Mahler: Three Lieder

performed by Thomas Hampson and David Lutz, piano

(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)

These three songs are Mahler’s earliest surviving works, dating from 1880. They were originally to be part of a set of five songs, but work on this little cycle came to a halt, likely when the composer began working on his Das klagende Lied.

The three songs in this little collection are as follows:

  1. Im Lenz (In the spring)
  2. Winterlied (Wintersong)
  3. Maitanz im Grünen (May Dance on the Green, later to be known as Ringel, Ringel Reih’n, for reasons you’ll soon see)

Mahler wrote the text for all three songs himself, and dedicated the first two of the three to his hometown sweetheart, one Josephine Poisl. German text can be viewed at this location, and English translations at the links above, but brace yourself for the militant copyright warnings.

The first song, about spring, falls into a sort of ABAB form, kind of a conversation in four verses, a question, and then an answer, along the lines of “Oh, why are you so down when things are so good?” and then a “Because things are not so good” response. This is also apparent in the music. It’s a pretty straightforward little idea, but some say it’s not effective because it’s so episodic. For such a small little piece, though, it’s enough for me.

The first section is marked by vitality and life, with insistent repeated notes in piano, and even when the mood changes, we have a bit of that repetitiveness, a slowed heartbeat of sorts. The piano moves to a lower register, and in these very simple ways, we can hear a change of mood. It might be primitive or overly simple, but it’s not necessarily banal.

The second song sounds… almost like a festive holiday song. I mean, can you almost imagine like, tacky sweaters, eggnog, a crackling fireplace, snowflakes falling outside, the whole thing? The ‘wintersong’ is obviously a description of the season, but then the more symbolic, poetic meaning comes to the fore. We hear not of warmth and family and joy, but eventually of loss, loneliness, unrequited love. It’s in a simpler AB form, but we can hear how it is more effective than the first song, as it has one single narrative story, one that clearly devolves to more desperate, melancholy tones. The piano writing seems a bit more natural and mature to me, too.

The final song what Steven Coburn at AllMusic calls “far more original and important than the preceding two songs.” He says that this piece is more in the Gesang style than Lied, which is to say like…. folksong rather than serious art song, but that it is actually the one that we should pay most attention to:

Underneath the naïve-sounding surface, Mahler created here a unique musical style. Although he derived it from folk singing this new sound is utterly original and was to become a hallmark of Mahler’s mature style.

It does seem naïve, with its ‘ring around the rosy’ and Hansel and Gretel references. In fact, this is an early version of Mahler’s first published song, Hans und Grethe. What’s most interesting to me, though, is that you might notice some bits here and there that sound like Mahler’s first symphony, or Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

So these are early pieces, indeed. Each of them mentions or has some association with a season (spring, winter, and spring again), but do recall that they’re only three of an originally-intended five. For someone who loves the symphonies, you might hear something of the lyricism of the early symphonies, like in the first movement of no. 1, some of the central movements of 2 or 3, or the finale of 4, but this is obviously only one of the earliest inklings of what the composer would later do.

Unfortunately, in the repertoire, we just don’t have a lot from Mahler besides the enormous symphonies and a few of the song cycles. There’s that fragment of the piano quartet, but no string quartets or (extant) piano sonatas, anything like that. In my opinion, then, as unassuming as these little works may be, the paucity of other, small-scale stuff makes these three songs that much more precious.

But there is still a bit of Mahler we haven’t yet gotten around to, and so we’ll be seeing a bit more from him this week and next. Please stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.


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