The Ferryman’s Obolus – Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden II:III

“The Ferryman’s Obolus,” the third and concluding sequence of Part 2 of Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden, “The Covenant of the Lost Arias.”

View of Howe Sound, British Columbia, from the Bowen Island-Mainland ferry, 7 October 2010 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

View of Howe Sound, British Columbia, from the Bowen Island-Mainland ferry, 7 October 2010 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The obolus, an ancient coin, in additional to everyday mercantile use (one obol purchased a bowl of a double magnum of wine, and three secured the services of a prostitute), also had a funerary use. It was placed, at burial, in the mouth of the deceased, so that the shade of the dead would be able to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades, for passage across the Acheron or the Styx.

This section is the turning point of the book, and is fundamentally concerned with the inherent purpose of one’s life; as, for example, as described by Aristotle, and many others, including Fray Luis de León and W. Somerset Maugham.

… we ought, so far as possible as in us lies, to put on immortality, and do all that we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us; for even if it is small in bulk, in power and preciousness it far excels all the rest. Indeed it would seem that this is the true self of the individual, since it is the authoritative and better part of him; so it would be an odd thing if a man chose to live someone else’s life instead of his own…. [w]hat is best and most pleasant for any given creature is that which is proper to it. Aristotle, Ethics, X:vii (J.A.K. Thomson and Hugh Tredennick, tr., Penguin Books (1976), pp. 330-331).

Thematic suggestions from Shostakovich, especially from the 5th, 13th, and 14th symphonies are employed in the sequence. Also integrated into the text are the imagery of the ferry, both modern and mythological; and the miracle of the restoration to life, such as that evidenced in the story of Lazarus of Bethany; and, its observe and precursor, the deterioration of life, such as that evidenced in the history of the influence of Rasputin.

The Tristan und Isolde grove on the trail I often took round Killarney Lake on Bowen Island. I had for himself and his family named this grove, and another in Quarry Park, in memory and honour of a dear friend who died that October. 24 August 2010. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The Tristan und Isolde stand of trees on the trail I often took round Killarney Lake on Bowen Island. I had named this stand, and a grove in Quarry Park, in memory and honour of a dear friend who died that October. 24 August 2010. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Shostakovich’s 14th symphony (1969) comprises eleven linked movements, each set to the text of a poem by Lorca (1898-1936), Apollinaire (1880-1918), Küchelberger (1797-1836), or Rilke (1875-1926). Lorca was murdered by the Nationalist militia during the Spanish civil war. Apollinaire died in the Spanish flu pandemic. Küchelberger was a failed assassin of the Tsar’s brother during the Decembrist Uprising and died in imprisonment in Siberia. Rilke died of leukemia at the Valmont Sanatorium, near Montreux, in Switzerland.

Apollinaire’s lines are used in movements three through eight. The seventh, À la Santé, is an untitled poem from Alcools, published in 1901. The English translation is by and copyrighted by Salvador Pila. The recording is from the premiere on 29 September 1969 in Leningrad by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Barshai. The bass soloist is probably Yevgeny Vladimirov.

Avant d’entrer dans ma céllule

Il a fallu me mettre nu

Et quelle voix sinistre ulule

Guillaume qu’es-tu devenu

.

Le Lazare entrant dans la tombe

Au lieu d’en sortir comme il fit

Adieu adieu chantante ronde

O mes années ô jeunes filles

.

Before entering my cell

I had to strip naked.

And what a sinister voice howls

Guillaume, what has become of you?

.

Farewell, farewell, singing round,

oh my bygone years, oh my young girls!

Lazarus entering the tomb

instead of getting out of it, as he did.

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