ON January 22, the United Nations ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: they are now illegal, globally. So what? We all know that we live in a world of “realpolitik”: power rules. How can we understand the threat posed here? Alan Riach argues that we can do so most deeply by bringing together two of the greatest artists of the last 200 years, Gustav Mahler and Sorley MacLean.

When Gustav Mahler composed his cycle of songs, “Das Lied von der Erde” (1908-09), he ended the sequence with “Das Abschied” – “The Farewell” – a long, beautiful song where the voice takes leave of the world. Death is approaching, but beauty is perennial.

I have a personal recollection of this, one of those things that simply happen at moments of particular intensity. When my grandmother was dying, I drove into town to buy something that was needed in the household and on my way, turned on the car radio. It was the end of that last movement, the voice fading away on “Ewig … Ewig …” or “Forever … Forever …”

Sometimes art attaches to your life like that, unpredicted.

For Mahler (1860-1911), this song cycle was intrinsically a symphony, bringing the total number of his completed symphonies to 10, thereby slipping past the legendary curse that imposed a limit of nine, Beethoven being the paradigm. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony itself, purely orchestral and singularly intense, emotionally taxing and desperately moving, was described by the great conductor, composer and Mahler champion, Leonard Bernstein, as Mahler’s ultimate testament of farewell.

For Bernstein, in his Harvard lectures of 1973, “The Unanswered Question” (you can watch them on YouTube), Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1909-10) was a delivery of unwelcome prophetic news about three kinds of death, and the world did not want to hear it. This was why Mahler was neglected for more than 50 years, until the Mahler revival. But what were these three kinds of death?

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First, his own: “the opening bars of the Ninth Symphony are an imitation of the arrhythmia of his own failing heartbeat”; second, the death of tonality, which for the composer meant the death of music itself; and third, the death of society, what Bernstein calls “our Faustian culture”.

However, in the sketches that were recovered and developed posthumously by Deryck Cooke into Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (1910), there is a haunting sense that, even though death is approaching, something else will supervene.

The end of the fourth movement, a crazy, demented scherzo, fades away into silence and then there is a single, stupendous drum beat. End of everything! It’s the last pulse of the heart, climactic, exclaimed, and the absolute silence of death is all that can follow. That silence looms, settles, pervades and occupies the space after that beat. The attention is transfixed.

Then the strings in infinitely quiet certainty begin again, as the fifth and final movement begins, only to be stunned again by the same, explosive drum beat.

And following this, there is another slow recuperation as the strings start to rise again, in a steady confirmation of love. They make their attempt at affirmation unobtrusively: the horns quietly gather strength and give encouragement, but the heavy drumbeat sounds out five times more before an incredibly tender solo flute, the slenderest thread of pure light, a sound of patience, commitment and faith, slowly weaves its way into the world, and harp, strings, and ultimately the whole orchestra begins to rise again, cautiously, tentatively but with growing conviction. It is as if the heart has begun working once again.

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This last movement is another variation on the subject of “farewell”. There is no evasion or retreat from the acknowledgement of the singular mortality of the composer and the heavy drumbeat comes again in this movement, more than once.

The centre of the movement is an immensely discordant repeated chord that threatens to ruin everything. But something arises from it and supersedes it. This movement is, more than anything that has gone before, profoundly, hopefully, trusting. It is trusting to the continuing beauty and love that the earth and humanity inhabits and extends, beyond any single life.

When he wrote this, Mahler was self-conscious of his own mortality and how little time he had left. He had been diagnosed with imminent heart failure and knew his own end was coming. He wrote with a sense that the beauty of the world was something that would be there after he had gone.

Yet this assurance is no longer available to us.

Since then, the development of nuclear weaponry and power has introduced to the world an incalculable legacy for future generations, the poison it leaves in the earth. Whether by intention or by accident, the possibility is with us now of a far greater destruction of nature and the natural world than Mahler could have imagined.

And Sorley MacLean understood this. In his poem “Hallaig” from the 1950s, MacLean (1911-96) describes the ruins of the township on the island of Raasay, near Skye, where he was born and grew up and lived as a boy.

Hallaig is in ruins but he recollects its beauty and memorable, haunting presence in the poem, and at the end he tells us that as long as the poem lives and has its effect, the memory of what was once there, living in Hallaig, the people and families themselves, will also remain alive. Their loss will measure the value of whatever remains in the world we inhabit.

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Forty years later, though, in another poem, “Screapadal”, MacLean describes another location and confronts the presence of nuclear weapons on the submarines that patrol the waters nearby.

MacLean refers to the owner of Raasay, Rainy, who became personally involved in the evictions in the north of the island. He had bought Raasay and other islands for £27,000 in 1846, using compensation money he got after the abolition of slavery as he had been a slave owner in Guyana. The historical reference underpins the actuality of what MacLean is emphasising here. Rainy, he says, left Screapadal beautiful, even after it was cleared of its people. But it is not possible to be confident about such beauty being present in perpetuity any longer.

And it goes further. Beyond the nuclear condition, we need to see clearly the imposition – again, humanly-created – of climate crisis, environment collapse, ecological disaster, threats that extend in the 2020s much further than even Sorley MacLean could have imagined.

It seems that a succession of our great artists, poets and composers, generation after generation, have foreseen and prophesied: bad weather ahead, only to be superseded by further approaching catastrophes.

An extract from 'Screapadal' by Somhairle MacGill-Eain/SorleyMacLean

Dh’ fhàg Rhèanaidh Screapadal gun daoine

Gun taighean, gun chriodh ach caorach,

Ach dh’ fhàg e Screapadal bòidheach;

R’ a linn cha b’ urrain dha a chaochladh.

Thogadh ròn a cheann

Agus cearban a sheòl,

Ach an diugh annsan linnidh

Togaidh long-fo-thuinn a turraid

Agus a druim dhubh shliom

A’ maoideadh an nì a dheanadh

Smùr de choille, de lianagan ’s de chreagan,

A dh’ fhàgadh Screapadal gun bhòdhche

Mar a dh’ fhàgadh e gun daoine.

And if the Gaelic is impenetrable to you, pause, for a moment, before you read MacLean’s English translation, and think of the cultural genocide that has removed that language from the familiar knowledge of so many people, over generations, to whom it should have been a birthright. And who has been to blame.

Rainy left Screapadal without people,

with no houses or cattle, only sheep,

but he left Screapadal beautiful;

in his time he could do nothing else.

A seal would lift its head

and a basking-shark its sail,

but today in the sea-sound

a submarine lifts its black turret

and its black sleek back

threatening the thing that would make

dross of wood, of meadows and of rocks

that would leave Screapadal without beauty

just as it was left without people.