Leap Day: Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and Violeta Urmana under Pierre Boulez, or in full here with Anna Larsson. Below is a recording of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen with Magdalena Kožena and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado


So it’s a leap year, and today is that awkward day that doesn’t fit in anywhere else in the calendar except for once every four years, the year of the Olympics and both local (Taiwanese) and American elections (and other places?). It’s February 29th, so we’re sticking something in here completely unrelated. Also, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this guy… more than six months since the last symphony of his we covered!

As studious and thorough as I feel these long series are, as with my own life, over-attention to scheduling leaves not an inch for impulse, no space for spontaneity, and that’s sad. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to include here and there, and a few pieces I have been holding off on for ages because I don’t know how to introduce them or what series or string of works to include as lead-ins, building up to pieces that I really do love. So for today, we’re taking a small detour.

One of the highlights of these past few years that I’ve spent rummaging around in the drawers and cabinets and shelves of the classical music world is the music of Gustav Mahler. I’ve likely spoken about this before, but my first impression of him was of a long-winded, self-centered, dramatic, mildly crazy Austrian guy who wrote incomprehensibly long, complicated works that no normal person could bear to listen through.

And then I (felt like I) understood him. The fifth, the first, the second, the sixth, in that order, and I was blown away. He’s only got nine (numbered, completed) symphonies, but there’s more to him than that. We’ve done his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellenbut as of yet none of his other Lieder. And it’s not like Mahler the man is some obscure, indie-rock version of classical composers, no. Maybe 70 years ago he was, before (or around the time) Mitropoulos and Bernstein started doing their Mahler things, a time when the world wasn’t ready for or couldn’t really get this guy, but not now.

(As an aside, I’m fascinated with the idea of “the next Mahler,” an as-of-yet undiscovered or perhaps more accurately unjustly neglected genius who is on the brink of having his day. Some say Bruckner still hasn’t gotten his big break, but there are people out there really vying for the symphonies of people like Pettersson and Atterberg, who never really got the attention some feel they deserved, or Myaskovsky, who has strangely sunken into obscurity. Granted, serious music folks [and even some not so serious] know the symphonies of people like Berwald and Joseph Holbrooke, Havergal Brian, Kalevi Aho, or even Alan Hovhaness. Some [many?] would say that they’re obscure or ignored because they deserve to be, but… people likely said that about Mahler. This was a very long aside.)

Like I said, it’s been a very long time since we’ve touched anything of Mahler’s. Sequentially the next symphony is his monumental eighth, but we’ve got lots of smaller things of his yet to do, and today, one of his smaller song cycles. They are (from Wikipedia) as follows:

  1. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!) – 14 June 1901
  2. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) – July 1901
  3. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) – 16 August 1901
  4. Um Mitternacht (At midnight) – Summer 1901
  5. Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) – August 1902

But it’s not really a song cycle in the truest sense. It’s quite small, and each of the songs in this work is rather independent, unified only by the source text as poems of Friedrich Rückert. Mahler would actually use more material from Rückert (in his Kindertotenlieder), but they’re not included in this ‘cycle.’ Also of note is that the order is sometimes changed. Moreover, the songs were originally published almost a decade later under a different name, Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days), with two other Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs added to the mix. Apparently the Rückert-Lieder as a concept of a standalone work might not have been the composer’s, but that’s how they’re most often presented and performed today.

The five songs use ‘the same’ orchestra, but they all have different, smaller orchestrations of the same whole. A quick look at the instrumentation section of the Wikipedia article has a nice little chart I won’t reproduce here. It shows us that only the following instruments appear in all songs:

  • Oboe (Oboe d’amour in Um Mitternacht, to be precise)
  • Clarinet (either Bb or A)
  • Flute
  • Bassoon
  • Horn
  • Harp
  • Violin 1
  • Viola

All of the other instruments appear in only one or a few of the songs, so there’s never a ‘full orchestra’ effect throughout this entire ‘cycle.’ It’s a very chamber-y feel, intimate, sparse, almost hollow, pared down in comparison to much of his other work, but then again, many people say that this is a feature of his later output, an increased clarity and focus. While he always used giant ensembles, even a work like the eighth has its solos and intimate chamber textures, and this is, I think, a hallmark of this little series. Below I am addressing them in the order in which they appear in Boulez’s reading with the Vienna Philharmonic:

  1. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! By far the shortest of the five, it’s rather an outright expression of privacy, intimacy, as the title might suggest. There is a mention of bees creating “their cells” at the beginning of the second stanza, and the beginning of the song sounds like the busy buzzing they might make. The rest of the song is otherwise pleasant, an almost pastoral but slightly nervous presentation.
  2. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft The orchestration is the same as the preceding song, but with celesta. This ‘gentle fragrance’ is certainly apparent in the shimmery, soft beauty of the introduction, aided in its angelic nature by the celesta. Simple, pleasant, “the fragrance of love,” a soft, delicate work, where the horn almost sounds out of place singing along with the vocalist among soft strings and woodwinds, with a moment of shadow toward the end, ending sweetly with flute, harp and celesta.
  3. Liebst du um Schönheit We have here the full compliment strings and all woodwinds except flute. Lots of stuff about love, unrequited, undeserved, or otherwise. “If you love for beauty… for youth… for wealth…” and then ultimately, “for love… love me.” This is one of the more sumptuous orchestral settings, with all the strings, a few calls of horns, and the rich emotion, the true love being called for in this song, is evident in its setting.
  4. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen Orchestration the same as the first song, but with the splendid addition of English horn, who begins this song in an outstandingly beautiful, bittersweet, sorrowful melody, suitable to the title of this song. Our soprano enters ever so delicately, not disturbing the balance that’s been created. Everything is so exposed, and balance must be a challenge. There’s longing, maybe regret, a sense of relinquishing, giving up. Horns begin to mourn with the ensemble, and this, perhaps because of subject matter, its heartfelt, touching content, is perhaps the star of the cycle, for me. There’s also lots of instrumental space in this work, long passages of English horn or string, that make this work feel quite substantial compared to the others. It also seems to trigger a serious change in tone of the five songs, if they are to be considered as one work, and even though the composer might not have intended them to be, there’s still a tendency to think of them that way, as ‘the next part of the story.’
  5. Um Mitternacht If that’s the case, then Um Mitternacht marks the end of our very brief cycle, and might be, quite literally, ‘at midnight,’ the darkest of the five. It’s also the most text-heavy, even though #4 is longer in performance time. Um Mitternacht  mentions suffering and agony and death, subjects that Mahler listeners might be familiar with. This song is the only one in the set with timpani and the full  compliment of brass in the ensemble, and it lends a dark, nocturnal, mournful, almost funereal quality to the song, at some points even grotesque. Quite a change from “the fragrance of love” just a few minutes ago. But there is strangely a sudden burst of triumph, a fanfare, with horn calls, timpani rolls and arpeggios from harp. Could it end on a positive note? It seems possibly so!

But then again, there’s no sense in trying to graft some program or storyline onto the set. It’s not what the composer had intended, and if it were the case, the rearrangement of the order would be detrimental to any narrative effect. In short, they’re songs of love and loss, or… just of life, each just as passionate as the other, but with different expressions.

Violeta Urmana does a fantastic job with the songs, and it seems Boulez’s approach to most music is especially suitable here, giving perfect balance to the thinned out, exposed texture of the ensemble, being present, but never overshadowing Urmana, and singing along with her (as in Ich bin der Welt…) when appropriate. We’ll talk more later about my full thoughts on Boulez’s recently-completed Mahler cycle, but I find this little gem to be a perfect example of the kind of staunch musicality and attention to detail he brings to Mahler’s works.

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