Gustav Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer

After spending the summer of 1975 working in a lamp factory, I was very happy to return to the French House. A few new people moved into the dorm, but most of the artsy-campy people who gravitated to Mark Z**’s room returned, and that provided a ready-made social network that I could just step right into.

During the summer, I had met up with Thom Klem, who belonged to Mark’s coterie, and who happened to live fairly near me in South Bend, Indiana. When we returned to Indiana University, we started spending more and more time together, and he eventually became my best friend. There were several reasons for this. First, Thom was a voracious reader, and he especially like contemporary French writers. Since I was majoring in French, he and I had a lot to talk about and he introduced me to the works of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and existential philosophy. Second, Thom and I had both come from Catholic families, and each of us had fallen away from the faith. Still, Catholicism had instilled enough guilt and moral sense in us that we became obsessed with finding a moral and ethical system that would show us the right way to behave while at the same time being free from religious dogma. Existentialism fulfilled part of that role. Third, since Thom was a Chinese major, he introduced me to a number of concepts from Eastern philosophy–Buddhism and Taoism–and these resonated with me as well. Finally, we both loved to cook, and Thom was a was a gourmet and gourmand. He approached cooking in a methodical and scholarly way.

Thom had had lived in France and Taiwan, so he tended to focus on recreating dishes from those cuisines, but really he would try anything that struck his fancy. One of the first times I saw him after we got back to college, he told me he was reading Boswell’s The life of Samuel Johnson. A few weeks later he announced that he was going to start making a Christmas plum pudding. “But it’s not Christmas,” I said. Then he told me that it took so long to make that even though it was September it might not be done. There was a challenge for him. What astounded me more is that the recipe he used came from Larousse Gastronomique the big blue bible of French cooking. He had found an edition in English, which of course was geared for British cooks and therefore contained some recipes from the United Kingdom. He spent the next few days assembling the ingredients–a pound of suet; 5 ½ cups breadcrumbs; 2 ½ cups of flour; ¾ cups Malaga raisins; 1 ¼ cups of currents; 1 cup sultana raisins; ¼ pound candied citron; ¼ pound candied orange peel; ½ cap stoned prunes; 2 cups peeled and grated cooking apples; 1 cup blanched, chopped almonds; 1 ½ cup brown sugar; the grated rind and juice of one orange and one lemon; 4 whole eggs; 3 tablespoons of mixed spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger; 4 cups of rum; and 1 2/3 teaspoons of salt. After assembling all this into a chthonic mass, he added ¼ of the rum. From then on, he had to stir it every few days and add another 4 teaspoons of rum.

Another time, Thom became obsessed with having a glass of warm milk with a dash of vanilla before going to bed. He read up on vanilla and discovered that it was an extract of the fermented seed from a South American orchid. On another occasion, he decided he liked red vermouth. He systematically started buying and sampling different brands, before settling on the one he wanted. Thom liked the fact that I shared his enthusiasm for different tastes. Since he came from a fairly affluent family, he could afford to indulge himself so I benefited by receiving a culinary education at a cut rate.

It may sound a bit odd, but knowing Thom and our fascination with food brought together a lot of different elements that formed the way I think. I mentioned our quest for finding a personal ethic and Buddhism and existentialism. Buddhism and Taoism focus on finding the right way of living that is in harmony with nature, they make you concentrate on the “here and now.” Nowadays the term used is “mindfulness” and it means being aware and open to the spiritual and sacred in the present tense and in every day acts. You can spend years working to become a master of cooking–studying smells, tastes, vegetables, nutrition, techniques, implements–so that when you cook, it becomes a meditative act in which you bring together all the years of discipline to take the ingredients at hand and create a satisfying and nutritious meal that feeds the body and soul.

Partaking of food to me therefore has become a sacrament. And when I prepare it for others, to me it becomes an act of love and devotion. Call me weird if you wish.

Thom was not as obsessed with Western classical music as I was, but he appreciated it just the same. His passion in music ran to what back then was the precursor to today’s “World Music.” He bought recordings of flamenco music, Arabic music, French chansons, Balinesian Gamelan, Chinese opera and anything else he could find. Looking back, I think it was he who first told me about Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” How fitting.

The “Songs of the Wayfarer” cycle contain four poems Mahler which Mahler wrote.  They are scored for baritone voice and full orchestra, though they are also sometimes sung by women.  Mahler wrote them after an failed romance with a soprano when he was a conductor in Kassel, Germany in the 1880s.   They deal with a man coming to terms with the loss of his beloved to another man.  It’s full of Romantic emotions, the kind I myself felt in the French house, trying to work out who I was, finding a soul mate, and wanting to become an artist.  The four songs resemble the stages Kubler-Ross wrote about a century later, going from anger and despair to acceptance.

The second poem,”Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld” means “I went this morning over the field.”  It is a happy melody and matches the sentiments of the poem, in which the singer extols the wonders of nature as he walks through a field on a morning noticing the dew on the grass and the songs of birds.  The melody comes out of Mahler’s First Symphony and is so upbeat and refreshing.  Although at the end, the narrator realizes he will no longer be able to bloom with his love gone.

I don’t remember whether Klem and I ever listened to Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer but it is another piece that I first heard at the French House. It seems fitting to use it to remember Thom, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. If anyone way a wayfarer–discovering the wonder of nature and the cultural contributions of mankind–it was Thom.

Buy Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer; Kindertotenlieder; Rückert-Lieder

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