Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler’s Farewell

915-CFHUAeL._SX522_As late summer fades into fall, this seems like a good time to listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). The text, based on ancient Chinese poetry, evokes seasonal cycles…a sense of death, separation, and resignation, followed by rebirth, loss of the ego, and ultimate immorality. In this music, completed in 1909 near the end of Mahler’s life, the endless forward drive of Western music, everything from the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth to the epic climax of a Wagner opera, dissolves into something more circular and timeless. As Leonard Bernstein mentions, “death becomes a synonym for eternity,” and, in the end, both are greeted with peaceful acceptance.

Bernstein called Das Lied von der Erde “Mahler’s greatest symphony.” In this blend of symphony and song, there is never a sense of the orchestra merely accompanying the vocal line. Instead, all voices are seamlessly integrated. The work is scored for a large orchestra, including two harps, mandolin, glockenspiel and celesta. But small groups of instruments often converse with each other, creating the intimacy of chamber music. In Mahler’s music, each instrument’s distinct persona becomes especially vivid. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear that each voice has something to say, and although we can sense pain, melancholy, joy, transcendence, and more, the message is impossible to capture in words.

Mahler added “symphony” to the title, partly to overcome the perceived “curse of the ninth.” (As we discussed in a past Listeners’ Club post, composers from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner died after completing nine symphonies). But Das Lied von der Erde was not included as a numbered symphony and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony became his last completed work.

The final lines were written by Mahler:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …

Here is the sixth and final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). It’s a finale that is as long as all of the other preceding songs combined. This is Otto Klemperer’s 1966 recording with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (Mahler frequently wrote for mezzo-soprano, favoring the slightly darker tone color in contrast to the brightness of a soprano). As a young man, Klemperer knew Mahler and served as his assistant during the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the “Symphony of a Thousand”).

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Listen to the complete Das Lied von der Erde here.
  • Find Mahler in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Mahler for the First Day of Spring

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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.

Washington’s Birthday

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Washington’s Birthday, the first movement of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony, emerges out of the desolate, snowy gloom of a midwinter night in rural New England. The music feels strangely amorphous, as if we’ve suddenly slipped into a dream.

As we enter this sonic dreamscape, it’s easy to get the sense that we’re joining music already in progress. Who knows where or when it began? Drifting from one hazy moment to the next, we gradually become aware of a growing hubbub of voices. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a spirited barn dance. Fragments of old American folk melodies float in and out of our consciousness and begin to blend into a growing, joyful cacophony. With one shocking, climactic chord, our strange dream shows signs of turning into a nightmare. But then, just as suddenly, the night begins to wind down. Amid the final echoes of a fragment of Goodnight, Ladies, our ephemeral vision evaporates…

Here are the opening lines of Charles Ives’ description of Washington’s Birthday:

Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic:

Visit Listeners’ Club posts featuring other movements from Ives’ Holiday Symphony, Thanksgiving Dayand Decoration Day.

Written in 1909

Composed in 1909 and revised and published four years later, Washington’s Birthday is an adventurous journey into atonality. Similar music was pushing the boundaries in Europe. 1909 was the year Anton Webern wrote the groundbreaking Five Movements, Op. 5.  The same year, Claude Debussy began writing his twenty four Préludes for solo piano. Listen to the hazy impressionism of the second Prélude from Book 1, Voiles. This music is constructed on the same whole tone scale Ives uses in the opening of Washington’s Birthday.  

In 1909 Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Ravel began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky was a year away from completing The Firebird.

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:

Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

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The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12