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Das Lied von der Erde

About the Work

Gustav Mahler
Quick Look Composer: Gustav Mahler
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Thomas Hampson, baritone Nov. 20 - 22, 2003
© Richard Freed

Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) in 1908 and 1909, taking his texts from Hans Bethge's German adaptations of classic Chinese poems, and designated the work “a symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) and orchestra; the first performance was given in Munich on November 20, 1911, under the direction of Bruno Walter, with two American singers—Mme Charles Cahier and William Miller—as soloists, and the overwhelming majority of performances since then have also been sung by an alto and a tenor; in the present concerts the National Symphony Orchestra becomes one of the very few performing organizations anywhere to perform Das Lied von der Erde with tenor and baritone soloists. Hans Kindler conducted the NSO's first performances of this work, with the mezzo-soprano Nell Tangeman and the tenor Harold Haugh as his soloists, on December 14 and 15, 1948; Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the most recent ones, on May 14, 15, 16 and 19, 1992, with the mezzo Hanneli Rupert and the tenor George Gray.

In addition to the two singers, the score calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 B-flat clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, glockenspiel, tam-tam, celesta, mandolin, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 65 minutes.
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As indicated above, Mahler regarded this work as a symphony; the very circumstance of its not bearing a number is part of the background that certifies it as one of the most profoundly personal of all his works. It might almost have been given the same title as the Brit;ten symphony that precedes it in the present concerts: if not exactly a “requiem” (in that it contains no reference to liturgy or ritual), Das Lied von der Erde was a conscious gesture of leave-taking on Mahler's part, the first part of the final triptych of symphonies in which he said his farewell to life—and which he did not live to hear performed. The premiere, conducted by his young associate and devoted disciple Bruno Walter, took place six months after his death. Walter presided over the premiere of Mahler's Ninth Symphony (composed in 1909-10) in Vienna the following June. Mahler completed his Tenth Symphony in sketch but orchestrated only two of its five movements; it was to wait much longer for a hearing, and remains a controversial item today in the several “performing versions” prepared by Deryck Cooke and various others.

While Mahler regarded these three works as constituting a valedictory cycle, he tried to pretend otherwise—or to assure his surviving long enough to complete them all—by omitting Das Lied von der Erde from the list of symphonies to which he assigned numbers. His wife wrote, “Because Beethoven died after his Ninth Symphony and Bruckner before finishing his Ninth . . . it was a superstition of Mahler's that no great writer of symphonies got beyond his ninth.” For this reason, once he completed his Eighth Symphony, giving a number to its successor was something “he wished to dodge,” as Alma Mahler put it, in dread of a Ninth Symphony. . . . When later he was writing his next symphony, which he called the Ninth, he said to me, “Actually, of course, it's the Tenth, because Das Lied von der Erde was really the Ninth.” Finally, when he was composing the Tenth he said, “Now the danger is past.”

By that time, however, Mahler knew he was living on borrowed time, as he had known when he was composing on Das Lied von der Erde in the summer of 1908. Anxiety over his diseased heart had turned his life into a gloomy and desperate race to complete the works he had outlined. In July 1908, as he worked on Das Lied , he wrote to Bruno Walter, If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within me. It is, assuredly, no hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose. I have long known that I have got to die. . . . Without trying to explain or describe something for which there probably are no words, I simply say that with a single fell stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vie de rien , and now, at the end of my life, have to begin to learn to walk and stand.

In the previous year the “three blows of fate” Mahler had prophesied in his Sixth Symphony (completed in 1904) struck almost simultaneously. His glorious decade as director of the Vienna Opera came to an acrimonious end, his five-year-old daughter died of scarlet fever, and Mahler himself received a virtual death sentence from his physician, who discovered his heart condition more or less by accident. Bruno Walter was to observe many years later that the great moral achievement of Mahler's life seems . . . to lie in the fact that neither the torments of the creature nor the pangs of the human spirit caused him comfortably to shrung his shoulders with the “Ignorabimus” of the philosopher, and turna away . . . to look at what the world has to give of beauty and happiness. . . . He was faithful to the task laid upon him: to extract a divine significance from his suffering.

Citing the letter quoted above, Walter wrote that composing Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler's way of surmounting his crisis, and that the pantheistic spirit of the great Farewell with which the work ends was very much in accord with the composer's own nature, as expressed in the closing lines of another letter, written much earlier, at the age of 19: “Oh, Eternal Mother, receive a lonely restless heart!”

The Chinese poems Mahler set in this work were among those he had read in Hans Bethge's collection Die chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”). All three of the tenor's songs (movements 1, 3 and 5) and the alto's “Von der Schönheit” (fourth movement) have texts adapted from the works of the most renowned of Chinese poets, Li Tai Po (701-762). The second movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst,” is based on a poem by Chang Tsi, and the words of the two episodes of the concluding movement, “Der Abschied,” are derived from verses by Mong Kao-Jen and Wang Wei, respectively. These poems did not “inspire” Mahler's music in the usual sense: that is, his setting them to music was not merely a “response” to the verses he read, but rather, his recognition of material in them whose moods ideally suited his already well defined needs. At the very end of the work he added lines of his own.

Mahler at first considered calling this work Das Lied vom Jammer der Erde (“The Song of the Earth's Sorrow”), but settled on the simpler and more effective title and assigned the more elaborate one (with a change of the word Lied to the more specific Trinklied ) to the first of the six movements. The first two movements and the vast concluding one (which alone accounts for about half the work's length) are among the most urgently personal utterances in all of Mahler's works. The other three are somewhat less intense, providing, by way of contrast to the weight of lamentation and resignation, only fleetingly melancholy observations on the transitory nature of life's beauties and pleasures. Almost every phrase is illumined with some peculiar poignancy to make it memorable—the impact of the two words “mild aufzutrocknen,” at the end of the second song, is quite shattering—but the effect of the miraculous whole is immeasurably greater than the sum of even such exquisite parts, and the transfiguring catharsis of the “Abschied” has perhaps no real parallel in any other music, with or without words.

Throughout the work Mahler's use of the huge orchestra is as restrained as the language of the poems. In the main, instruments are used in various combinations to achieve a chamber-music sort of intimacy, and there is no marshaling of the entire aggregation at any point. Between the two vocal episodes of the “Abschied” is the work's only extended passage for the orchestra alone: it is no mere interlude, but a sort of threnody that constitutes both a grim confrontation with the inevitable and a bridge from the realm of desolation and woe to the heights of a pantheistic ecstasy made more real than reality in the other-worldly treatment of the last lines of the text, which are Mahler's own—from the radiance that illumines the aural landscape with the words “Die liebe Erde allüberall” to the last dimming flicker of “Ewig . . . ewig . . . ” framed by the celesta and mandolin.