Mahler: Das klagende Lied

performed by the RSO Berlin, Dunn, Fassbaender, Baur, Hollweg, and Schmidt under Riccardo Chailly, or below by The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and lots of people under Sir Simon Rattle

(cover image by Roman Mavrin)

We got around to some more Mahler this week, in anticipation of something big next week, which shouldn’t be a surprise if either of you reading have been around the blog before. There’s another big milestone coming up soon, and maybe you can already guess what it is. Before we get too far, though, we’ve still got some of the composer’s earliest works to discuss, and as early works go (that aren’t symphonies), this is a big one.

Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation) is a cantata (the first on the blog, if I recall correctly), which is, to oversimplify it, somewhere between an opera and a symphonic work. It’s often in multiple movements, but since it contains choral parts, and often soloists, there is usually a narrative or story with the text. Bach’s cantatas were often (always? usually?) Biblical stories, as was Mendelssohn’s Elijah, but Orff’s famous Carmina Burana was not. Mahler’s own eighth symphony is rather like a cantata, especially Part II, with the Faust scene, but there’s no actual acting or staging to the performance.

His source material was a German fairytale, one of a number of options, or a combination of the two, and was written during his final year at the Vienna Conservatory. The text dates from March 1878, and the music was composed between 1879 and 1880, making this yet another of his very earliest extant pieces, along with the piano quartet and the songs we discussed earlier in the week. That being said, the work was not performed until February 17, 1901, under the composer’s baton, but in a two part version. We’ll talk about that a little bit now.

The work as originally conceived was in three parts, as follows:

  1. Waldmärchen (Forest Legend)
  2. Der Spielmann (The Minstrel)
  3. Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece)

It’s about (spoiler alert…) two brothers who are in a competition for a queen’s hand in marriage. This competition surrounds the acquisition of a red flower in the woods. If you’ve ever read a fairytale anywhere ever, you can probably guess how this goes. The good brother finds it and (apparently he’d never read a fairytale before, because) he stops for a little nap. Wicked brother finds and kills him, taking the flower for himself. That’s part 1.

The second part, The Minstrel, concerns the titular character finding a bleached bone (guess whose), and, as one does, makes a flute out of it. Upon playing it, the slain brother speaks through the instrument. The minstrel is now determined to settle the score. Part III, then, of course, is set on the queen’s wedding day, to her surreptitiously murderous groom. There’s not really any happy ending. In the end (again, spoiler alert), the castle collapses.

A collapse, it could be said, also befell the work itself. After having composed an enormous work, he scratched from Part I four of the original six harps, cut the eleven vocal soloists down to four and scrapped the boys’ voices. He removed a substantial offstage orchestra from parts II and III, leaving them only for part I, which he later scrapped entirely. He later re-added offstage brass. So many changes were made that the composer had to write the manuscript score anew. Aside from a huge orchestra, there’s an SATB chorus, as well as soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, boy soprano, and boy alto.

It was only in the last half century that the original three-part version of the manuscript was discovered, and it was apparently not until 1997 that the three-part version was finally published. Some recordings have only the two-part version (labeled confusingly as Parts I and II, but are really parts II and III of the original). The full three-part version lasts over an hour, of which Part I takes up about half. The two-part version, then, is only about 35 minutes. That’s quite a lot of music to hack off of your early composition.

In any case, if you’re familiar with Mahler’s symphonies, there’ll be almost no reason even to discuss this work. It will prove to be very familiar to you. If you’re not familiar with Mahler’s symphonies, what have you been doing with your life?

Part I is just a setup for Part II, when the bone flute begins to sing, which would be plenty to give the audience the backstory they need. Also, the chorus and voices don’t really spend that much time doing very much. This is as critical as I have ever been or ever will be of Mahler. Part I immediately gives us the typical Mahlerian elements, but I find them most compelling because we know their potential and the more mature, polished forms they’ll have in the symphonies.

Speaking of which, throughout this work, as a Mahlerite, you’ll hear tons and tons of little glimpses, whatever the opposite of a flashback is, of future symphonies. There’s this passage that sounds like it’s taken right from the central part of the third movement of the first symphony (yes, I know, it was written before the first symphony).

On to Part II. This part begins unmistakably with the same tremolo gesture as the second symphony. In fact, within the first two minutes, we’ve heard the opening of the second symphony and the Dies Irae theme from the finale of that same symphony, as well as some of the pastoral nature of the middle movements. Do you also hear that flute solo in this second part? Does it remind you of the flute that plays in the second symphony before the entry of the chorus? Even some of this vocal writing seems lifted from the Auferstehung.

In Part III, I hear the optimism of the triumphant climax in the second movement of the fifth symphony, especially in the brass. We hear the offstage brass here, too, which conjures up images of the third symphony’s post horn, as well as some of the Klezmer music of the third movement of the first symphony. Believe it or not, we even get something that sounds like the Purgatorio of the tenth symphony.

It’s so interesting to come back to one of Mahler’s earliest works after getting to know the symphonies. We hear so much he would use later, and thankfully more effectively. This work, though, as a cantata, is more linear. We never got any theater or stage works from Mahler, no operas or anything like that. The closest we get is Part II of the eighth symphony, light years ahead of this work, and even that is strongly influenced by Part I and symphonic development.

This article wasn’t intended to be a scavenger hunt for future Mahler themes, but in the context of so greatly appreciating his symphonies, I can’t help but hear this early work in that light. It’s not often played, at least nowadays, and I feel like a quick listen tells us why. I will never go so far as to say it’s a bad work, certainly not, but everything else he did puts this piece to shame.

Steven Lacoste wrote program notes for the LA Phil and is much more positive about this piece, praising its theatrical and literary elements, citing them as a suitable starting point for a composer whose life would later absolutely embody drama and tragedy and the philosophical and/or religious elements, archetypes and all the rest. The only thing I’ll agree with him on is how suitable it seems that the composer who would later make such use of folksong in his symphonic works sort of began his career with a fairytale.

But that’s just about all I’ll say about that.



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