Song of the Earth

It’s probably no coincidence that the two most popular composers of the 20th Century, Shostakovich and Mahler, are also the two whose autobiographies are most intimately associated with their work. However, although their musical work may have been shaped in part by the external circumstances of their lives, it is also important to remember that both of them wrote a great deal of music for reasons that transcended the events and influences of their day-to-day existence.

The biographical story behind Das Lied von der Erde, or The Song of the Earth is well known. We are told that Mahler wrote the piece in response to the news that he had a fatal heart condition, and that the final song in the cycle “Der Abschied,” or “The Farewell,”was, in effect, his farewell to life itself.At the beginning of 1907, Mahler was probably the most famous and successful musician in the world. He had been the music director of the Vienna Court Opera for 10 years, a record which still stands 100 years later, and he finally become well-known as one of the great composers of his time. However, the never-ending anti-Semitic attacks in the press and within the opera house that he had always dealt with drove him from the job in May of that year. In June he and his family went to their summer retreat Maiernigg, but within days of their arrival his oldest daughter, Maria, had contracted scarlet fever. Mahler was devastated by her death. During the last stages of her illness a doctor examined Mahler himself and found that he had a heart-valve problem that, in those days, was invariably fatal.

Throughout most of his adult life, Mahler had used the summers to walk in the mountains and compose, and for him the two activities were inextricably intertwined. He often said that he did all of his composing while hiking, and that the time at his desk was the purely clerical and technical work of writing down what he’d heard in nature. Under doctor’s orders to avoid exertion of any kind, and in shock at the loss of his daughter, his creative output was completely stalled. In October of 1907, the poet Hans Bethge published The Chinese Flute, the collection of free translations of ancient Chinese poems that Mahler used as the basis for Das Lied von der Erde. The working year of 1907-8 saw Mahler going to New York to start a new professional life. When he returned to Europe for the summer of 1908, he was faced with a mixture of familiarity and strangeness. The long walks, which had been so central to his life for so long, were now strictly forbidden, and so he feared he would be unable to compose, but as the summer went on, he found his muse returning. By late July, the individual songs had begun to come to him, starting with the second “The Lonely One in Autumn.” Within the amazing period of six weeks, he’d completed all six songs, gradually moving from the idea of a song cycle into the new world of a song symphony. 

Tempting as it is to see this great work simply as Mahler’s commentary on his own impending death, it is worth remembering that it was also creative rebirth for him. After the cataclysms of 1907, Mahler had found a new job, a new future and a new way of composing. In every sense, Das Lied von der Erde marked a huge move forward for Mahler- his harmonic language had grown enormously since the Eighth Symphony, his use of the orchestra had become even more daring and visionary, and he had found a whole new way of integrating language and musical form. The last three years of Mahler’s life were one of the most productive periods- the late triptych of DlvdE, the Ninth and the very-nearly finished Tenth symphonies together represent a huge proportion of his life’s work, both in terms of what he accomplished artistically and in terms of the sheer volume of music he composed.

There is absolutely no evidence that he viewed any of these pieces as his last. Appearances of autobiography in Mahler’s music can be misleading.  Remember, he wrote Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children, well before his daughter’s death, and he even said that he could not have written the piece after Maria died. The tragic Sixth Symphony was written at the high point of his personal and professional life. It is entirely possible that the contemplation of mortality in Das Lied was also intended to be perceived as universal, and not limited to his own experience. Death is a central issue in every one of Mahler’s symphonies, from the Funeral March in the First Symphony to the ecstatic final pages of the Tenth. These late works represent a progression for Mahler, but not a departure- he continued to deal with the same questions that had been central to his work throughout his life. Mahler wrote for the future, and for all humanity- I don’t think it was ever his intention to limit the scope of his music to simply being a diary of his own fears and tragedies.

Yet, near the very end of The Farewell, when Mahler takes the pen from the poet’s hand and writes “My heart is still and awaits its hour,” he knew all too well that the hour was coming when his heart would be literally still forever. At this moment introduces a modified (written with a whole-tone scale instead of in E flat major) quote of the music he used in the Second symphony to set the words “Sterbern werd ich, um zu leben!” or “I shall die so that I may live again.”

Is it autobiography?

 “The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime, anew. Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue! Forever… forever…”

These were the last words Mahler ever set to music, and, unlike the rest of the Song of the Earth, they were his own.


c. 2007 Kenneth Woods.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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