Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

performed by Violeta Urmana, Michael Schade and the Vienna Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez

With one stroke, I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn.

If you believe in fate, there are some things here to be aware of. Remember back in Mahler’s sixth symphony, the concern that the composer had tested fate, with the three hammer blows of the finale, and the overall tragische ending to the monstrous work? Well, as discussed, in 1907, those tragedies did befall him, but it took until after the composition of the seventh and eighth symphonies for it to happen. Both the seventh and eighth symphonies had been (at least mostly) completed by the time the summer of 1907 rolled around, bringing those three hammer blows of fate that so many people say Mahler foresaw in his sixth symphony.

For one, the ever-present anti-semitism in Europe, fueled by the political climate, means that Mahler resigns from his post as the director of the Vienna Court Opera, a post he’d held for something like a decade.

Mahler’s oldest daughter Maria dies of scarlet fever and diphtheria on July 12 of the same year, and before the man has any time to grieve, he is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, and by the end of the summer, he’d left his composing hut at Maiernigg, where he’d written four of his symphonies (5-8), never again to return.

The next bit of fate is the infamous Curse of the Ninth, about which we have spoken previously. Wikipedia says that Mahler was acutely aware of “a superstition arising from the fact that no major composer since Beethoven had successfully completed more than nine symphonies.” Perhaps not entirely believing in any curse, but also a practical man likely unwilling to test whatever luck he may have had left, he avoided numbering what would have been his own ninth symphony, instead giving it the subtitle A Symphony for Tenor, Alto, and Large Orchestra, today’s work.

A year after Mahler’s life seemed to have fallen apart, there was published a volume of ancient Chinese poetry translated, or as Wiki says “rendered”, into German, called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), and Mahler was very intrigued by this text. The ‘translator’ Hans Bethge, apparently didn’t speak Chinese, and didn’t do any of the actual translation himself, as I seem to recall reading. Wiki mentions the poetry’s “reliance on previous translators,” but it didn’t prevent his enormous success in producing effective, moving text from whatever sources he had. Of the poems in Die chinesische Flöte, Mahler chose seven as the text he would use in his next work

(The poetry comes from a number of sources, including Li Bai,  Qian Qi, and more, including some lines by the composer. A more complete list of original poets and translators can be found in this section of the Wikipedia article.)

As discussed in the articles revisiting some of the composer’s earlier symphonies this week, Mahler had always had an affinity for song, even apparent in his first symphony, where he doesn’t use a voice outright, but features the melody from a previously-composed song in a symphonic setting. The second, third and fourth symphonies use soloists and/or choruses to dramatic effect for specific, crucial parts of the symphonies in or towards the finales of those works.

With Mahler’s eighth symphony, really a (gigantic) cantata, the integration of solo, chorus and orchestra reached a more complete form, with a work in two huge parts, but the result is an incredible, overwhelming work of beauty. And so how does one top that? What comes next? A “song-symphony”.

We’ve discussed some of Mahler’s song cycles in the past, like his Kindertotenlieder and others, but they were essentially settings of text for voice and orchestra rather than voice and piano. None of those had been for more than one vocalist, and none had really approached a symphonic form. Here, Mahler reaches yet another pinnacle of vocal writing, hybridizing these two forms into one really never-before-achieved construction, his Das Lied von der Erde. I’d argue that rather than one-upping the eighth, with its massive scale in two huge parts, Das Lied is rather a contrast of sorts, but we’ll talk about that at the end of the article, so please do hang around.

The work is in six movements, with the final song, depending on the recording, nearly equaling or maybe exceeding the length of the previous five. They are as follows:

  1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde
  2. Der Einsame im Herbst
  3. Von der Jugend
  4. Von der Schönheit
  5. Der Trunkene im Frühling
  6. Der Abschied

In keeping with his previous symphonic works, the piece is scored for a very large orchestra, but like the eighth symphony, and perhaps even more extremely than in that work, the whole orchestra is used together on very few occasions. In fact, it’s only in the first, fourth, and sixth songs that the entire orchestra plays together, and only at certain points. The rest of the work is dominated by much more transparent textures, even reaching the intimacy and scale of chamber work, but with vastly different colors and textures from the large palette of timbres Mahler has at his disposal. In fact, a number of instruments are used in only one movement.

In fact, in speaking of orchestration, there’s another thing that we should mention. This work of Mahler’s is the first for which the premiere would be posthumous. It was first performed under the baton of Bruno Walter on 20 November, 1911, almost six months to the day after Mahler had died. I mention this here because Mahler would continually revise his orchestration as the piece was rehearsed and performed; as mentioned earlier in the week, at the time of his death, he still intended to return to the fifth symphony for some never-realized revisions. The point here is that Mahler was unable to make any such revisions to this work (which Wiki mentions were rarely ever to the actual musical content, but to how it was presented by the orchestra), as the composer tragically never heard the work performed.

1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

(The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery)

For a work of such chamber-sized sound and delicate texture, it sure begins with a bang. Horns call out a commanding presence with a theme that will stay with us for most of the first song. The rest of the orchestra shimmers behind them and the tenor quickly appears to sing his ‘drinking song.’ This isn’t a ditty full of cheerful tidings and merriment, at least not completely so. Apparently in keeping with the poet’s style, it “mixes drunken exaltation with a deep sadness.” A regularly appearing phrase in this first song is “Dark is life, is death,” transposing a half-step higher with each recurrence. The tenor is soaring at the highest end of his range at times, and has to stand up against the forces of the full orchestra, producing a strained sound suitable for the subject matter. It would be easy to think, had the composer not already died, that this was him at the height of his powers, a culmination of what his career represented: incredibly rich, moving symphonic music, that audiences had come to hear from eight previous symphonies, but this time orbiting tightly around the vocalists, in the true form of a song cycle, a synthesis, consolidation of what he stands for, and the work is off to a powerful start.

2. Der Einsame im Herbst

(The Lonely One in Autumn)

The second song, now presented by the alto, is much softer, marked ‘somewhat dragging and exhausted,’ but maintains the theme of death, speaking of wilted flowers, a tired heart, need of refreshment and bitter tears. It opens with undulating strings and an oboe line, a perfect, melancholy, fluid basis on which to build the subject of this song. It’s more outright melancholy, intimate, pensive, and is thereby a strong contrast to the first song, giving us a glimpse of the breadth of topics and emotions we’re going to experience in this work as it unfolds. It gives us tender moments of oboe or violin solos with the vocalists, but also rich, poignant orchestral swells. I again find myself uneager to describe this music in any detail. You just must listen.

These first two songs are the longest of the five that precede the sprawling final song, and feel like the foundation on which the rest of the music, before the finale, is built.

3. Von der Jugend

(Of Youth)

The tenor returns with a song of youth. The imagery here, a pavilion of green and white porcelain, the back of a tiger, a jade bridge, silken garments, the reflection of the scene on the surface of a small pond, is picturesque and quintessentially Asian, and the music reflects it as well. We’ve had idyllic imagery before, in Mahler’s Ländler, depicting the Austrian mountains or countryside, or even the entire earth, but even here, he is effective. We can hear snow-capped mountains and flowers, fresh countryside air, but the mountains sound to be much farther east now. It’s carefree, removed from the troubled sentiments of the first two songs, but rich with color and contrast even within itself, only hinting momentarily at melancholy before convincing itself to remain optimistic and bright. It is the shortest of the set.

4. Von der Schönheit

(Of Beauty)

Suitably, our female voice returns to speak of beauty, a clear counterpart to the tenor’s previous song of youth. She begins with young ladies picking lotus flowers at the riverbank, the golden sun reflecting off the clear water, illuminating their youthful skin, the golden sun playing about their form. The message is one of physical beauty, but also apparently youth, and maybe even a tinge of jealousy, hints of romantic or sensual overtones… It’s also not as overtly joyous and carefree as the youth song, but has a surprising outburst of celebration or triumph, in which the alto eventually joins, reaching some frantic heights, though momentary, before cooling back down to the smooth, expressive, even sensual atmosphere of the opening, fading away to a quiet end.

5. Der Trunkene im Frühling

(The Drunken Man in Spring)

We return to the tenor’s third and final song, another expression of drunkenness. He opens by asking ‘If life is but a dream/ why work and worry?’ He expresses the simple joys of caring about nothing and enjoying a drink or twelve throughout the day, communicating the apparent futility of everything. It’s a seemingly cheerful expression, but under it lies true emptiness. He finishes with ‘What to me is spring/ Let me be drunk!’ The sound wants to be carefree and joyful, and it even features calls of horns that remind us of the opening song, but underlying it is the truth, the emptiness of the singer’s reality. Or is it? There are moments of passion. Has the singer really just let himself go, genuinely caring of nothing but drink, or is he trying to convince himself of his happiness? There are buoyant moments of simple joy, even almost silliness, sweeping, compelling beauty, but it all seems to avoid coming into actual focus. Does it? Is the final cheerful flourish of the ending genuine or insincere?

6. Der Abschied

(The Farewell)

The impression upon reaching The Farewell is that everything up until now, the small joys, the glimpses of sorrow, the reflections on life, have been but mere preludes to this final song, the literal farewell, the destination of this entire work. Our tenor has said his drunken goodbyes, and will not return, but now the solemn, resolved, almost at-peace final song begins, something that could easily have been Mahler’s final goodbye, and at least for a time, was, until the premiere of his ninth symphony the following year.

The opening makes it clear we’ve crossed a threshold into a dark, lonely space. There are low rumbles from the gong, deep, resonant plucked strings from harps, cello and basses, muffled growls from contrabassoon and horns, which together cast a very dark shadow over everything we’ve heard, like the opening of a curtain. It’s all marked Schwer, or ‘heavy’. Horns and oboe engage in a melancholy exchange, and a long pause precedes the entrance of the vocalist, suddenly now somehow transformed, all the trivialities of life and living behind us now, she can be wholly honest. She begins:

Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge.
In alle Täler steigt der Abend nieder
Mit seinen Schatten, die voll Kühlung sind.
O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt
Der Mond am blauen Himmelssee herauf.
Ich spüre eines feinen Windes Weh’n
Hinter den dunklen Fichten!

(The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys the evening descends
with its shadow, full cooling.
O look! Like a silver boat sails
the moon in the watery blue heaven.
I sense the fine breeze stirring
behind the dark pines.)

There’s nothing I can say to convey the genuineness of this despair, the beauty of such heartfelt expressions of tragedy, of love and loss. Listen to the music, read the text, follow the score. Even if all you do is listen, you cannot be unmoved by the depth and intensity of this music, one of the pinnacles of Mahler’s genius and of music overall. Acceptance and honesty have never been so powerful.

Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…

I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning Mahler’s own difficulty at conducting the finale. He is said to have asked Bruno Walter if he has any idea how to conduct this work, full of meter changes, pauses, etc., ‘because I certainly don’t’. It’s not a complicated, undulating, rhythmic, pulsing work like you’d get from the pen of Bartok or Stravinsky, but an ornate, complicated, rich tapestry, and something that’s stunning to hear live.

Back to my comment from earlier about Das Lied being a contrast to the eighth symphony… I’ve never read that anywhere, but it’s kind of how I think of the work. The eighth is a truly monstrous piece, calling for some of the largest performance forces of any piece up to that time or since, and uses much of them together for significant chunks of the work. There is, though, the presence of thin, chamber-like, intimate texture even within the eighth, and even as opposites, no. 8 and Das Lied have this in common.

Das Lied, though, takes that thinness and chamber-like nature to an even greater extreme, sticking with it for much longer stretches. So while they are both vocal pieces, which both make use of small sections of their larger wholes at times, Das Lied does so far more often.

Also, in contrast with the eighth’s eight vocalists and multiple choruses, in Das Lied, we have only two vocalists, who feature as soloists backed by the orchestra rather than integrated in with it, or unfolding some larger narrative as with the eighth.

Also, the eighth is largely positive, upbuilding triumphant, optimistic, with messages of love’s power over everything, looking forward to joys and happiness ahead. Das Lied, as its counterpart, looks, not backward, but forward towards something different, to acceptance of death, to beauties behind us, to what life is and was, and to what lies ahead, in an entirely different way.

The greatest beauty in it all, though, is that there’s no lashing out, no bitterness, no sackcloth and ashes or ripping of garments, but a resignation to the inevitable, to what must come, and that is the most beautiful expression of tragedy, the most heartbreaking of resiliences, a strength, forever.

This work is the centerpiece and raison d’être of this vocal series, and also the 400th music article on the blog. While I write lots of articles, like concert reviews, introductions to series, wrap-ups of series, and the really old stuff like the ‘on this day’ series and other miscellany, I have a very (?) specific count/roster of the pieces I’ve discussed (or tried to) since the blog’s inception. I haven’t counted the revisits (like the Mahler articles earlier this week) in those tallies, but I have kept the most embarrassing, ignorant first few dozen articles from when I knew even less than I do now. Looking back on 400 music articles (not necessarily 400 pieces of music, since I counted entire opus numbers of early Haydn symphonies or technically separate Chopin nocturnes, etc. into one article, but also broke up Beethoven’s opp. 1 and 2 works into separate articles, so not exactly but still 400 pieces give or take) and now exactly 700 articles overall… this is my 700th total post, as well as 400th music piece article… and that was very intentional. It’s a fitting 400th: monumental, memorable, meaningful Mahler. Let’s take a quick review:

#100 was Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto
#200 was Scriabin’s Poem of Fire (so… yet another Russian piano concertante work)
#300 was Shostakovich’s violin concerto no. 1 in A minor

That means that three of the four centenary works, i.e. all of them so far, were Russian concertante pieces, which was totally unintentional. I just realized that now. Mozart wins for number of features, and will climb even further ahead in the next few months. It’s been an incredible three and a half years of listening, learning, writing, and reading, and I hope it continues. Please share with your friends and fellow people with ears, even if they don’t think they like classical music yet.

Ewig… ewig…


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