Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oppenheimer - Die Philharmoniker

During our recent visit to Eastern Europe, Diane and I went from one great Imperial architecture example to another. One that was particularly beautiful was in Vienna, where we visited the Belvedere Palace on a sunny summer afternoon. The Belvedere is now being used as an art gallery and it is truly one of the most beautiful palaces of Europe. While the palace was wonderful, there was a surprise neither of us anticipated.

Walking through the galleries without knowing what we would see, I was overwhelmed when I walked into the room where Max Oppenheimer's "Die Philharmoniker" hung against a far wall - the full wall as the painting is a monumental 298 X 432 cm in dimension. Die Philharmoniker is Oppenheimer's life work, although he produced many other pieces. He began the piece in 1926 and finished it in 1952, after shipping it from one studio to another as he sought to escape the persecution of the Nazis in central Europe. Die Philharmoniker includes images of several prominent musicians of the early 20th century, but most important to me, Oppenheimer included Gustav Mahler as the conductor. Although there are several artistic depictions of Mahler, including Rodin's bust, Die Philharmoniker captures the essence of Mahler more than any other. Mahler is at the center of the composition, yet strangely detached from his surroundings. He seems to rise above the orchestra in ways that draw only the best from the musicians but oddly leave him isolated and disconnected from his fellow artists.

Oppenheimer and Mahler were both Jews during very difficult times in Europe and America. Both were tortured and unfulfilled in many ways. And both are drawn together in Oppenheimer's greatest work of art and in a depiction of Mahler at his best - bringing life to music as few conductors have every done before or after his tempestuous years as director of the Vienna Opera Orchestra and Philharmonic.

The day we saw Die Philharmoniker was yet to reach another climactic point when we took the street car to Grinsing, a village on the outskirts of Vienna, to visit Mahler's gravesite at dusk. I was worried that we wouldn't make it before dark because I sensed the coming of dusk; luckily, it was only the result of late summer afternoons beginning early and lingering for several hours, as if summer days were meant for relaxation. We arrived in plenty of time and after searching rows and rows of gravesites we ultimately found both Gustav Mahler and Alma Mahler's gravestones. I don't know what I expected in being at the last resting place of a musician who has given me so much joy throughout my life. Although slightly melancholy, it felt more like the fulfillment of a relationship that, although lost in the moment, can be assumed to last forever. Sometimes I feel that I should have been born in the late 19th century so that I could have had a personal relationship with the artists, musicians, and architects of this time. To be able to study, visit, and appreciate Mahler's profound contribution to art was especially meaningful during this trip and I will never forget it.

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