Music You Can Understand: Part 4
(I use this title not condescendingly, but to suggest that the featured piece is not one obscured by highbrow classical ideas or too difficult to grasp. It is easy to understand and enjoy.)
performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, Thomas Hampson, baritone
After quite a hefty series of five piano concertos in commemoration of the first anniversary of FFT, it’s time to change it up, and we’ll be doing a long string of increasingly heavy symphonies that also all have a storyline to them, sort of. Well, perhaps less an actual storyline than some unifying ideas, at least in my head.
Before we get to that, though, I’d like to take a two-week interlude. Articles for this week and next week will be two quite disparate pieces that kind of have a mental association for me. They couldn’t be more different, but they are linked in their opposite nature.
Today’s is a fantastic piece for a number of reasons…. It serves a few purposes as I’ve been thinking about it. To state the obvious, it’s just damn good music.
For one, it has lyrics, which makes it immediately more accessible, less so I suppose if you have to look at a translation of said lyrics.
Two, it’s a really nice primer (I think) into Mahler’s music. It’s one of his earliest works, and there’s a lot to learn from it about who he is and where he goes as he progresses. Or maybe more where he comes from.
Three, I feel it’s super relatable. It’s like… breakup music.
It also begs a few questions about the human experience, at least to me.
We’ll talk about all of these in more detail shortly. Let’s talk a bit about the history of the piece first.
This piece is a song cycle, albeit a short one of only four songs (actual songs; it’s correct to use that term here). The cycle’s compositional history is blurry, but it seems it was started in December of 1884 and potentially first performed in March of 1896, but published in 1897. It is marked for low voice, but the majority of the recordings I have run across are female voices. They, too, are beautiful, but for reasons I’ll discuss presently, I prefer a male performer.
The name of the piece itself deserves some attention. The piece is known in English as Songs of a Wayfarer, but as has been pointed out before, the German ‘Geselle” isn’t Wayfarer (or wanderer
, as in Schubert’s case), but rather a ‘journeyman,’ someone who’s completed formal training as an apprentice and travels from town to town gaining experience from other craftsmen. This idea, in itself, I find to be very romantic, not in the lovey-dovey way, but the textbook fairytale knight-in-shining-armor, adventurous kind of way. Also, it is quite appropriate to think of Mahler himself in this way at the time this piece was composed, as he himself traveled among towns (Vienna included) gaining experience in his field. The piece was also written after some kind of encounter or infatuation with Johanna Richter, a soprano whom he met while he was conducting in Kassel. So the wayfarer here is not only NOT a wandering, homeless vagrant, but a skilled craftsman, a talented young man with life and aspirations and hopes and potential ahead of him. It is the composer himself, and it is anyone who has been in those shoes on that road. But, as we shall learn, life isn’t always puppies and butterflies, and life gets complicated.
Mahler composed the lyrics himself, but they show inspiration from his beloved Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The songs are as listed below:
1. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (“When my sweetheart is married”)
2. Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (“I went this morning over the field”)
3. Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (“I have a gleaming knife”)
4. Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (“The two blue eyes of my beloved”)
That third title is especially shocking, but this short progression of four songs shows a clear sort of train of thought, a process, one that probably anyone who’s been through a breakup could identify with.
The first song is one of grief and sadness. It feels like we’re opening in the middle of things; there’s no introduction or anything, it’s clarinet and voice. It is noticeably almost instantly very lyrical. It’s beautiful and painful. I won’t include ALL the lyrics but here’s the first verse of the piece:
Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht,Fröhliche Hochzeit macht,Hab’ ich meinen traurigen Tag!Geh’ ich in mein Kämmerlein,Dunkles Kämmerlein,Weine, wein’ um meinen Schatz,Um meinen lieben Schatz!
There seems to be a moment about halfway through where we get a break with the line “Ach, wie ist die Welt so schön!”, but this seems to be more out of disappointment, even resentment, than appreciation or delight, and after a few chirps (“Ziküth, Ziküth!), we are back to the sadness of the opening. It is as if beauty and nature itself is getting in the way of his mourning. But not for long.
The second song is truly wonderful, gorgeous and happy, remarking on the beauty of nature, almost as a brief repose, a break from the sorrow, putting the stark beauty of nature and simple things into even greater relief. The repetition of “schöne Welt!” here is genuine, in contrast with the first movement. Even the orchestration is light an delicate: high strings, flute, triangle, an almost ethereal pastoral nature. This is the first of multiple sections you may recognize if you’re familiar with the first symphony. If you’re not, I hope you like this. It gets used wonderfully later. It’s fascinating to see how this subject matter, something that works so well with the human voice, is woven right into the symphony. It’s a beautiful, delicate, springtime good morning kind of piece, and if you love it, check out the first movement of the first symphony.
The third however, is tragic and heart-wrenching, even violent…Orchestration and all. It has almost a swashbuckling kind of rhythm, and it’s big and almost lumbering, the exact opposite of the prior movement. We are back to despair and pain, but this time to a new level of agony. Wikipedia says “He obsesses to the point where everything in the environment reminds him of some aspect of his love, and he wishes he actually had the knife. The music is intense and driving, fitting to the agonized nature of the Wayfarer’s obsession.” Haven’t we all been there? I like the explanation of the obsession. This music is driving and persistent, almost nerve racking; our journeyman can’t get away from it and it’s driving him crazy.
The fourth and final song is a resolution, an acceptance of reality and both the good and bad that the experience has brought. It too, is movingly lyrical, heartbreaking, yearning, painful, but more mature-sounding than the rest. Has our journeyman grown up? The melodies here, again, you’ll notice from the third movement of the first symphony, but the context is entirely different. This material leads into a interlude of true, simple beauty, and it is this theme that shows up more significantly in the funeral march of the third movement. It’s almost of the same pastoral nature as the second song here (the opening of the first movement of the symphony), delicate and peaceful, again with flute and high strings. The third song was the shortest, and this is the longest. It has these two contrasting elements, as did the opening song, if not as completely as here. The piece doesn’t end on such a happy note though. We return to the opening subject matter, and our journeyman stops singing; his final verse below:
Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum,Da hab’ ich zum ersten Malim Schlaf geruht!Unter dem Lindenbaum,Der hat seine Blütenüber mich geschneit,Da wußt’ ich nicht, wie das Leben tut,War alles, alles wieder gut!Alles! Alles, Lieb und LeidUnd Welt und Traum!
“Everything was better”…. he wishes that none of it had happened, that he could go back to life as it was before. This is the conundrum… our journeyman went out with the purpose of gaining (work) experience and growing, and gain experience he did, but with the good comes the bad. Would you choose to go back to your old self and avoid whatever pain and sorrow and/or bad decisions you’d made, knowing also that all the wisdom and experience gained from those would also be gone? Could you part with that?
The piece ends with our familiar flute echoing out its last few calls, as if waiting for a response, and in this simple way, the piece ends in perfectly tragic yearning and despair.
I feel like…. If only because of its four songs, this cycle could be like, the smallest Mahler symphony ever. A miniature. At twenty-something minutes, it’s shorter than many of his individual movements in his actual symphonies. Of course, if he’d wanted it to seem like a symphony, he could certainly have made that clear, but for anyone not yet able or willing to sit through and ‘learn’ a 60-80 minute Mahler symphony, this is a wonderful place to start.
This is going to get quite personal, maybe. I also find it interesting that the last Lied (well, the only other one) also kind of dealt with a similar theme. The first song opens with loss, and that’s something everyone has dealt with at some point. How long it takes them to get to the point where they think life goes on or they need a break from the grief and the world is beautiful for a while is different for every person, but there always seems to be that phase, denial or not.
It can then be contrasted starkly with periods or phases of resentment and kind of active antagonism, hatred of the world, cynicism, bitterness, and it can be especially bad when the person doesn’t even realize it.
The healthiest phase, and the one which some never reach, is acceptance, closure, and peace, to some degree or other. And that’s where the questions come in
IS IT REALLY better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? IS experience the best teacher? To those questions, I am respectively inclined to and strongly say no.
Having spent the past nearly six years of my life abroad, and learned much from many of the excellent and awful experiences to go with it, the idea of the “wayfarer” is interesting to me, and in some ways, I can appreciate the yearning to go back to “the way things were before.” The struggle is this: while you may hate the sorrow and strife that those bad experiences have caused, they make you who you are today, for better or for worse, and if you can weed through them, filter through and find all the good experiences or the good lessons from the bad experiences, while letting go of the bitterness, cynicism, regret, resentment, sorrow, and all the rest, then you can find balance and worth from it all. If not, it can be poison. The traveler here has a journey not just physically, but emotionally. It seems appropriate that we enter the story in medias res. It doesn’t really matter what happened to get him here. We can gather enough information from his sorrow to understand his plight, and in another way, to apply the expressions to our own grievances. So while this music is perhaps deeply personal, the emotions are also incredibly universal. It begs questions that anyone with a similar experience has asked and may never fully answer.