Nothing could be more incongruous.
On the one hand you have Eilat, Israel’s southernmost town, a seaside resort and tourism magnet, where the sun always shines and it’s almost invariably warm. Its location provides it with some of the loveliest beaches in the world, with craggy mountains to the east and west, the infinite horizon out to sea and beyond that to the south, and the Negev desert to the north. There are huge numbers of palm trees, which are set off to perfection against the backdrop of the blue sky and the russet-tinged sunsets over the sea.
Over the years since 1948 the town has developed from a tiny desert outpost to a thriving international holiday location, with fabulous hotels, an enticing promenade, exciting sports activities on land and at sea, and endless shopping and eating facilities.
And on the other hand there is Gustav Mahler, tragic figure of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the city where music and all the arts flourished but anti-Semitism was also rife. Things got so bad that Mahler felt obliged to resign his post as musical director of the Vienna State Opera, to which he had given ten intensive years, wearing himself out in the process.
In addition, his final years (he died in 1911) were marked by personal tragedy. His beloved daughter, Maria, died of diphtheria at the age of four. His wife, Alma, had an affair with the brilliant young architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius. And his doctor informed him that he was suffering from a serious heart condition.
Eilat hosts several music festivals annually, and for the last few years the renowned Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, has brought Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky orchestra to Eilat every January. There they provide a three-day music festival that attracts music-lovers from all over Israel as well as an international audience.
Knowing the background to the composition of Mahler’s ninth symphony seems to provide a key to understanding it. It starts with what seems like a heart-rending cry of pain which eventually turns into a touching lullaby, perhaps for his deceased daughter. The second movement, a parody of an Austrian peasant dance, a Landler, seems to be full of ironic mockery. The orchestra is instructed to play in a way that is “clumsy and somewhat crude,” and one can almost hear the peasants stamping their feet in the rhythmic dance as the band plods heavily through the village.
But the end, ah, the end of the symphony, is where Mahler comes into his own. After an Adagio that utilises all the resources of the orchestra to the full, with that peculiarly ‘Mahlerian’ richness of strings, brass, and timpany, the music dies away gradually, coming to an almost imperceptible end, leaving the audience, the musicians, and above all the conductor himself, having run the emotional gamut, drained of the ability to do anything but sit in silence for several minutes.
But of course, when the conductor finally lets his arms drop, the applause bursts out with its usual clamour and shouts of ‘bravo!’
The music has ended, the audience has filed out of the darkened theatre, and suddenly one finds oneself back in the ‘real’ world of bright sunshine where people bustle to and fro in flimsy summer clothes.
The question remains, however, which is more real: Mahler’s dark music or Eilat’s bright sunshine?