Mahler/Schoenberg • The Song of the Earth
Das Lied von der Erde (” The Song of the Earth “) is a large-scale work for two vocal soloists and orchestra by the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler . Laid out in six separate movements, each of them an independent song, the work is described on the title-page as Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges “Die chinesische Flöte”) (‘A Symphony for One Tenor and One Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra (After Hans Bethge’s ‘The Chinese Flute’)’). Mahler’s copious use of ‘Chinese’ characteristics in the music marks the work as unique in his output. Composed in the years 1907 – 1909 , it followed the Eighth Symphony —but was not given a number, allegedly because of the composer’s superstitious fear of the supposedly ‘mortal significance’ of a ‘ninth symphony’. The work takes approximately sixty-five minutes in performance.
Mahler conceived of the work in 1907. The summer of that year is likened to the three hammer blows of the Sixth Symphony (written in 1903-1904). [ citation needed ] First, Mahler was pressured into resigning from his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera due to political intrigues within the administration, partly involving anti-semitism ; next, his oldest daughter Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria ; finally, Mahler himself was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. “With one stroke,” Mahler wrote to his friend Bruno Walter , “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn”. [ citation needed ]
In his heightened awareness of his own mortality and rootlessness as a Jew, Mahler became interested in a volume of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge , titled, Die Chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”). The translation was based on a French translation of the original material. Mahler was very taken by the vision of earthly beauty and transience expressed in these verses [ citation needed ] and chose seven (two of them used in the finale) to set to music. The result was what some have termed a “song-symphony”, a hybrid of the two forms that had occupied most of his creative life. [ citation needed ]
Having already finished his 8th Symphony, Mahler worried along at the ” Curse of the Ninth “. Convinced that a ninth symphony would kill him, Mahler proceeded to compose Das Lied von der Erde , which he subtitled “A Symphony for Tenor , Contralto and Large Orchestra” and left unnumbered. Thus he hoped to skirt around the curse, since his Ninth Symphony would actually be his tenth. Ultimately, however, Mahler did succumb to the “Curse”: his next, instrumental symphony, which he numbered his Ninth , was the last work Mahler completed in full (only the first movement of the Tenth was orchestrated at his death).
Completed in 1908, Das Lied von der Erde is the first work of its kind, the first complete integration of song cycle and symphony, a form later imitated by other composers (notably Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander von Zemlinsky ). The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music refers to it as a “song-symphony”. It is also regarded as one of Mahler’s most personal works, a statement echoed in one of the composer’s own letters .
Das Lied von der Erde is scored for a large orchestra consisting of piccolo , three flutes (the third doubling on second piccolo), three oboes , English horn , four clarinets (the third doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet , three bassoons (the third doubling on contrabassoon ), four horns , three trumpets , three trombones , bass tuba , percussion ( timpani , tam-tam , bass drum , cymbals , side drum , glockenspiel , triangle , and tambourine ), celesta , two harps , mandolin , and strings. Mahler deploys these resources with great restraint: only in the first, fourth and sixth songs does the entire orchestra play at once, and in some places the texture almost resembles chamber music, with only a few instruments playing.
Mahler’s habit was to subject the orchestration of every new orchestral work to detailed revision over several years: though the musical material itself was hardly ever changed, the complex instrumental ‘clothing’ would be altered and refined in the light of experience gained in performance. In the case of Das Lied von der Erde , however, this process did not occur: the work’s publication and first performance occurred posthumously.
The scoring also calls for tenor and alto soloists. However, Mahler also includes the note that “if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone”. For the first few decades after the work’s premiere, this option was little-used. However, following the pioneering recordings of the work by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under conductors Paul Kletzki and Leonard Bernstein , the use of baritones in this work has become increasingly common.
Arnold Schoenberg began to arrange Das Lied von der Erde for chamber orchestra, reducing the orchestral forces to string and wind quintets, and calling for piano , celesta and harmonium to supplement the harmonic texture. Three percussionists are also employed. Schoenberg apparently never finished this in his lifetime, and the arrangement was completed by Rainer Riehn in 1980.
Four of the Chinese poems used by Mahler ( Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde , Von der Jugend , Von der Schönheit and Der Trunkene im Frühling ) are by Li Tai-Po , the famous Tang dynasty wandering poet. Der Einsame im Herbst is by Chang Tsi and Der Abschied combines poems by Mong Kao-Yen and Wang Wei , plus several additional lines by Mahler himself.
The first movement
The first movement, entitled ” Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde ” (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”) sets a tone for the rest of the piece with its refrain, “Dark is life, is death”, each successive repeat sung a semitone higher. Like many drinking poems by Li Po, the original poem mixes drunken exaltation with a deep sadness. Mahler intensifies this sadness into expressionistic horror. The music verges on chaos and madness, dense and loud but vivid. As is often the case with Mahler’s music, the instruments are as much “voices” as the singer, each with a will of its own; they scream, cackle, sob and moan, in a frightening cacophony. The singer’s part is notoriously difficult since the tenor has to struggle at the top of his range against the full onslaught of the orchestra. According to music philosopher Theodor W. Adorno , the tenor should create the impression of a “denatured voice in the Chinese ( falsetto ) style”, perhaps in the style of Peking opera. This gives the voice its shrill, piercing quality, and is consistent with Mahler’s practice of pushing instruments, including vocal cords, to their limits. The abrasive tone of Chinese opera is exploited to great effect, embodying as much the horror and agony in the words, ” Dem Morschen Tande dieser Erde ” (“the rotting trash of this earth”), with the image of the ape howling over graves.
The second movement
This is followed by ” Der Einsame im Herbst ” (“The Lonely Soul in Autumn”), a much more subdued piece whose tone colors can be described as “faded gold”. It begins with a repetitive shuffling in the strings that brings to mind the drifting of leaves, mirroring the restlessness of the soul. Solo wind instruments pierce through the fog. The singer laments the dying of flowers, the passing of beauty. The damp, clammy, intimate sadness is reminiscent of ” Kindertotenlieder “. Contrary to the stereotypical image of Mahler’s music, the orchestration in this movement is sparse and chamber music -like, with long and independent contrapuntal lines.
The third movement
The third movement, ” Von der Jugend ” (“Of Youth”) creates an intentionally artificial scene of ancient China , with a porcelain pavilion , reflective pools , “friends, beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting, some writing down verses.” The music in this movement is the most obviously pentatonic and faux-Asian. But the seemingly crass Orientalism serves another purpose: It is as if, through the fogged looking-glass of memory, the landscape of one’s own youth becomes as foreign and exotic as that of a distant country.
The fourth movement
Directly following this is ” Von der Schönheit ” (“Of Beauty”). Young girls are picking flowers on the riverbank; young boys ride by on their horses. The music of this movement is mostly delicate and sensuous, with a violent outburst in the brass as the young men ride by. The middle two movements practically go together as one single intermezzo. The deliberately fake China depicted in these two movements, with its porcelain pagodas on Lake Lucerne, its young girls picking lotus by the Danube, is the only true home for those without one. According to Theodor W. Adorno , Chinese poetry became for the late Mahler what German folk songs had been for him earlier: a disguise for his sense of Jewish “otherness”.
The movement ends with a long orchestral postlude. One of the girls casts “long looks of yearning” after her secret lover. And the long gaze of the music itself lingers after the last words have been sung, almost as if unwilling to part with it. All the lost happiness of a lifetime seems compressed into the sunlight of one lazy afternoon.
The fifth movement
The true scherzo of the work is the fifth movement, entitled ” Der Trunkene im Frühling ” (“The Drunkard in Spring”). It can be considered a companion song to ” Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde ” – the narrator is enjoying himself perhaps too much, like a man who has nothing left to lose. Musically, it also calls back to the earlier movement by using a horn theme reminiscent of the opening motif. Mahler’s usage of tempo changes in this movement is brilliant. In addition to generally lilting and staggering dotted rhythms, the actual tempo changes every few measures, each tempo having practically no relationship to the previous one, and transitioning with sudden and random unpredictability. The drunkard rages at life, which has become a series of unnatural shocks and jolts, without memory or continuity. “What has spring to do with me?” he cries, recalling Baudelaire ‘s line ” Le Printemps adorable a perdu son odeur! ” (“Spring, the beloved, has lost its scent!”) The tone color also changes with these tempo changes. In the middle section a solo violin introduces a moment of tenderness, as in the second Nachtmusik of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony . Here the violin is the voice of a bird, singing outside the drunkard’s window, telling him that spring has come. But to the drunk man, real life appears “as in a dream”.
The sixth movement
The final movement, ” Der Abschied ” (The Farewell), is nearly as long as the previous five movements combined. Its text is drawn from two different poems, both involving the theme of leave-taking. With the first notes on the tam-tam (marked schwer (= heavy)) all hope seems to have vanished with the setting sun. The length and heaviness of this movement make the previous ones seem like unreal flickers of light flashing across a background of unending darkness, as in the Buddhist idea of life as an illusion. The orchestra sounds as if broken into pieces. The instruments fall in small clusters or play by themselves, each voice piercing the emptiness for a moment before breaking off, as if choked by what does not bear saying. From countless kitchens, backyards, alleyways and shop windows come the plaintive voices of evening, each one isolated in its own vacuum. In the instrumental funeral march at the center of the movement, these voices become more and more discordant, like a crowd of lost souls crying out in misery. They paint a picture of universal loneliness, no longer the personal misfortune of the second movement, but the all-embracing “Earth’s Misery” mentioned in the title of the first. This is the life-world whose harsh essence becomes clear to the one leaving it; yet he holds onto this world with the last of his strength. As if art itself no longer sufficed to express this, Mahler explicitly writes moments of silence into the score, the music seems always in danger of dissolving into nothingness. For the first time in Western music, the spaces left empty become eloquent in their own right, as in a Chinese landscape painting.
The last movement is very difficult to conduct, because of its cadenza writing for voice and solo instruments, which often flows over the barlines, ” Ohne Rücksicht auf das Tempo ” (Without regard for the tempo) according to Mahler’s own direction. Bruno Walter related that Mahler showed him the score of this movement and asked, “Do you know how to conduct this? Because I certainly don’t.” Mahler also hesitated to put the piece before the public because of its relentless negativity, unusual even for him. “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” He asked. But the last farewell is fundamentally ambiguous: through the eyes of leave-taking, the wounded earth at last shines out in all its beauty. Hope seems to hide in the tissues of the music, beneath its uncompromising bleakness. Kafka ‘s phrase, “There is hope, but not for us.” may capture the message. The movement ends with a few lines added by Mahler himself to the original poems:
The dear earth everywhere Blossoms in spring, and grows green anew. Everywhere and forever, forever Blue lights the horizon. Forever… forever…
The singer intones the last line over and over like a mantra , accompanied by a sparse mix of strings, mandolin, tam-tam, and celesta, until the music fades into silence, “etched on the air”, as Benjamin Britten put it. Against all reason, the dying man keeps his eyes open. Resignation and hope can no longer be distinguished.
Of Das Lied von der Erde Mahler himself wrote that “I think it is probably the most personal composition I have created thus far.” Its popularity has also made it his most universally loved. Full of anger, love and longing, Mahler managed a perfect synthesis of the lyrical and philosophical aspects of his music in this work. A piece that, from such a personal perspective, can speak so deeply of universal human issues, is truly brilliant.
- Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music , 1996 ed., entry on Gustav Mahler, lists the composer’s works, placing Das Lied von der Erde in the category “song-symphony”.
- Tom Lehrer ‘s song “Alma”, a song about the composer’s widow Alma Mahler , refers to this piece: “But marriage to Alma was murder, / He’d scream to the heavens above: / ‘I’m writing Das Lied von der Erde , / And she only wants to make love!’ ”
- Das Lied von der Erde : The Literary Changes – synopsis of original Chinese poems, Bethge’s translations and Mahler’s changes
- Text of the songs, with English translations
- Extensive history and analysis by renowned Mahler scholar Henry Louis de La Grange
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