Introduction | Chronology | Filmography
Symphony No. 1 | Symphony No. 2 | Symphony No. 3 | Symphony No. 4 | Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6 | Symphony No. 7 | Symphony No. 8 | Das Lied von der Erde | Symphony No. 9
DAS LIED VON DER ERDE
The year 1907
The distance is so vast between the Eighth Symphony, Mahler's triumphal hymn addressed to humanity at large, and Das Lied von der Erde, a humble meditation on man's destiny on earth, that moving from one to the other is almost like entering a new universe. To explain such a radical change of mood, we must recall the rapid succession of tragic events that took place in Mahler's life in 1907. The first was his taking leave of the hated and beloved Vienna Opera where he had for ten years realized so many of his theatrical and musical dreams; the second the death, at the beginning of the summer, of his elder daughter, Putzi, from diphtheria; and the last the frightening diagnosis pronounced by a Maiernigg physician and a Vienna specialist that Mahler was suffering from a heart ailment, which he at first wrongly interpreted as a death sentence. Moreover, these misfortunes, far from bringing together the ill-matched Mahler and wife Alma, had driven them further apart. From that time on they went about their lives isolated from one another by grief. During the summer of 1907 Mahler immersed himself in a volume of Chinese poems in German verse adaptations, entitled Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), a recent gift from Theobald Pollak, an old and faithful friend of the family who watched over the couple with a paternal eye. In the late autumn of 1907 Mahler left Europe for America, where he had accepted an engagement to conduct a four-month season at the Metropolitan Opera. New York was not, to be sure, the ideal place for him to practice his art, if only because the audiences there much preferred Italian to German opera. Nevertheless, he was quickly won over by the generosity of spirit and lack of prejudice of the New World and was happy to find financial security there. Thus it was in New York that he began to live and work again, and it was there that he gradually recovered his strength.
But the bustle of rehearsals and performances offered Mahler only superficial relief. In June 1908, when he returned to Europe and set up for the summer in Toblach in the Dolomites of South Tyrol, he had to deny himself his favourite recreational exercises: swimming, rowing, cycling and climbing. 'This time I must change not only my home', he wrote to Bruno Walter, 'but also my whole way of life. You can't imagine how hard it is for me. For years I've been used to constant and vigorous exercise, roaming about through forests and mountains, and then bringing home my drafts like prizes plundered from nature. I would go to my desk only as a peasant goes into his barn, just to give shape to my sketches. Even spiritual indisposition used to vanish after a good trudge (especially uphill). Now I am supposed to avoid any exertion, to watch over myself constantly, not to walk much. And in this solitude here, which leaves me to concentrate on myself, I am all the more aware of what is physically wrong with me. Perhaps my outlook has become too gloomy, but since I've been living in the country I've felt less well than in the city, where many distractions took my mind off things.' Nearly every year Mahler had gone through a serious crisis before resuming his compositional activities at the end of an opera season. But never before was the transition as painful as in 1908. Bruno Walter's tactless suggestion that he take a trip served only to aggravate him and, in the following letter, his irritation can be sensed behind the irony: 'What's all this nonsense about the soul and its sickness? How should I go about curing it? On a journey to the northern countries? But there I'll just be "distracted" again. To find my way to myself again I need to be here alone. Since this panic had seized me, I've tried only to direct my eyes and ears elsewhere but, to rediscover myself, I've got to accept the horrors of loneliness. But basically I am speaking in riddles, for you don't know what has happened and is happening within me; in any case it is not a hypochondriac's fear of death, as you seem to think. I've long known that I must die. But all at once I have lost the serenity and confidence I'd acquired, and I find myself facing the void. Now, at the end of my life, I have to learn to stand and walk all over again like a beginner.. . . As far as my 'work' is concerned, it's most depressing to have to relearn everything. I cannot work at my desk—I need outside exercise for my inner exercise. . . .. After a gentle little stroll I'm filled with anxiety when I return, and my pulse beats so fast that it doesn't serve the purpose of making me forget my body. . . .'
Alma, the chief witness to this summer of crisis, confirms that they had never before spent such a sombre holiday. They were plagued everywhere by 'anxiety and grief'. Yet Mahler had, throughout his life, confronted the worst disasters with heroic courage and an unbending will. Once again he found 'the path to himself' in his creative work, i.e. in the composition of Das Lied von der Erde. Having arrived at Toblach on 11 June, he completed the second song in July. The five others were completed by 1 September. To his visitors that summer he seemed transformed—he had become calm and patient. He had emerged from the crisis a different man. As he wrote at the beginning of September before leaving Toblach—again to Bruno Walter: 'I've been working with tremendous intensity (you can probably guess that I'm now feeling quite "acclimatized"). I can't yet say what the whole (work) will be called. I've been granted some beautiful moments, and I believe this will be the most personal thing I've done so far.'
During the winter Mahler resumed his activities at the Metropolitan and, as usual, copied out his new score and finalized the orchestration. But the piece was still without a title. For a long time—at least a year—it was called Die Flöte aus Jade (The Flute of Jade). The following winter, upon returning to New York after composing his next, and last, completed symphony, he scribbled on a sheet of music paper: 'The Song of the Earth, from the Chinese', followed by the titles he had given to the various movements and, finally, at the bottom of the page: 'Ninth Symphony in four movements'. Thus he believed he had outwitted a cruel fate that had not allowed Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner to compose more symphonies than the fateful number nine.
Mahler had always avoided setting literary masterpieces to music because he believed that great poetry should stand alone. Consequently he had always selected poems to which music could bring a new dimension. Hans Bethge (1876-1946), author of Die Chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), was, like Goethe and Rückert, fascinated by Oriental literature. Since he did not know a word of Chinese, he wrote free verse translations, or rather adaptations, on the basis of existing French versions by Judith Gautier (1867) and the Marquis d'Hervey St-Denis (1862). Executed with taste and refinement, and presented as a lovely little volume bound with silk thread, his little collection comprised some 80 poems, mostly dating from the eighth century, Chinese poetry's most glorious period. In Bethge's collection, pride of place goes to Li T'ai Po (or Li Bai). This widely traveled high official of the imperial court, called the 'prince of poetry' by his contemporaries, was universally admired in his time for his formal perfection, and ability to express a wide range of impressions and feelings—with, however, a marked predilection for the pleasures of wine and the joys of friendship. The first, third, fourth and fifth songs of Das Lied von der Erde are based on his texts (although the original Chinese hasn't yet been found for the third). Less well known are Ts'ien Ts'i (or Qian Qi), the author of the second song, 'Der Einsame im Herbst' (The Lonely One in Autumn), and Mong-Kao-Jèn (or Meng Hao-ran) and Wang-Wei, two friends whose poems were combined and set to music in the final 'Abschied' (The Farewell). Mahler made these last two texts, which express the basic 'message' of the work, into something entirely his own, not hesitating to add to them a number of lines of his own invention.
It is easy to understand why the melancholy in the poems evoked such a strong response from Mahler at a time when he was still recovering from his daughter's death. In a period when death had struck the 'flesh of his flesh', his beloved child, he was more conscious than ever of mankind's sorrow and of the brevity of human life on this earth. Not only are these two of the main themes of the anthology, he found in Bethge entire phrases echoing those he had himself written in his youth. He had, at the age of 24, written:
The weary men close their eyes
How moving it must have been for him to read, years later, in Bethge's adaptation of Mong-Kao-Jèn:
The toiling men wend their way homewards
Lied and Symphony
No composer before Mahler had ever devoted himself exclusively to two genres so apparently incompatible as the intimate lied and the grandiose symphony. Thus it is fascinating in Das Lied von der Erde to see him combining, at this late stage of his career, these two seemingly opposed genres in a 'symphony of lieder' for two solo voices and orchestra. Mahler had, of course, always been inspired by the human voice when writing for instruments, and he also made use in his songs of the developmental procedures characteristic of sonata form. This time, however, the direction was reversed: he planned at first to write a mere song-cycle, but, little by little, it grew into a new kind of symphony.
Like the Seventh Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde is made up of two larger outer movements separated by a group of shorter pieces. The first song can, in many respects, be likened to a symphonic Allegro, while the character and dimensions of the second are that of a true symphonic Andante. For the first time since the Third Symphony, the Finale, one of the longest Mahler ever composed, is a long Adagio. Moreover, the essential message of the work is communicated by these two slow movements, which deal with weighty subjects—melancholy, fate, the approach of death. The other four pieces depict the fragile splendours of life: youth, beauty, drunkenness—that intoxication which, according to Li Tai PO, is the only way of escaping from the painful realities of life on earth.
As we shall see, the discovery of Chinese music stimulated Mahler to adopt certain features, such as the pentatonic scale, and to use instruments suggesting those of China, such as the mandolin, harp, winds and tambourine. It should be pointed out, however, that these exotic touches are more prevalent in the faster movements than in the two slow ones. By chance I once learned, in the course of a conversation with the daughter of one of Mahler's friends, that he had been interested enough in authentic Chinese music to ask a friend to let him hear phonograph cylinders recorded in China and preserved at the University of Vienna.
Style and Language
As always with Mahler, the apparent simplicity and spontaneity of the musical discourse is achieved through complex technical procedures, more so than ever at this late stage of his career in which his art was resolutely pointing towards the future. The Rückert-Lieder already marked the beginning of a thorough integration of the voice with the instrumental texture, but this time Mahler goes farther: the voice and the instruments are tightly interwoven in a relationship that is guided by the text in a constant give-and-take. Another basic innovation in Das Lied von der Erde is the use of the same motifs in both the principal and secondary voices—prefiguring one of the basic principles of Schoenberg's serial composition, 'total thematicism'. Das Lied von der Erde also inaugurates a process that was only glimpsed in the Rückert-Lieder, known as heterophony (or 'imprecise unison'), a principle in which a melody and an ornamented or varied version of it are heard simultaneously, or in which identical voices diverge slightly in rhythm or in interval structure. What is heard, in fact, are 'all sorts of apparently disparate melodies which are actually amalgamated in a single, indivisible complex of sound'.
The economy of means, the rarefied textures that characterize the greater part of the final 'Abschied' were also a new phenomenon in the history of music. The various melodic lines often lack an underlying bass line and are completely independent, both rhythmically and melodically. Not only are there many examples of three against two (something dear to Brahms), but one also finds four against three, five against two, three or five against eight… Only an unusually skilled conductor could confront such formidable difficulties. Mahler himself once pointed out a passage in the final movement to his disciple Bruno Walter and asked him: 'Have you the slightest idea how to conduct this? I haven't!' One last essential point: the entire melodic material of Das Lied von der Erde is derived from a single cell of three notes—A-G-E—which form part of the pentatonic—hence the Chinese—scale.
1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow).
The only surge of true lyricism in this first song occurs at the moment at which one of the essential 'themes' of the whole work appears in the poem: that of the 'eternally blue firmament' and the Earth blossoming forth each spring, which stand in direct contrast to the brief duration of human life and to the 'rotting trifles' (morschen Tande) of mankind's world. The startling apparition of the ape crouching on the graves makes terrifying demands on the tenor's highest register to suggest the howling animal. In fact, this whole song appears to be written for a more powerful voice from the third and fifth.
2. Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn).
3. Von der Jugend (Youth).
4. Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty).
5. Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring).
Mahler the ascetic, who according to Alma, never allowed himself the slightest excess of food or drink, again sings of the oblivion derived from wine. But it was probably not the theme of drunkenness that inspired Mahler's choice of this Bethge poem, but rather that of the advent of spring and its yearly miracle of which Mahler himself had once sung in one of his first youthful poems. It is here symbolized in twittering woodwinds by a bird, the harbinger of spring that 'sings and laughs'. The dream is short-lived and the sobered-up drinker refills the cup of oblivion.
6. Der Abschied (The Farewell).
The two poems are linked by a long orchestral episode in the style of a funeral march. The whole orchestration is characteristically spare and transparent, almost paradoxically so. The length of this finale nearly equals that of the five other pieces combined, and it is, in all respects, the expressive climax of the whole work. Each of the three main sections is preceded by a vocal recitative. Here Mahler unites the symphonist's rigour and the craft of the architect-musician who simulates improvisation while, in fact, endlessly transforming the same melodic cells. This entire Finale could be interpreted as a single entity, during which the great descending, then ascending, Lebensthema ('theme of life') gradually evolves, and attains its complete shape and its full splendour only in the final coda.
The initial low C resounds twice, like a cavernous knell, on low horns, contrabassoons, low harps, and tam-tam. As in the Ninth Symphony, the main thematic cells of the movement appear in rapid succession: a quick gruppetto (oboe) with its sad reply, a harmonic third on low horns; a brief motif that is repeated three times, first in 32nd notes, then in 16ths, and finally in 8ths; and the horns' sighing harmonic thirds that descend towards their low register. The violins tentatively sketch a fourth motif in the major that also ends in sighs, and the whole introductory section closes with a quick descending chromatic scale (on woodwinds) that recurs several times, in various instrumental registers, at the end of the various sections.
In the first recitative, the flute solo pursues an independent course from the voice, in a manner that is both highly original and characteristic of this movement. The brief motifs of the orchestral introduction are later constantly transformed, developed, amplified or diminished, in endlessly varied instrumentation. In the contrasting episode ('Der Bach singt'), which is later amplified into the coda of the movement, the same melodic and rhythmic independence is maintained between the long, sinuous woodwind phrase (later taken up by the violins), and the ecstatic vocal line, in long note-values. Both rest on an accompaniment of melodic thirds (harp and clarinets, then altos).
In the second main section, the contrasting episode follows immediately after the recitative, and a new, ecstatic melody (the Lebensthema on flutes, and later violins) gradually unfolds over the vocal line ('Ich sehne mich, o Freund'). Here, the independence of the two lines is carried to extremes, creating terrifying problems for the conductor because of the slow tempo, the long note-values, and the vastly different meters. This is surely the passage Mahler was alluding to when speaking to Bruno Walter about the problems he had imposed on conductors.
In the last section that follows the orchestral interlude, the Lebensthema reaches its full efflorescence on the words: 'the dear Earth blossoms forth in spring'. Yet this climactic melody is neither sung nor played in toto either by the voice or by the instruments. It constantly passes from one to the other, while counter-melodies ornament, surround, prolong and amplify it, lending it a dimension of 'openness'. This dimension is preserved until the very end, when the final C major chord upon which the flute and the clarinet obstinately maintain a dissonant A instead of letting it descend to G, as traditional harmony would require. It imparts a sense of timelessness to the final bars, in which the last two notes of the solo voice ('Ewig', E - D) are also not allowed to reach the tonic (C). Furthermore, three of the four notes in this final chord are those of the main leitmotif of the work—A-G-E. The movement ends in near-silence with the pianississimo tonic chord sustained by three trombones and woodwinds, and brief arpeggio fragments plucked at by the harp, mandolin and celesta.
This profoundly affecting conclusion, so gentle, so serene, so restrained and quietly confident, offers a positive response to the poignant, funereal lamentation that precedes the last poem and sings of the weariness and despair of man, as a prisoner of the here-below. The work's concluding lines are Mahler's own:
Theodor Adorno once remarked that Mahler was the first composer since Beethoven to have a characteristic 'late style'. In his last slow movements, it is as though a serene acceptance of fate were illuminated by a distant radiance coming from beyond. At the end of Mahler's short life, when his supreme mastery could make light of every formal problem and every constraint, his music attains a new level of quiet, contemplative lyricism. The material becomes rarefied as the voices are spaced out and hover in the ether, liberated from the laws of gravity and the normal constraints of counterpoint. In the final 'Farewell' of Das Lied von der Erde, a breath of consolation and peace wafts over man as he longs to merge with the eternity of nature blossoming anew each spring.
© Henry-Louis de La Grange