The Song of the Earth

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Fallen, but not finished  – productive decay begins here.

Though the poets and writers eulogise about the colours of autumn, in fact this show of arboreal fireworks in the trees and woods is all too soon over. Much of what is left after Bonfire night’s excitement can be a rather damp and dismal affair. With the sombre mood following Remembrance Day, matched with the colder misty mornings and sunless days, the approach of winter is not readily welcomed. Unlike our friends in the USA with their ‘Thanksgiving Day’ celebrations, November in the UK is not a favourite month for many.

However, for the gardener and naturalist there are always signs of hope. Nature works in a beautiful balance – the yearly rhythm of growth and decay in which what is taken out in spring and summer is recycled and put back in autumn and winter as humus ready for the next season’s growth. After a busy year the wise gardener will turn his or her attention to the compost heap, which, hopefully, will now be a sweet smelling, rich, dark friable mix that is a pleasure to handle and to use. – an ecosystem full of humus, plant nutrients, worms and beneficial bacteria.

We have all experienced the alternative when the heap is not well made or is left unturned, or allowed to get too dry or wet. A foul smelling wet mush is the result ! We need to look at the way nature  does the job so perfectly and to learn from her. With her nothing is wasted in the woodland with its resulting rich carpet of leaf mould, the product of many seasons’ growth and decay.

GUSTAV MAHLER

One composer who responded to autumn was Gustav Mahler. A German Jew by birth, like so many other composers he was drawn to that mecca of music and musicians, Vienna. There surrounded by the beauty of the Tyrolean Alps his music was deeply influenced by nature and the four seasons. Some of it is not easy to listen to, but requires much concentration and effort as the music ‘shapes and re-shapes itself, advances and recedes like the waters of a great sea’, as one music critic writes.

Notes accompanying the movements of his great Third Symphony illustrate the influence of the natural world on the composer’s mind.. There we read: ‘Summer marches in’, ‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, ‘What the flowers in the meadow tell me’.

Mahler’s Second Symphony,  the ‘Resurrection’, is on the theme of the search for the meaning of life and the answer to death. His final work Das Lied von der Erde , ‘The Song of the Earth’ takes up the same theme.  Following a time of bereavement, and the diagnosis of serious illness himself, he read a recently published translation of some ancient Chinese poems. He was very taken by the vision of earthly beauty and transience expressed in these verses and chose seven of the poems to set to music as Das Lied von der Erde.  It depicts the inevitable approach of autumn and winter with some foreboding and leads on to the thought of death, and the search for hope for the future.

This reminds me  of William Wordsworth’s wistful, searching Ode, ‘Intimations of Immortality’ where he, too, is tentatively longing for an answer to life’s ’ultimate question’ – what hope lies ahead after death?

Thankfully there is a convincing answer—the Christian one. Only in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead is there lasting hope – the sure and certain hope for believers of sharing in everlasting life with the Risen, Ever-living Christ.                                 

Of course there remains a tension within the natural world as it struggles with death and decay. But eventually, as the Bible says, in Christ, even ‘The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God’.        (The New Testament Letter to the Romans, chapter 8 verses 18-23)

What a glorious hope !

 ‘…...Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
         Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
                      Where they together
                      All the hard weather,
         Dead to the world, keep house unknown...

.These are thy wonders, Lord of love,

To make us see we are but flowers that glide;
         Which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us where to bide;
                      Who would be more,
                      Swelling through store,
         Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.’

From the beautiful poem, ‘The Flower’ by George Herbert.   S.T. Coleridge called this ‘a delicious poem’.

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