe for his inspiration. His settings of Sappho (A Congress of Passions) draw heavily on Cretan folksong. And he has also been profoundly affected by the landscape of Australia, with its slowly unfolding contours evoked by his friend Peter Sculthorpe, whose music always has to me the character of someone slowly drawing aside a heavy curtain from a scene that consists of another heavy curtain. David’s Aubade for orchestra, by contrast, draws the curtain from a living landscape, full of the strange birdsongs of Australia, which question the presence of this wanderer from the Northern hemisphere but bubble with life regardless.
Perhaps the most striking feature of post-war intellectual life in our country has been its catholicity. The inter-war generation fell under the spell of Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis, and the post-war generation was brought up by schoolmasters and university lecturers saturated in the Eliotian view of European culture. Dante and Baudelaire were our heroes, while we regarded Tennyson and Browning as Victorian relics whose works we did not have time in the urgency of our modern commitment to read. We were introduced to the censorious criticism of F.R. Leavis, under whose light we wriggled without ever quite escaping from the glare; we read Rilke in Leishman’s editions, and the extracts from the existentialists collected by Walter Kaufman. I did not know David until very much later in life; but the influences that were brought to bear on me were also brought to bear on him, and this created in us an immediate rapport when we finally met. The excited discovery of Stravinsky, Bartók and the Viennese school, the worry over tonality and whether it was still permitted, the astonished encounter with Rilke, Kafka, Mahler and the Central European soul, the longing for experiences outside the bounds of our Anglican upbringing, and at the same time the stunning message of Four Quartets, which told us that those experiences were not out of bounds at all, but could be blended with the spiritual heritage of England – all these we shared and all these had a lasting influence on both of us. Although it is possible to exaggerate the importance of Four Quartets, there is no denying that it changed things utterly for literary young people of my generation. It brought together the subterranean current of Anglican Christianity with the questioning search for a purified and modernist art that would seek redemption in the immediate moment, observed, internalised, and expressed without lies. As the title declares, Eliot had before his mind the great example of Beethoven, whose late quartets show religious questions answered through aesthetic discipline, and redemption achieved by the hard path of artistic truthfulness.
For people of my generation no musical medium has been more important and more personally challenging than that of the string quartet. All the crises of 20th century art come to a head in the quartet, whose four voices mimic the four voices of the choir, and can be used to set out with exemplary clarity the sequential harmonies of the tonal tradition. The greatest of chamber works in the classical style have been quartets – not those of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven only, but the comparable masterpieces of Schubert, and the not quite comparable achievements of Brahms. There is something about the clarity of tone, and responsiveness to the life and emotion of the performer, which gives stringed instruments a special authority when it comes to exploring abstract forms. In the string quartet tonality is put to the test, and all its devices placed under an auditory microscope. At the same time the instruments converse with each other on equal terms, exchanging the most intimate thoughts and feelings, like members of a family, who will come together after every quarrel. Not surprisingly, therefore, the early modernists used the string quartet both to explore new tonal regions and also to challenge the repertoire of the romantic concert-hall. The quartets of Debussy and Ravel take us into a new sound world, as do those of Zemlinsky and Schoenberg. But for us English schoolboys in the 1950s and early 1960s it was the quartets of Bartók that hit us most violently in the stomach, as though it were our own guts that were being pulled around by horsehair.
David was no exception. Not only has the string quartet featured in his creative output as a favourite medium; he has used the medium to explore his own art and the possibilities that are open to a composer today. The frame created by the four voices invites tonal treatment; yet the enormous range of intonations available to string players encourages experiment in the realm of colour, timbre and the upper sonorities, both natural and harmonic, of the strings. Moreover, the tradition that began with Mozart and Haydn has consecrated the string quartet as the crucible in which musical sequences, modulations and key relations are tried. In all his quartets, therefore, David has been engaged in an exercise of self-exploration, trying out new forms of tonal thinking, and aiming at the kind of formal continuity and internal cohesion that characterise the classics in the medium. His latest quartet, number 12, is a conscious attempt at late Beethoven, spread over seven movements, each punctuated by adventures into adjacent territory. The quartet contains introductions, cadenzas, two minuets, a serenade, a tango, the whole set in motion by a magnificent prelude and fugue, and carried out with something like Beethoven’s combination of meditative seriousness alternating with bursts of unaffected joy. Every now and then, as though overcome by wonder at its own world, the quartet ascends into Messiaen-like birdsong, the birds themselves named in the score as in Le catalogue des oiseaux, and the four instruments striving to escape from their natural sonorities into the clarified air above music. Over the years it has been one of my great pleasures to discuss music with David, and at a certain period he even gave me some lessons in composition – lessons which made a lasting impact on my way of listening to music, and which saved me from whatever errors I do not make in composing it. I did not need any convincing that tonal order is fundamental to music. But David helped me to appreciate that with a due respect for the bass line, and proper voice-leading in the middle parts, it is possible to colour music with every kind of dissonance and still maintain an intelligible structure. He told me to respect the old rules of harmony and counterpoint, and lessons with him were like lessons with Hans Sachs, constantly reverting to the masters and to the need to respect the tradition even when departing from it.
And that, I think, has been the most important and inspiring feature of David’s own music, and why he has been a model to so many of my generation. As schoolboys we were told by enthusiastic gurus that the symphony is dead, that the string quartet ended with Bartók, that tonality is exhausted, and that tunefulness is middlebrow, philistine and in any case no longer ‘available’. We were also told (whether or not in the venomous tone of Adorno) that popular music is a commercial imitation of music, a kind of candy floss on sale in dubious holiday resorts, the sound of which is repulsive to the educated ear. David stood rock-like amid this tide of prejudice. His musical sensibility had been shaped by the symphony and the string quartet, and he thought and felt within the bounds that they defined. Therefore he would compose symphonies and string quartets, and would work to hear them performed. He enjoyed the pop music that was sounding around us in our youth, and found in the Beatles an example of tunefulness and harmony from which there was everything to learn. In his symphonic works we do not hear much pop; but we are given an unusual wealth of melodic ideas, bound together by cogent harmonic progressions, and set in the grand structures that David had learned from Bruckner and Mahler.
The real problem for the tonal composer in our time is how to respect the principles of tonal organisation without writing music that is either banal or short-winded. And the importance of David, for me and for many others, is that he has faced up to that problem, and set an example that can be followed. True, there is a late romantic, or more accurately post-romantic sensibility expressed in his work, and this makes it very personal in its impact. But the treatment of musical elements – of harmony and melody especially – is rigorous and objective, so that each of his movements tends towards a conclusion that is already implied in the opening material. This feature marks David’s music as a vindication of the tonal tradition, and also establishes a connection with Sibelius, the great composer singled out by Adorno as the despised voice of reaction in a time that needed revolutionary change.
The many rhythms that accumulate in David’s orchestral works can all be fitted, as a rule, into a single metrical frame, from which they derive by division in the traditional way. The listener seldom loses hold of the measured bar-lines; and it is because of this that the simultaneous voices hang together, moved not only by their own melodic lines but also by the harmonic sequences that they collectively form. Hence David’s music, however dissonant, never disintegrates into sound effects and ‘simultaneities’ but always gives the impression of confluent voices, flowing through successive harmonic regions, guided by the chords as clearly as a melody in jazz or a theme in a classical symphony.
David is a master of the orchestra, who has studied all the achievements of the modernists and their immediate predecessors, and who can make use of every instrument to produce exactly the sound that he wants. Nothing has escaped his ear, and in his orchestral writing he draws on a data bank extracted from the entire 20th-century repertoire. Of course, certain effects have a particular appeal for him. He is especially drawn to the use of quiet chords on divisi strings, in which the pitches lock together like the knitted fingers of hands in prayer – an effect used consummately by Elgar in the slow movement of the Second Symphony, and constantly recurring in David’s symphonies, concertos and symphonic poems. (Rehearsal mark 45 of A Vision and a Journey is an instance, with violins divided into twelve, violas into four, cellos into two, and double basses playing a sustained open fifth – foundation to an enchanted tower of thirds and seconds touching Heaven with its Gothic finials. A similar instance occurs in the final pages of the cello concerto In Azzurro.)
David loves the cantabile of unison strings too, especially when they burst through a swarm of flapping woodwind. His harmonies are for the most part adapted from the tonal repertoire, as are his scales. Indeed, there is usually an identifiable tonal centre, and sometimes, as in A Vision and a Journey and the 12th Quartet, a dominant key (in both cases D major/minor, though much of A Vision is in E major). However, rarely does the music bear a key signature, and even when it comes to rest on a firm tonic triad, there is usually a foreign note squeezed in somewhere, as at the end of A Vision, where a C, E and B knock the heart out of the D major triad, or at the end of the Vespers, where a triumphant B major chord, repeated again and again, is unable to rid itself of the C sharp that has somehow got trapped inside. This way of treating tonal harmony is reminiscent of jazz, and also of the ‘thickening’ recommended and pratised by Janáček. As in Janáček thickening, properly introduced, imparts tonal structure, while forbidding the cliché-ridden closures of common practise harmony.
It would be fair to say, nevertheless, that David’s music has become more tonal, not less, as he has matured, the 12th Quartet abounding in unashamedly tonal tunes, harmonised with triads, seventh chords and clear progressions in the bass, and the most lyrical of the melodies often sounding over accompanying figures, as they might in Mozart or Schubert. It would be hard to guess on hearing the two works alone, that this Quartet was written by the same person who wrote the harsh and often grating First Symphony.
Tonality is not a matter of effects, nor even of grammar only. It is primarily a matter of form – a way of developing ideas over a long span of musical argument. Musical ideas, for David, have consequences, and the labour of composing is that of spelling those consequences out. His symphonic writing shows the influence of Bruckner, with long paragraphs held together by continuous lines in the bass. But, like the Baroque masters, he never loses sight of the connection with dance, introducing dance-forms whenever they seem appropriate, and always allowing rhythmical elements to stand out from the flow. This is an aspect to which I return, since it serves to distinguish David’s music from much that is composed today.
During the 1980s I got to know David in two other connections: as a philosophical thinker, and as a public-spirited defender of the oppressed. I was teaching in the University of London – my last full time academic position, which ended in 1990. Although I appreciated the academic life, and the philosophical discussions among colleagues, I felt the need for another kind of intellectual companionship: one in which art, literature and music would have a central place, and which would be neither academic nor political in its focus. I invited a few friends, chosen for their interest in the arts and in the big questions of our contemporary way of life, to meet regularly at my flat for dinner and discussion. Thus was born a circle which has been a great support both to me and to others who have belonged to it. David was an obvious choice, as was Peter Fuller, the erstwhile Marxist critic, tragically killed in a car crash in 1990 (and commemorated in one of David’s most poignant works, the lovely second movement of the 6th String Quartet). Anthony O’Hear and Norman Barry were also invited, together with Juliet Mitchell, the psychoanalyst; later Ian McEwan the novelist joined us and later still the philosopher Sebastian Gardner. Our discussions were wide ranging, and David’s immense culture and learning helped to focus them in a creative way.
It became gradually clear to us, during the course of our meetings, that Four Quartets had left a kind of ‘cognitive pathway’ in our thinking. (It is from Four Quartets that David took the title for his harrowing symphonic poem, In The Dark Time.) All our discussions seemed to lead back to religious ideas: not the idea of God only, but more general, and more anthropologically conceived notions, such as ritual, sanctity, piety and the idea of the holy. Not all of us chose to stray onto this ‘overgrown path’ that lay partly hidden in our consciousness. Norman Barry had little time for religion, being a robust libertarian and an empirically-minded political scientist, and Ian McEwan was inclined to an evolutionary explanation of this, as of so much else in the human condition. But David and Peter were articulate defenders of the kind of ‘intransitive religion’, as Erich Heller once described it, that we find in the late poetry of Rilke, and in much of the English music of our time (notably in VW and BB). And it was just such an intransitive religion that David heard in the music of Janáček, whose ‘overgrown path’ has been such an important influence on both of us.
In the course of our meetings David often articulated a vision of modern life that made room for the sacred and for the idea of redemption, but divested of the metaphysical commitments of traditional religious belief. During the years of our discussions he composed two remarkable religious works: the above mentioned Vespers for choir and orchestra, setting poems by Rilke among others, and articulating in a most moving way the religious feelings of a post-religious person; and The Music of Dawn, a symphonic poem inspired by the mystical painting of that title by Cecil Collins. Collins had been a favorite painter of Peter Fuller, who had spoken about him to our discussion group. In Peter’s view Collins typified the neglected tradition of figurative symbolism in English painting, the tradition that reached through Bomberg, Sutherland, Ivon Hitchens and the London Group, to Miles Richmond and Cecil Collins. This tradition stands to the English soul in painting as composers like David Matthews to the English soul in music. David was drawn to Peter in part because they both rejected the cult of desecration and flippancy that had arisen through the art schools and which led in our time to the moral and aesthetic disaster of ‘Young British Art’. Although neither David nor Peter could be described as believers, they were united in their respect for sacred things, and in their belief that it is the duty of art in our time to rescue the sense of the sacred from the ruins of formal religion. The sustained melodious enchantment of The Music of Dawn conveys some of the intense religious experience that we find in Collins – not an experience that can be contained within the doctrine of any faith, but a kind of wonder at creation, and at the consciousness which makes wonder possible.
David often addressed our little discussion group, and it is pertinent in this connection to recall one of his talks, which he subsequently refashioned as an article, republished in this volume. It concerned the great painting of the flaying of Marsyas by Titian, now in the Archbishop’s palace in Kroměřiž. David raised the question how this painting, of a subject-matter so horrifying that in other contexts it hardly bears thinking about, achieves an atmosphere of such serenity? The flaying, he suggested, is portrayed as a kind of loving act, and the composition is imbued with calm, as though all conflict had been overcome and reconciled. The savagery of Marsyas is being disciplined and tamed, in a ritual sacrifice that is also a purification.
The painting should be seen, David suggested, as a Renaissance alternative to the Crucifixion. Christianity suggests that man is helpless until he puts his trust in God; but Titian is insisting that man can rescue himself by learning from his mistakes. Hence this image has more to say to us, now, than the Crucifixion, even though it is communicating on the same level as a Crucifixion scene, showing the truth of life in the moment of sacrifice. Christianity, David argued, cannot survive in the modern world, since the ideas of atonement and redemption through faith no longer have a place. But here we find the humanist equivalent, and that is why modern people are so powerfully drawn to this picture.
Titian, he said, shows us becoming rather than being – the process of change and the getting of wisdom, a subject that is ignored by contemporary art, which has forgotten that human beings come into the world in order to perfect themselves. In much modern art, and in modern music especially, there is a tendency to reject becoming and to return to a pre-Renaissance idea of being, as something fixed and unredeemable. But in all great post-Renaissance art it is becoming that is emphasized, and being is seen as something to be achieved through becoming. Stasis comes through dunamis, as in Beethoven’s late quartets (and especially that in E flat). The C sharp minor quartet, David added, is the only one that begins in stasis and moves to dunamis. And this same quartet ranks with The Flaying of Marsyas as one of the supreme achievements of our civilisation. Take the two together and you will understand what is lacking in so much contemporary music, namely the dance, that which inhabited the aged fingers of Titian in the same way that it inhabits the voice-led movement of Beethoven’s quartet.
Titian’s painting inspired David to write one of his most original compositions, The Flaying of Marsyas, for oboe and string quartet, in which the contest between pan-pipes and lyre, represented by oboe and violin, is gradually subdued and reconciled, and absorbed into the texture of the string quartet. For all the philosophical reflection that went in to this piece it is by no means an academic or ‘learned’ composition. On the contrary, like all of David’s music, it shows reflection reworked as emotion, and has a spontaneity that is entirely musical. It exemplifies what I think is the most important feature of David’s artistic persona, that he is immediately and totally engaged in whatever is before him, whether it be a painting, a landscape, an idea or a drama.
David’s modest manner and his way of bearing his immense learning lightly and discretely have ensured that he has remained a private and not a public intellectual, easily though he could fill the latter role. His ability – astonishing in the times in which we live – to support himself as a professional composer of serious music, has freed him from any need to brand himself as a celebrity, and his quiet presence in musical gatherings testifies to the serene pleasure that he takes in the success enjoyed by others. His undemonstrative manner is not the sign of timidity, however. At a certain point during the period of our first acquaintance I asked him whether he would be willing to travel to Czechoslovakia (as it then was) in order to talk to a group of musicians and composers in Brno, who had been cut off from contact with their Western colleagues and also, in certain cases, excluded from official recognition and performance on account of their dissident profile. David readily agreed, and was profoundly affected by the experience – in particular by his meeting with Petr Oslzlý, founder and director of the Theatre on a String, a company that existed on the edge of things, neither permitted nor forbidden, but acting as a door into the underground, which would be opened to those who knew the password. David’s seminar to the musicians and others who had assembled to meet him was on the topic of Mahler’s 10th symphony, which he had worked with Deryck Cooke on reconstructing from the sketches. The seminar lasted six hours, and was received with great emotion since, although Mahler was a Moravian composer, son of the inn-keeper in the village of Kaliště, who began his conducting career in Olomouc, his symphonies were rarely performed in the land of his birth, and the 10th had not yet received its premier there.
David returned from Brno resolved to do what he could to help the musicians and composers whom he had met. He at once set about organising exchanges and visits ‘on the edge’, through which to secure the privilege of travel for composers who had been marginalised. He volunteered to take on the task of coordinating the musical side of our slowly growing underground university, and thereafter travelled frequently to visit his Czech colleagues, and to provide them with the resources needed to further their creative activities. It was thanks in part to David’s support, both before and after 1989, that the Brno school of composers has achieved international recognition. In particular, David’s support for Pavel Novák has been crucial, first in encouraging Novák to stick to his calling during the difficult years on the margins, and subsequently in securing commissions outside the country which have led to international recognition not only for him but also for those of the older generation, such as Miloslav Ištvan and Alois Pinoš, and indeed for the entire Brno school, in whose music some of the eager life-force of Janáček still breathes. David also organized visits to Brno by important British composers, including the indefatigable Nigel Osborne, Judith Weir, Anthony Powers, Michael Berkeley and several more. The story is told by Barbara Day in her history of the underground university in Czechoslovakia, The Velvet Philosophers, and it records an exemplary effort by one concerned artist to offer a lifeline to colleagues less fortunate than himself and, in doing so, to experience a new kind and new intensity of inspiration.
David’s experience of communist Czechoslovakia was emotionally intense; but it was not, psychically speaking, a new departure. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of him, both as a person and as an artist, is that he does not have experiences: rather experiences have him. They take possession of him completely, and use him as a vehicle in their search for expression and form. I don’t mean to suggest that there is something demonic about him: on the contrary. He has the capacity both to surrender to experience and also to discipline and humanize it. His music has many dissonant and angry passages; but they never triumph, and are always overcome by a kind of distancing forgiveness. Even in the Chaconne, which marked a transition in David’s style, and which contains some of his most superimposed dissonances, the mesmerizing ground bass imposes an order which subdues the music to its rhythm, so that this work, which begins with hallucinatory shrieks in the upper range of the double basses, introducing startled cries from across the orchestra, settles at the end on a serene rumination on the ground bass theme, with soft strings in their natural register, accompanied by harp and celesta. The effect is clearly reminiscent of the long-drawn out ‘Ewig’ that ends Das Lied von der Erde.
And maybe this is an appropriate point on which to end this tribute too. Mahler’s ‘Ewig’ summarizes the religious feelings of an artist for whom the source of meaning is earth and her beauty, and who finds redemption not in hoping beyond this world, but in being reconciled to leaving it, and leaving it forever. In Mahler’s vision redemption comes through beauty; but the awareness of beauty is not merely an aesthetic thing, existing in fleeting moments of delight. It is a stance of the whole person and informs the whole of life. It has its moral and political expression; and it is best explained, to those who do not know it, as the ability to bless, and to be blessed by, the things of this world. That ability was Mahler’s; and it is David’s too.