Autumnal Mahler

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is as much a symphony as a song cycle. It’s a seamless integration of voice and orchestra lines, as if the vocal line is just another instrument. Mahler incorporated the voice in his Second, Third, Fourth and Eighth Symphonies. Many of his songs became the seeds of symphonic movements. But The Song of the Earth, completed in the final years of Mahler’s life in 1909, represented a unique hybrid of song cycle and symphony.

The collection of six songs was inspired by Die chinesische Flöte, a 1908 book of Chinese poetry, translated by German poet Hans Bethge. In a future post, we’ll examine the entire work in greater depth. For now, let’s pick up where we left off in Wednesday’s autumn-themed post and listen to the second song, The Lonely One in Autumn.

The opening of the song seems to emerge out of the fog, suggesting an almost circular sense of flow. Notice all the distinct voices which emerge from the orchestra (woodwind, horn and string lines). Each has its own persona. What do you think these voices are saying?

The text is based on a poem by Qian Qi who lived during the Tang Dynasty:

Autumn fog creeps bluishly over the lake.
Every blade of grass stands frosted.
As though an artist had jade-dust
over the fine flowers strewn.

The sweet fragrance of flower has passed;
A cold wind bows their stems low.
Soon will the wilted, golden petals
of lotus flowers upon the water float.

My heart is tired. My little lamp
expires with a crackle, minding me to sleep.
I come to you, trusted resting place.
Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment!

I weep often in my loneliness.
Autumn in my heart lingers too long.
Sun of love, will you no longer shine
to gently dry up my bitter tears?

Here is Anna Larsson and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink:

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