Today is Gustav Mahler’s birthday. The Mahler was born six years after Sigmund Freud and three years before Edvard Munch. Imagine the Europe in which these men came of age: jangling industrialization; population shifts; explosive creativity; intensifying anti-semitism; railroad mania; “new” women; even the invention of tennis. A period, too, of increasing standardization – of production, of time zones, of gender roles, of nation-states, even of clothing. Unsettling and generative both.

Mahler, Freud, and Munch responded by exploring emotions. Freud invited them to the surface (and changed the world). Munch gave them shape and colour (see the current British Museum exhibit). Mahler turned chaotic emotions into some of the most compelling – and exquisite, indeed soulful – music of the western canon.

Together these men give us ways to think about emotions: acknowledge them, name them, see where they lead. Freud teaches us to develop a complex understanding of ourselves. Munch’s work invites empathy and connects us to each other. Mahler’s music tells us to go inward and assures us that we’ll come out transformed.

What beauty and truth and community and soul expanding knowledge can we learn from Freud, Munch, Mahler – and from our own emotions – today, I wonder.

Annette Atkins