Mahler for the First Day of Spring


Spring won’t let me stay in this house any longer! I must get out and breathe the air deeply again.

-Gustav Mahler

Spring seems to erupt with a raucous fervor from the first notes of Gustav Mahler’s Der Trunkene Im Früling (“The Drunken Man in Spring”). The song is part of Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), Mahler’s combination symphony and song cycle, completed in 1909. The text comes from Die chinesische Flöte, a collection of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge.

Listen to the way the orchestra comes alive, evoking a sonic cast of characters and personas which converse with the human voice:

I was recently reminded that Mahler inscribed the opening of the First Symphony with the words, “as if spoken by nature.” Here is an interesting excerpt from one of Mahler’s letters:

That Nature embraces everything that is at once awesome, magnificent, and lovable, nobody seems to grasp. It seems so strange to me that most people, when they mention the word Nature in connection with art, imply only flowers, birds, the fragrance of the woods, etc. No one seems to think of the mighty underlying mystery, the god Dionysus, the great Pan; and just that mystery is the burden of my phrase, Wie Ein Naturlaut (“As if spoken by nature”). That, if anything, is my program, or the secret of my composition…My music is always the voice of Nature sounding in tone, an idea in reality synonymous with the concept so aptly described by von Bülow as ‘the symphonic problem.’ The validity of any other sort of ‘program’ I do not recognize, at any rate, not for my work. If I have now and then affixed titles to some movements of my symphonies I intended them only to assist the listener along some general path of fruitful reaction. But if the clarity of the impression I desire to create seems impossible of attainment without the aid of an actual text, I do not hesitate to use the human voice in my symphonies; for music and poetry together are a combination capable of realizing the most mystic conception. Through them the world, Nature as a whole, is released from its profound silence and opens its lips in song.

Schubert Songs of Spring

spring flowersTomorrow is the first day of spring. With warmer temperatures, blooming foliage and a sense of renewal, spring has long been a rich source of poetic inspiration. Here are three songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) which feature spring:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring)[/typography]

The poem is by Johann Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). Here is baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore:

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When I listen to Schubert’s songs, I always have the sense that every note is perfect. Great expression grows out of simplicity. But Schubert also loves to throw in a surprising and memorable chord when we least expect it (listen to the harmonic tension around 0:11). Notice how the music relates to the text at 0:57: “Now poor heart, be not afraid!” With one chord Schubert is able to cast a momentary shadow, transporting us from the pure, innocent  world of nature to the world of man.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Im Fruhling (In Spring)[/typography]

This song’s text is by Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817). Here is an English translation. This recording features tenor Ian Bostridge:

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For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this melody is the way it wants to pull away from the home key of G major. The first move away (from G to C) is subtle and short-lived  (0:24). Then we get a full modulation from G to A at 0:33.

These sudden key changes are fun because they play on the elements of expectation and surprise. Equally thrilling is the way Schubert suddenly and skillfully slides back into the correct key. Throughout Schubert’s music, the relationship between keys is an important dramatic element.

The poem suggests that the beautiful scenery of spring, in this case linked to romantic love, is fragile and elusive. Holding onto a moment in time is as impossible as capturing “Spring’s first sunbeam:”

[quote]Quietly I sit on the hill’s slope.
The sky is so clear;
a breeze plays in the green valley
where I was at Spring’s first sunbeam
once – ah, I was so happy;[/quote]

For the fifth stanza (2:40) the music slips into a stormy G minor as the text turns darker:

[quote]The only things that change are will and illusion:
Joys and quarrels alternate,
the happiness of love flies past
and only the love remains –
The love and, ah, the sorrow.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Am Bach im Frühling (By the Brook in Springtime)[/typography]

Here is mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and pianist Irwin Gage. The poem by Franz Adolf Friedrich von Schober (1796-1882) offers a melancholy view of spring. Can you hear the flowing brook in the piano accompaniment?

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