The Fourth Movement, the Adagietto of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a tender lyrical piece in F major, scored for strings and harp alone and said to be related to the Rückert song: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" is a heartrending musical farewell to a person just about to depart from this Earth. Luciano Visconti used this piece to very good effect in his masterly interpretation of a Thomas Mann novella in his film of "Death in Venice."
Mahler's music in general and this Adagietto in particular had moved me long before Visconti popularised this movement in his film, but the true poignancy and the quiet sadness of the music never before touched me so deeply as it did on the day of my Mother's funeral.
On that day, on the nineteenth of August this year, in the early morning sunshine, as I stood apprehensively clutching a few pieces of papers and three music cassettes, waiting outside the funerary chapel for the hearse to arrive, bringing Her earthly shell to Her final resting place, this piece of music was echoing hauntingly in my mind.
The sheets of paper in my hand contained the text of my reading I recorded the previous day onto one of the cassettes, whilst the other two cassettes contained the two pieces of music I selected for the service.
One of the compositions was Albinoni's Adagio, whilst the other was Mahler's music. I was standing alone, some distance away from the pitifully small group of eight members of my family and three friends, who joined us to pay their own final homage.
My apprehension originated from an irrational fear that, in some way, my Mother would not approve either my choice of music, or indeed any part of the short service planned for her memory. She and I both shared a fragile, tenuous Jewish heritage, more by birth than by practice. Circumstances way back in the nineteen thirties and forties forced us to deny that heritage in order to try evading the fate awaiting the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Somehow, neither of us could fully recover from that early denial. After the war she remained a secular Jew, whilst I hung on to my Lutheran cover for quite a long while, refusing to practise either of the religions. I suppose we were both, in our different ways, victims and damaged products of that awful cataclysm we survived.
When she passed away, frankly, I had no idea how to go about Her last rite. Somehow I never prepared myself for the inevitable. It is, after all, easier to hedge some unpleasant issues, rather than face them squarely. Of course taking that route ensures that coping with the inevitable consequences, when it finally happens, would be a hundred fold more difficult. I felt that a full Jewish service would be bordering on hypocrisy, whilst no service at all would be an insult to her memory. I settled on a soft option
an option, which is the by-product of a modern age
a do-it-yourself service. It was offered to me as a possibility by the funeral directors, and I grabbed at it with both hands.
As I searched for suitable words to say and as I was finally putting together a text, chiefly borrowed from the Liberal version of the memorial part of the Yom Kippur Service, I began to realise that there was no way that I would ever be able to get a single word out without choking on my tears. Therefore I recorded the reading. It took me over two hours to record a reading of approximately ten minutes duration. I was choking on my words
It was at that point that I decided on the two pieces of music. The service would start with Albinoni's Adagio, when the coffin would be carried in by the pallbearers, this would be followed by a short piece of trumpet solo that one of my grandsons requested to perform for the memory of her great grandma. My daughter would then read two short poems written by her for the occasion and my own taped reading would follow after that.
Mahler's Adagietto would close the service and would be played during the committal.
Hence my apprehension as I stood there in the soft early morning glow, nervously clutching those items, waiting for Her arrival. My Mother never had any great musical talent; in fact she could never sing or hum even an easy piece in tune. Sure, she used to listen to music, even classical and opera, but only to the most popular ones of the genre. Albinoni and especially Mahler would have been completely alien to her ears. Was I going to offend her with my choices? Would she consider the pieces utterly pretentious even for this sad occasion? My mind was full of misgivings about the whole affair.
A man, wearing the sombre uniform worn by all funeral directors walked up to me and asked for the tapes and the order of service. Then the hearse arrived and we were quietly ushered inside the chapel to the soothing melancholy chords and melody of the Adagio. The coffin was carried in by four pallbearers and gently placed on the catafalque. The service commenced and there was no return
It was then that the stark reality hit me.
There was no question any longer in my mind whether my mother would approve or not
This was the moment of truth
The earthly remains of the Mother I knew, hidden inside the simple coffin, with just a colourful spray of flowers on top to decorate the stark plainness of that wooden box, could no longer protest or even comment on the events unfolding. She was dead and that was the end of the road
From then on I had my head down, staring ahead of me on a spot on the carpet and heard nothing and saw nothing until the man, who asked for the tapes before the service begun, gently tapped on my shoulder.
Mahler's Adagietto was reaching a moderate crescendo; it was time for me to step forward and press a green button that would draw the curtain in front of the catafalque.
The service, such as it was, was drawing to a merciless conclusion.
I stood up, stepped forward, pressed the button and whilst the curtain slowly closed and the music dissolved into the last desolate chords, through my tears, I threw an apologetic last glance and a silent farewell kiss towards the coffin and walked out of the chapel.
There was no protest from my Mother, no silent approval or disapproval. Mahler's music may have reduced me to tears
she remained unmoved
© Peter Oszmann