The last movement of the symphony began with a sweeping crescendo, and a roar of timpani and cymbals and trombones. The turbulent cacophony was Gustav Mahler’s “cry of despair”—Bill Shepler knew this, because he had read the program notes. He’d listened to recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony, but this was the first time he’d heard it performed live.
He glanced at Marie, whose program book lay open on her lap. She had never understood the complex music he loved; yet she’d surprised him with tickets for this concert, though she had known it would be 80 minutes without an intermission. Perhaps she didn't appreciate post-Romantic music, but she had sensed what he needed—now, at this moment—and he was profoundly grateful.
Four weeks ago, John had come into his office and said soberly,
“We need to talk.”
And Bill, who could read both his supervisor’s face and the company balance sheet, had known what he was going to stay.
Even so, Bill had protested numbly,
“Thirty years, John...”
“I know, believe me, it hurts,” John had said, and Bill had been certain he meant it.
He couldn’t complain—not when he had gotten his full pension and a comprehensive severance package. Marie had a good job with the school district administration, and their dual careers had precluded children. Financially, they’d be okay.
But last Friday—packing up plaques, pictures, and golfing trophies, turning out the light, shutting the door—it had felt like he was burying a vital part of himself. He was 56—far too young to die, or even to retire.
The clear voice of a trumpet called him back to his theater seat, weaving the sublime into the mundane recollection of his last week at work. There had been little of the sublime in his life the past three decades—he admitted that (even as the brass and strings almost swelled into grandeur, then died away, as if not quite ready to soar).
In college he’d had a vague dream of singing opera, before practical-minded advisors had steered him into a business major. He’d never regretted that decision, even as he found less and less time for music. He’d sung tenor in the church choir for a while, before his promotions, and before praise bands had taken over the worship hour.
So he’d concentrated on work.
The music had thundered and raged, weaving earlier themes with new ones. Now it faded into near-silence, as if it waited for something. Then a trumpet fanfare sounded, far away, perhaps high up in the galleries at the top of the concert hall. A flute answered each trumpet call with a delicate trill of a melody, which melted seamlessly into a whispered, hymn-like song:
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n...
Bill had hardly noticed the chorus, hidden behind the augmented orchestra; perhaps they had stood up during that last great tumult of sound before the trumpet fanfare. The large ensemble articulated each word with hushed intensity. Bill glanced again at Marie’s program book, which she had opened to a translation of the text.
Aufersteh’n... Rise again...
It was a hymn to the hope of resurrection, of rebirth. Mahler’s music cradled and illuminated the German poetry—first with caressing strings and breathless anticipation, then with bright-toned brass and soaring hope:
Was vergangen, auferstehen... What has died must rise again..
Bereite dich zu leben! Prepare yourself to live!
The finale swelled into a monumental sound, a union of soloists, chorus and orchestra all striving for something beyond the temporal:
Aufersteh’n, ja Aufersteh’n...
And then it was over. The applause began before the reverberation ended, and the performers on stage became mortal again. The choristers looked like college kids, grandparents and office workers—too ordinary to have sung something so sublime.
When the conductor came back for a curtain call with the chorus director, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation. Bill exchanged a quick, eloquent smile with Marie as they stood up.
She understood it, too, he thought intuitively.
But she understood more than that—he knew it when she handed her program book to him. It was open to the chorus roster, and Bill saw the box at the bottom of the page with the caption: “Want to Join the Philharmonic Chorus? Auditions are held each August...”
Bill reached out and touched his wife’s hand lightly, eloquently.
Bereite dich zu leben.
Prepare... to live.
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