Performer’s Perspective- DLvdE. Why not this Mahler?

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.

UPDATE- More on Das Lied from the archive, here.

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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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12 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- DLvdE. Why not this Mahler?”

  1. Foster Beyers

    My wife is chinese and has studied the original poetry in it’s original language. She says Mahler captures the mood of these poems perfectly. That is remarkable since of course Mahler himself was not able to read the poems in the original language. It is a testament to Mahler’s incredibally intuitive emotional powers.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Foster-

    Thanks for the comment. That’s very interesting- of course, Mahler made quite a few changes and additions to Bethge’s translations (which themselves are translations of European sources, not Chinese ones). In the case of Der Abschied, Mahler makes the first poem, Expectation for a Friend, much more epic. However, he also moves away from the undertones of German Romanticism that Bethge had infused into the text- there is a much greater sense of detachment in Mahler, which seems closer in spirit to the originals.

    Great to hear from you- hope all is well there and that you’re conducting some great stuff this fall.


  3. James R

    “One of your best posts. Wonderful to read and consider. Bravo. “

  4. Peter

    Heroic post Ken!

    You are just right. This work touches every raw nerve of the modern world and challenges us.

    We need this music now more than any other, and we need people to engage with it deeply.

    Why this Mahler? Because it is the summit of his creative achievement; the ultimate synthesis of symphony and song, the most perfect distillation of his god-given genius and the extraordinary richness of his life experience.

    Every note was born from his soul.


  5. David L

    Two things surprised me. Is it really true that Das Lied is not
    performed much these days? It seems to me that I have heard it fairly
    often out here on the Left Coast. What are the world wide stats? Then
    there is the explanation for the decline. I find it hard to believe
    that audiences who love Mahler in general are having trouble dealing
    with the implications of Der Abschied. If only Stuart Feder were still
    around to explain this!

    My hunch is that concert programs follow fashion cycles just like so
    many other things. Right after WW2 it seemed that every third concert I
    attended featured the Weber Konsertstück, Capriccio Italien, Rachy #2,
    etc. And virtually every piano recital included the A-flat Polonaise
    and probably a Hungarian Rhapsody. You don’t hear these works very
    often these days, at least where I live. Now we have a whole new list
    of concert clichés, and I am sure that it will always be like that. I
    doubt that these things have much to do with the ability of the
    collective audience to confront the emotional message of certain works.
    (Quite frankly, I doubt that the collective audience even realizes that
    there is an emotional message!)

    Woods was right on target in noting that symphonies with nicknames fare
    better than those with mere numbers. How often to you see a program of
    M1 without “Titan” gratuitously attached? Music is really show business
    at its most basic level. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of!

    I wish Maestro Woods every success in his Mahler concerts.


  6. Peter

    Beecham said about British audiences – “they don’t like music, but they quite like the noise it makes”…or words to that effect. Superficial listening or taste driven by fashion has always been with us. That’s why we need leadership from our orchestras and conductors. They must take the risks, then direct and educate how audiences should listen. Bernstein recognised this above all.

    Audiences get lazy, when the artists get lazy and become more interested in a fast buck and short-term headlines. Conductors and orchestras surely reckon they will win more praise and audience enthusiasm for a Mahler 2 or 5. A recent performance of No.2 that I did not hear became legendary within days, and people would tell me about it, as if it had been a miracle to behold. It is wonderful that this music does that, but it hard to imagine people responding with the same level of enthusiasm to a great performance of Das Lied, which leaves each listener with a very personal and intimate reaction.

    Let’s not get paranoid, however, it is not a world-wide conspiracy, but just that promoters, orchestral managers and conductors take the soft option when money is tight, rehearsal time short and the competitors have just stolen the headlines with a 5 or a 2. But if any work delivers reward for effort, it is surely Das Lied von der Erde.

    It is a big question, and one which Mahler was surely asking. Is concert-life just pretending to be deep and meaningful or can music really change people’s lives? The answer is probably that it can, if you let it, but for a lot of people, it is like church-going – you turn up on a Sunday, then go about the rest of your life without a second thought to the values you claim to espouse.

    Mahler knew this pattern too well. The Fischpredigt song, the funeral march of the first symphony, even the drunk who will not listen to the bird – they suggest he had limited confidence in the culture to listen and respond appropriately.

    If you surveyed an audience after any Mahler peformance, you would receive as many reactions as there are people, so generalisations are dangerous to make. Mahler had this high-minded ethical view of music and no doubt saw himself as educating and elevating the population through his music and conducting. No wonder he got sick and tired. But that’s probably the approach to take; to lead from the podium and not to follow fashion – although one is advised to show a tad more patience than Mahler. Audiences will respond, but on the basis of trust rather than antagonism.


  7. Kenneth Woods


    Hi Peter!

    Very well said. The other big question is whether all those folks who go to Mahler 2 and loving it are loving it for reasons Mahler would have approved of, or simply because they like the noise it makes. There’s nothing wrong with liking Mahler simply because it sounds great, but for the folks who start clapping the moment Mahler 6 or 9 end, I think it’s fair to say that his time has NOT yet come. The music is attracting crowds, but isn’t always being heard….

  8. Zoltan

    It seems to me, while writing about the piece, it managed to bring out a personal side of you not usually seen outside of music.

    You mentioned already that the piece shouldn’t be more troubling than the 6th and the 9th, but perhaps the intimacy of the orchestration (more chamber-like than the 9th) and the words themselves leave no possibility as to what Mahler meant compared to the wordless 6th and 9th which does leave some space for the mind to wander around, however limited.

    ‘If I only had one hour left to live, and if I were able to listen to one record only, then I should choose the finale of Das Lied von der Erde’, said Shostakovich. Yet we know he didn’t believe in afterlife, so what does “ewig” mean to such a person? Is it then, that the word(s) are less important than the atmosphere of the music itself? Or is it perhaps the earlier scene with the farewell of the two friends (in the words you wrote above) that is the more crucial one? Does Mahler mean “homeland” in the religious sense, where one is “ewig” there? Is this farewell to emphasize that dying is a lonely matter? I’m still confused about Mahler’s beliefs to answer that.

    Thus, it seems, the perspective on these words get reflected in one’s own (non-)believing. Are we just so afraid to confront the empty abyss of non-existance after death that we nowadays rather flee in religion’s promises than create our own version of Mahler’s “Abschied”?

  9. Peter

    I agree that the use of words in Das Lied makes its message unavoidable, while the sixth and ninth only infer meaning. But it is not dry philosophy that is expressed in Das Lied after all, but a richly ambiguous poetical truth which points towards something beyond words. In fact all these pieces express their profundity in the poignant silences which follow their last notes. (Yes, I agree Ken, that is why those early applauders are so irritating. They think the work is finished when it is not.) Britten said of Das Lied that the final chord is “printed on the atmosphere”. He meant by that that it continues as a presence long after the musicans have stopped playing.

    We are not sure what Mahler believed about an after-life, and it probably changed by the day. But this music is surely about relating to human existence without ego – and then the issue of what it means as religious truth does not arise. The experience of the Abschied transcends ego which always wants to know what, how and when.

    In fact, Mahler was very interested in Eastern ideas about life after death, including reincarnation. Mahler’s beloved Ruckert was an orientalist too who inclined to mystical beliefs. Mahler was especially fond too of Fechner’s ideas about the after-life (see his Zend-Avesta). Fechner suggested that the spirit after death is able to mingle with the sky and the wind. The soul returns to the infinity of Nature where it is no longer earth-bound and trapped in the body. All longings are fulfilled.

    But I am not so sure that Abschied is just about death in the literal sense anyway. It about the death of the ego and the renewal that comes from connecting with Nature. The psyche is transformed by contact with infinite. The soul is carried along by the eternal process of becoming which is Nature’s way.

    What people “believe” is often a consequence of thinking, but this is music that addresses “feeling”. That’s why Shostakovitch could be an atheist and adore this music. His atheism was an intellectual position; his love of Das Lied was a feeling response. It is a lifetime’s work to make our heads and hearts think and feel as one, and arguably Shostakovitch suffered that split more than most, viz. his difficulties with the communist authorities and the irony that pervades much of his work. He was often forbidden to express what he felt directly, and his shy and austere Russian personality meant he was cautious with his emotions.

    In Das Lied, Mahler gets heart and and brain beautifully aligned, and that is why this music is so affecting. In our contemporary world, we have heart and brain very much split apart, which is why a work like the sixth symphony resonates so strongly, while perhaps Das Lied seems like an unobtainable hope. The musical language of the sixth and its structure are Mahler’s most classical, i.e. his least natural and most self-conscious. What is telling is that Mahler wrote the Sixth, when he had every reason to feel good about his life, and he wrote Das Lied when it had all fallen apart. He did a lot of suffering in between, and his ego had been shattered by his experiences. It forced him to turn inward and back to Nature for consolation.

    When you have lost everything, then you find what really matters. It is summed up in Mahler’s prophetic song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. When the world and its illusions are banished, then you find the inner peace and the wholeness which reveal the unity of Nature and our connectedness to it.

    Whether than means immortality in some narrow sense of “living for ever” or simply means a dissolving of the self into the totality of creation, we cannot know for certain, and in any case it doesn’t change the meaningfulness of the experience we gain from the music. You have to surrender to that, not question it with the intellect, which will only ever destroy its numinous qualities.


  10. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Zoltan

    Very interesting thoughts! There are probably more full blogposts in the questions you bring up, but just in brief….. Whatever Das Lied’s take on eternity is, I don’t think it is a Western Judeo-Christian one. Almost the opposite- there’s this sense in which it’s about letting go of the fear of not knowing what comes next, and seeing eternity not with God, Jesus and a bunch of saints making dinner, but in returning to the Earth, in becoming one with the Earth. I don’t see any disconnect in Shostakovich’s attitude between his love for Das Lied and his atheism. It is just as possible for an atheist to have a profound love of life and nature, to take comfort in this longing for eternal communion with spring as it is for anyone else.

    Thanks so much for the comment!

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