To be caught off guard is perhaps one of the greatest charms and terrors of reading.
I have been reading a review on the history of the crazy Wittgenstein family, thinking as I read, about the way in which Wittgenstein’s emphasis on what language could not say shaped my thinking so many years ago. When I came on a reviewer in the New Yorker who placed everything in the context of music and wrote this:
‘Pages from the Wittgenstein collection of autographed musical manuscripts flutter through this wonderfully told story. Scores by Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, and Bruckner are stuffed in a potting shed by a quick-thinking servant while an art historian from the Gestapo rummages through Gretl’s house. A Bach cantata, two Mozart piano concertos, a Haydn symphony, and one of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are smuggled to Ludwig in Cambridge, where he places them in a bank safe-deposit box. Gretl’s younger son hides Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” Brahms’s “Handel Variations,” some Beethoven letters, Wagner’s sketches for “Die Walküre,” and more, under a pile of socks in his suitcase, and heads for the Vienna railway station. Music was also, Waugh writes, the only effective way in which the Wittgenstein children could communicate with their shy, nervous, and intensely musical mother.
And music provided consolation and distraction from the tragedies of the family, about which they were mostly required to remain silent.’
How music has been the great hidden leitmotif of my life! Whenever I think of my mother, there is Mahler playing in the next room. Once last year, at a dinner party with friends in the music-loving village of Presteigne, I was asked by my host which Mahler symphony I preferred.
I was unable to answer. The man with me, kind if not charitable (if that makes sense), assumed I had forgotten all about Mahler (or never known the works), and jovially tried to change the subject. I was struck dumb by anguish and an immensity of longing to speak, the impossibility of speaking. I do not ‘enjoy’ Mahler; Mahler afflicts me like too-recent tragedy, like too much beauty all at once; like a mother dying.