It seems fair for once to say that I am truly approaching a milestone in my life- in about a month, I will be making my first recording of a work by Gustav Mahler. On November 19 and 20, I’ll be going into the studio with my colleagues at Orchestra of the Swan, three wonderful singers (tenor Brennen Guillory, contralto Emma Curtis and baritone David Stout) the Somm Records recording team, led by producer Siva Oke. Our mission is to record the chamber versions of Mahler’s first and last great song cycles, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).
Mahler’s music has been an important part of my life for a long time, and an important part of this blog from the beginning. However, at times this year, I’ve started to feel like Mahler has slightly kidnapped my blog. Having spent much of the winter and spring focusing on Mahler for the “Performer’s Perspective” series, I have hesitated to begin a major new blog project, even with this recording fast approaching.
However, if Norman Lebrecht has the whole world asking “Why Mahler?” I think that for many of us, the answer is “because I can’t help it.” I’ve conducted both Das Lied and the Wayfarer Songs before, but as I’ve been re-learning the scores, going through long essays on the works by the likes of Donald Mitchell, Stephen Hefling and Henry-Louis de la Grange, I’m finding myself with too many ideas bouncing around in my head to keep silent.
Das Lied probably poses more questions and inspires more debate and analysis than any other work of Mahler. There’s more to say, more to write about than in any of his other works. Ironically, it may also be the only major Mahler work that seems nowadays to beg the question “Why not Mahler?” or “Why less Mahler?” As the 2010-11 Mahler biennium has brought Mahler to a fever-pitch of world-wide popularity, Das Lied von der Erde has quietly slipped from being his best known and most widely played work, to his least known and most rarely heard.
Why? Why not this Mahler, when every other piece of his begs the other question?
Could it be simply that Mahler didn’t give this symphony a number, even though he considered it not just “a symphony” but his best symphony? Surely the human race can’t be so shallow and idiotic?
Well, actually a quick comparison of the popularity of Haydn’s symphonies with nicknames to that of those without tells you we, as a culture, probably are that shallow and idiotic. Comparing the popularity of Tchaikovsky’s un-numbered “Manfred Symphony” with that of his other six is probably enough to confirm this. Beethoven’s Pastorale and Eroica drive the point painfully home, the 5th notwithstanding. If you really want a work to be popular, it should have a number and a nickname.
Still, DlvdE was once more popular on its own terms and in comparison to Mahler’s other works in spite of its lack of number. All year, we’ve been hearing that Mahler’s time, as he famously prophesized, had finally come. It has become commonly accepted that this is the age his music was meant to speak to.
So, why has his “most personal” work faded while the others have flowered?
There are practical challenges- could they be to blame? Few tenors on earth can sing it with the right mix of power and flexibility. Contraltos (the other voice type Mahler asked for- not a mezzo nor a baritone) are the rarest of voice types, and few of them have the ease of pianissimo high singing required throughout the cycle, while many mezzos, who far outnumber contraltos in the number of performances and recordings, often sound a little thin and weak in the lowest register, when Mahler wants them to sing with the greatest maternal depth and warmth. It is extremely challenging for the conductor- we’ll certainly talk more about why that is so, but suffice it to say that many conductors consider the last song, Der Abschied, to be the most difficult “standard” piece in the literature to conduct. Bruno Walter reports that Mahler “pointed out the rhythmical difficulties and asked jestingly: “Have you any idea of how this is to be conducted? I haven’t.” (Walter finally gave the premiere of the work, which Mahler didn’t live to hear, but one can hear tell-tale signs in his recordings that there were technical conducting challenges in the piece he never quite solved). The orchestral writing, as always, is hugely challenging, especially the first violin part, which often sounds strident and ropey.
All of these challenges might well mitigate against the piece being played more often, but they’ve always been there. The piece is no harder now than 50 years ago. If anything, with modern playing standards so high, it should be far more manageable than it once was. It is interesting now to return to the landmark recordings made by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna and New York Philharmonics not so long ago. If one watches the rehearsal footage of Bernstein rehearsing, you can hear the VPO sounding incredibly scrappy and sloppy, and some of the soloists (notably the trumpeter at the beginning of the Mahler 5 rehearsal) sounding out of their depth. That the end product of these rehearsals were recordings that have stood the test of time for 35+ years is a testament to Bernstein’s often forgotten skills as an orchestra builder. However, these days, any professional orchestra is expected to be able to play a Mahler symphony to a far higher technical standard than one hears in those VPO rehearsals.
Certainly, I can’t think of any credible Mahlerian, conductor or critic who would say that the gradual disappearance of Das Lied has been due to an emerging negative critical consensus about the piece. Everyone with any credibility still seems to agree that it is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.
So, difficult to perform- yes, hard to market- yes, masterpiece- yes. Ewig! Nothing new, nothing has changed to explain why a piece like the 3rd Symphony, which was almost never played 15 years ago is now wildly popular, even considered “box office,” while Das Lied, once the most popular of all is now a relative rarity.
This leaves me with a painful and uncomfortable hypothesis- that what has changed is us: the listeners. Mahler’s time may have come on a commercial level for much of his music, but not for his most personal music.
What is bothering today’s listeners, administrators and conductors? I suppose one could suggest that Das Lied has suffered for being largely a vocal work, but that hasn’t impeded the popularity of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th symphonies. One could guess that modern listeners find the works examination of questions of death and transformation too troubling, but the 6th is surely darker, the 9th more metaphysical, and lets face it, all of his works deal head on with the question of mortality.
Mahler’s music always seems to create a balance between creating unease and catharsis. Like much 20th c. music, his sense of parody and irony often is deployed to a critical end- it makes us aware of that within us with which we are most uncomfortable. Not all of Mahler’s music was intended to make us feel good about ourselves. Das Lied ends with the most poignant and powerful catharsis in all Mahler’s music (and that’s really saying something), but much of the piece can be experienced as a stinging critique of worldly things, of the shallow ways in which we waste our lives, and a harrowing evocation of personal wounds. Perhaps it is the piece in which critique plays the strongest and most pointed role?
The first song is as close as Mahler gets to nihilism- a “Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow” in which life and misery become inescapably entwined. The eternal Earth is only a bitter reminder of our own impermanence. The second song is music’s greatest and saddest evocation of loneliness. Our culture worships youth and beauty- in “Of Youth” Mahler’s narrator looks on from the perspective of youth lost on a scene of youth being charmingly squandered. In “Of Beauty,” the poem equates beauty with innocence, and shows both poised, in a tenuous moment of fragile perfection on the precipice of the long slide towards decay and oblivion. The second drinking song, “The Drunken One in Spring” not only echoes the nihilistic anger of the first song, but also the sense of profound isolation of the second. The drunkard’s only friend is booze, with even the friendly bird pushed aside- it’s hopeful message of spring doesn’t bring consolation, only further anger; “What has the spring to do with me? Let me be drunk!”
It is in the extraordinary final song that all the questions are addressed, and all wounds healed.
However, I think we as a society haven’t gotten to that final song. We cannot yet dare to believe that spring has come overnight, or that it’s arrival means new hope for us. “Hope” has become just another empty and carelessly discarded political catchphrase in our time. The bleakness of our political landscape, the emptiness of our cultural landscape, the fragmentation of our neighbourhoods, and the relentless destruction of mother Earth herself… We believe, or at least recognize the truth of Mahler’s first 5 songs, all too easily, but just as Mahler’s Drunkard is not ready to hear the happy news of the bird, we’re not ready to listen to the consoling message of Der Abschied. Our connection to “the beloved Earth” has never been more tenuous. Can we still believe in a world that “everywhere blossoms and greens anew in springtime?” Or can we just picture a world gradually entombed in concrete, crushed by mini-malls and highways?
“Where do I go? I walk, I wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I go to my homeland, my abode!
I will never again roam in distant lands.”
Our culture has left too many of us feeling that we have wandered too far from our homelands, that we are doomed forever to roam in distant traffic jams and airport security lines. That political corruption and cultural banality blossom everywhere and forever. Ewig, ewig….
And yet Mahler always called himself “thrice homeless.” It was no accident that here, in his final vocal work, he speaks of going to his homeland. Der Abschied is about the journey to a homeland that belongs to everyone in every time. Even the thrice homeless can return to a homeland.
Perhaps on paper, the promise of Der Abschied rings hollow to the modern ear. Perhaps in that casual moment when we think about buying a ticket or putting on a CD, we think that on some level, this piece is too difficult for us- we can’t believe that the consolation of the end will be worth the stinging critique, the loneliness, the anger and the despair of the beginning. But of course, if the beginning were any less harrowing, the end would have less meaning.
Mahler was always the master of contradiction and paradox. This is a most typically Mahlerian paradox- in the age in which Das Lied von der Erde most needs to be heard, in the time when it could give the greatest solace, it is heard the least.