Now this next movement is somewhat of a rarity – a Mahler movement where everything is done and dusted in under 5 minutes. So blink and you miss it, really.
Where We’ve Been: As a recap, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is working through a selection of Chinese poems that Mahler discovered. The first movement was the bleak drinking song where the poet expressed his misery at the finiteness of life. The second movement was a more introverted but no less miserable look at autumn and a reminder of the poet’s lost love and current loneliness.
Where We’re Going: In this movement, which reverts back to the tenor, the music strikes a much happier tone, because the poet is looking back to his youth and becoming nostalgic. (Mahler always liked to insert a bit of nostalgia in his symphonies – something that would hearken back to a simpler time.)
The poem simply tells of a bunch of friends that get together on a pavilion in the middle of a pond to “drink, chat and write down verses”.
The music has a sort of “fake Oriental” feel to it – the kind of music you feel might have been used on a Disney cartoon with Chinese characters done back in the 40s. It has all the touches – the cute little flute melodies, trills (where two notes alternate back and forth very fast), the slightly exotic triangle which dings at the beginning of the song and the cymbals (0:52) which kick in when the verses start talking about the people.
There is a contrast in the middle part (1:36) when the poem starts to talk about the reflection of everything in the pond below it. Mahler uses this line as an excuse to take the somewhat cutesy feeling of the song and inject some melancholy into the proceedings. It casts a brief shadow before the music brightens up again (2:35) and the song finishes as chirpily as it began.
In and of itself, this would be a bit of a nothing song, but when you take the song cycle as a whole, where we are viewing life from the perspective of someone looking death and loneliness in the face, it becomes a sad bit of remembering a past that is not coming back. The song serves to remind us that the happy times of life don’t last forever, and that they are transitory.
You’ll notice that the two first verses are simply descriptive – the poet talks about the early morning, the frost like jade dust sprinkled on the blossoms, the cold wind, etc. The overall emphasis you get is autumn stillness.
Then in verse 3, he starts to describe himself, and we see that it is autumn in his heart. He’s lonely, he’s weary and he wants rest. (Which could, of course, be talking about death.) Finally, in the last couple of lines, he’s begging for the “sun of love” to come back again – but this is autumn, the weather is heading into winter, not back to summer.
Now listen to how this is reflected in the music:
(0:00) Before there is any singing, the music consists of a long passage of a solitary oboe singing over wandering strings. One of the things to notice here is how separately all the instruments are playing. Mahler has a huge orchestra at his disposal, but is only using small separate groups to create the sounds he wants. Different solo instruments accompany different phrases but we only once feel like it’s a full orchestral sound in this movement.
When the singer finally does enter, with his description of the stillness of the autumn, the music has already set us up for an atmosphere of non-motion.
(5:33) Things start to become even more flat as the singer starts to describe the weariness of his heart. Things pick up a little bit, but the real climax of the song is at (9:11) when he sings of the “Sonne der Liebe” (Sun of Love). The orchestra fires up and illuminates this line, so that for a brief second you feel like the sun is shining upon you. The music gives us a glimpse into the poet’s former joy. For me, this is the only real moment that feels like a full orchestra in this movement.
But then it all dies out, and we return to the lonely oboe and the wandering strings. The sun is gone, autumn is still here and the poet is alone.
A rather melancholy week, all in all. If you want something a bit more chirpy, see you next week.
I’ve decided to refer to this work by its German name, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), because it will make it easier for other people to find online (plus the German name is the one used on the title of 99% of recordings). Though even then, a lot of us in classical music circles get lazy and just refer to it as Das Lied (The Song). Or is that just me and I’ve been thinking everyone else does it? I’ll have to ponder that …
However, because it is sung in German, unless you’re a German-speaker (I’m not!), it’s worth popping over and having a read of the song texts translated into English. Which is a great time to do a shout-out to a phenomenal website, which is becoming even more of a useful resource in this day and age of digital music which doesn’t come with any liner notes or booklets.
It’s called The LiederNet Archive (http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/). Lieder is the German word for songs, particularly songs written by classical composers in the 19th century for piano and voice. The problem with a lot of these songs, though, is that unless you speak German, you need a copy of the lyrics in front of you. So he owner of the website, Emily Ezust, started translating these old songs. She then moved from songs to choral works and everything else classical and vocal and has now built a massive freely available library that contains translations into multiple languages of nearly all the major classical vocal works out there. If you find you get into opera or lieder but you’d like to know what they’re singing about, pop on over, and you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.
Anyway, here is Emily’s translation of the first Das Lied movement, the awesomely titled Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth. I’d recommend following along with the text the first time you listen to it to get the feel of it, and I’ll make some comments and point out my highlights after that.
I did say in the introduction to Das Lied that the whole thing is fairly introverted – and it is on the whole – but this first song is wild straight out of the gate. We tend to think of drinking songs as being noisy, jolly things. And it is noisy. But there’s no jollity to be had here.
(0:00) Verse 1. It’s got a big French horn theme, swirling strings, and a stuttery trumpet thing happening. It’s chaos, in other words. And the tenor, James King, just storms into the middle of this, sort of life a crazed toastmaster. He’s proposing a toast, the glasses are raised, but he’s telling his audience that they shouldn’t drink yet. He has a few things to say and most of it revolves around how miserably unfair it is that we only get this one shot at life and then death takes us.
(1:10) The music goes into a quieter sound, more chamber music, as he talks about desolate gardens of the soul. But the big line, the chorus if you like, is at (1:42) where the line “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (“Dark is life, dark is death”) occurs. It’s the theme of the whole song – with death looming at the end, the whole of life becomes dark. This line gets repeated throughout the song and is the constant thing the singer keeps returning to, even though the song itself goes in all sorts of interesting directions.
(1:56) Verse 2. A return back to the chaotic French horn opening and then Verse 2. Same “Dunkel ist das Leben” ending. The singer is still talking about drinking and how it seems like a good idea, but he holds off.
(3:56) Interlude. The last line of Verse 2 sets us off into an amazing orchestral interlude. To start with, a melancholy but beautiful moment on the strings.
(4:17) Then, introduced by some amazing fluttering sounds on the flute, a variation of the first verse appears on various instruments, ending up on a trumpet. (Those who are particularly sharp-eared may notice that this is a little bit like sonata form that we looked at a few weeks ago – the verses are like the exposition, and the interlude is like a development section in the middle. Das Lied is the kind of piece where symphonic forms and song forms get blended together seamlessly.)
(5:30) The singer returns with the third verse, where he begins his lament that the stars and sky and earth last forever, but how long do we get? Less than 100 years of life to enjoy “the rotten triviality of this earth”. It’s bleak stuff.
But the spectacular moment is about to arrive. With a return to the chaotic sound of the opening, the tenor sings of a ghostly vision of an ape crouching on the graves, shrieking into the night air. “His howls shrill out into the sweet fragrance of life”. On the word “life” (Lebens in German), the tenor takes an almighty leap out into the void (7:17). It gets me every time. (I’ve often wondered how the poor tenor feels about it, though.)
Then, straight away, he picks himself up, faces his drinking companions and tells them it’s time to have that toast he’s been prepping them for. It ends with another repeat of the line “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod”, a final swirl and a very bleak thud.
In short, it’s awesome in its bleakness. But what did you think?
Our next stop on the Mahler Symphonies guided tour is a bit of an unusual one because technically it’s not one of Mahler’s symphonies, but there are a couple of good reasons to include it as one of them.
The Song of the Earth (or Das Lied von der Erde as it’s referred to in German – which is how it will most commonly be labelled if you’re looking for it online) is a large scale song cycle (i.e. a set of connected songs) written for two singers and a large orchestra. So while Mahler may not have called it a symphony, you certainly need a symphony orchestra to perform it.
It was composed in 1909 and fits in between Symphonies 8 and 9. In fact, some people have speculated that perhaps Mahler actually saw it as his ninth symphony, after finishing off his massive eighth, but was superstitious and worried about falling foul of the “Curse of the ninth“, a commonly-held idea that famous composers will drop dead once they’ve finished a ninth symphony. I suspect this idea is more appealing to people who write about music rather than one that the composers themselves held, but I’ve got to admit, it’s a great story if there’s any truth to it … (And, of course, the legend is reinforced by the fact that after Song of the Earth, Mahler went on to compose his 9th symphony, and then started work on the 10th, but died before the former was ever performed and the latter was ever completed.)
So for all intents and purposes, conductors and Mahler fans tend to think of it as a symphony, so we’ll include it on the tour. For me, also, it marks a new break in the way Mahler composed his music, so it will prepare your ears for Mahler 9 and 10 when we get to them later.
Essentially, in these last three works of his – Song of the Earth, Symphony 9 and the unfinished Symphony 10 – Mahler developed a more introverted style of symphonic music. He still had a massive orchestra, but more because he could paint all sorts of musical colours with it, not because he was necessarily after an epic sound.
Also his symphonies aren’t journeying towards a big ending – or at least not a big ending in the regular symphony way. For most symphonies, you end up at a massive full orchestral finale. It is, after all, what the crowd goes nuts over. Even the Mahler 5, quirky as it is, ends with the big Star Wars moment.
But Song of the Earth, the 9th and 10th, all end with long slow movements and they fade away. And the ideas that Mahler is dealing with in the works are clearly to do with loss, death, grief, mourning, and the strange beauty of life that you only realise when you haven’t got much of it left.
And that’s explicit in Song of the Earth, of course, because it consists of songs, songs have words, and so we know exactly what emotions Mahler was trying to convey.
Which brings us to the poems themselves. The Song of the Earth verses started life as ancient Chinese poems. Some of them were translated in German by an author named Hans Bethge and published in 1908, the year before this work came out.
At the time, Mahler was suffering from intense grief on a few fronts – he’d had to resign from his position at the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly due to anti-Semitism and political manoeuvring, his eldest daughter had died and finally he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. So all in all, he wasn’t in the greatest of spaces.
So when he came across these poems, which speak – albeit in slightly symbolic language – of how fleeting life is, of remembering joyous times in the past and, most movingly, of farewell, he knew that this was the material he wanted to use for his next symphonic work.
And so Song of the Earth was born. The structure is pretty simple. There are seven of the Chinese poems. Each movement has one poem and runs between 3 and 10 minutes, except for the last movement, which is made up of two poems combined together and runs for a mammoth 30 minutes, almost the total of everything leading up to it. So six movements in all.
There are two singers – a tenor (higher male voice) and an alto (lower female voice), though Mahler did say “if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone” (lower male voice). (In fact, the version I’m going to refer to is the Leonard Bernstein recording where he used tenor James King and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, because they both sing it really well. If you like it, by all means track down the regular version with an alto to compare with later.) Each singer gets a movement and they alternate, so there are no duets here. It looks like this:
Movement I – Tenor
Movement II – Baritone
Movement III – Tenor
Movement IV – Baritone
Movement V – Tenor
Movement VI – Baritone
And that’s all you need to know to get started. We’ll have Movement I up in a few days!
Where We’ve Been: Part 1 of the symphony consisted of the dark first two movements: a funeral march and a swirl of chaos, respectively. Part 2 was the expansive scherzo, taking us down the rabbit hole. Part 3 is the happy ending and began with the beautiful slow movement.
Where We’re Going: And now we’re up to the big happy finale. I must admit, this is where I find I get a bit disappointed with this symphony. I don’t know why, but I find if Mahler is in a serious mood, whether it be dark (like the opening funeral march) or glorious and spiritual (like some of the symphonies we’ll come to later in the tour) I always find it convincing. But, for some reason, when he attempts to be light and happy (like he’s doing here), I find it a bit jarring. It feels like a grown man skipping down the street – it ends up being more odd than anything else.
Now, that said, the great thing about music is that you can bring your own sense of judgment to the whole thing and have a listen for yourself. Am I just being a sourpuss? Is it actually a glorious ending?
Let’s have a listen.
Before we begin the finale, there are three more bits of jargon that will be useful.
Rondo. Mahler called this movement a “Rondo-Finale”. I think the word finale speaks for itself but rondo is a particular type of music where there is one main theme that keeps alternating with other themes throughout a piece of music. So if you imagine that A was the main theme, and B, C and D were the other themes (though there could be more), the structure would look like A B A C A D A. So you’ll find there’s a slightly chirpy theme that shows up on the French horn that keeps cropping up throughout this movement.
However, just to be convoluted, this movement is also a lot like sonata form, where we have an exposition of the main themes and a development section at the end.
Counterpoint. I’ve often thought that this sounds like a kind of tapestry (but, no, that’s needlepoint), and there is a sense of weaving sounds with counterpoint. But strictly speaking, counterpoint is where you have several voices (in other words, several melody lines) that are all running simultaneously but they’re constructed carefully so that they don’t musically clash with each other. In fact, they’re picked because the sounds blend well together (or as Wikipedia puts it, in a much more complex turn of phrase, the voices “are interdependent harmonically“).
Counterpoint is one of the major differences between old Baroque music (like Bach and Handel) and the music we have nowadays. For instance, I happen to be listening to Mumford and Sons while I’m writing this, and if you listen to the way they construct their songs, there is one main melody line and all the other banjos, guitars, and piano, etc really provide accompaniment to that one melody line. That’s the melody you remember, that’s the one you’ll be humming later. But if you listen to Baroque music, it can actually be difficult to identify which is the main melody, because there are two or three main melodies all going at once.
Fugue. Finally, there is a type of music known as a fugue, which is probably the most well-known type of counterpoint, and furthermore, you may well have participated in a fugue at some stage in your life without realising it … A fugue is a piece of music where one voice starts out, then a bit later, a second voice comes in with the same melody line and then the two melody lines combine together (that’s the counterpoint part). You could then add in a third part and so forth.
The classic example of this is the children’s song “Row, row, row your boat”. If you’ve ever sung it as a round (which is a type of fugue) where one person starts, then another person comes in a couple of lines later and so forth, you may have noticed that the amazing thing about “Row, row” (at least when you’re 8) is that even though the person who started second is a couple of lines behind you, the melodies combine perfectly well and sound fine.
The reason for that is because the melody is constructed to obey the rules of counterpoint, so that the two melodies can lie over the top of each other and be separate, but yet combine harmonically. The part where one voice comes in staggered after the other is what makes it a fugue. (And, if you want to get super-technical, the difference between a fugue and a round is that, in a round, everybody sings exactly the same melody line, only staggered by time. But there are lots of other fugues where, apart from the opening part of the melody, the different voices have different melodies in the middle, which means you can do lots of interesting things with the counterpoint. So it means that all rounds are fugues, but not all fugues are rounds.)
Anyway, the point of all that is that in this movement, you will hear a repeating theme which keeps coming back (making it a rondo). And you’ll find another section that keeps appearing is a fugue (where one voice comes in after the other, starting with the same melody) and this layering of melodies on top of each other is called counterpoint.
The reason all this is interesting is that by Mahler’s day, counterpoint was a bit of an old-fashioned thing. It really belonged back in the days of Bach. But Mahler had been listening to a lot of Bach at the time and wanted to write something along those lines, while putting his own spin on it.
Let’s have a listen.
(0:00) Intro – This is a thing you’ll come to recognise in later symphonies – a Mahler “hinting” intro, where he hints at the tunes he’s going to use later in the movement.
(0:42) Main Rondo Theme – Starting with the French horn, a very happy theme.
(1:20) The Fugue – So here’s that counterpoint we’ve been talking about. It has lots of twitchy string playing but you should be able to hear how the voices come in one at a time and the way everybody is playing their own melodies, but they all combine together. I find it quite cute-sounding.
(2:49) Rondo Theme – Again.
(3:27) Fugue – Again, but more intense.
(3:51) Slow Movement Theme. Now here’s where Mahler does something rather surprising. If you listen carefully, this is actually the second theme from the fourth movement (4:58 on that movement, if you want to go back and compare), but it’s speeded up and turned into a jaunty little strut. Or ice skating music. Take your pick. Either way, Mahler has managed to take a tune that sounded soulful and reaching in its first incarnation when played slowly and has made it light and breezy the second time around. (Normally, composers work the opposite way – they take a theme that sounds lighter and make it more weighty. But this is Mahler in a good mood and he wants to be different.)
(4:45) Quiet Ending. Ends with a quiet little chamber music moment (i.e. just for a small group of instruments) on just the strings and woodwinds. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve moved from the stress of the opening movements, isn’t it?
(5:30) More counterpoint. Hang in there, folks. There are 10 more minutes of this to go.
(5:55) Building to our first climax …
(6:18) A great French horn theme. (Okay, I really like this bit. Leave me alone. I didn’t say I didn’t like the whole thing.)
(6:31) I’ve always thought this bit is a soundtrack in my head to trying to chase a bunch of mice with a hammer whilst drunk … or are the mice drunk? I’m not sure.
(6:53) And more counterpoint.
(7:16) Jaunty version of the slow movement theme again.
(8:08) Quiet Ending again. Then straight back into the counterpoint world.
(8:34) The brass come back in. Everything is speeding up – becoming a wee bit anxious around the (9:00) mark.
(9:13) The development climax, which kind of collapses in on itself. (Because there always has to be a collapse, even in the happiest of Mahler.)
(9:33) Woozy seasick string version of the main Rondo theme. This is about the time when I start to get over this piece and am ready for it to finish. And, look, I’m probably not supposed to say it’s woozy. He’s just varying the rhythm. Still …
(10:18) Back to the fugue part, but even more boisterous (adding brass will do that). Home stretch now. Hang in there.
(11:18) Everyone lands in a slump. Is it possible that the orchestra themselves are sick of all the jolliness? It certainly sounds that way …
(11:51) But the woodwinds – far too optimistic for their own good – start perking everybody up again, and things start to move.
(12:32) Back to the Slow Movement Theme, still in its Disney on Ice incarnation.
(13:33) Okay, here we go. The big climax. Are you ready for it?
(13:47) And it’s the big Star Wars climax from Movement II, this time with the fugue underneath. (They call this brass playing a chorale, because you could imagine it being sung by a choir.) All right, I will admit, this bit is pretty cool, but was it really worth waiting 13 minutes for?
(14:35) A bit of mucking around, and we’re all finished.
There you go – in my books, Mahler’s second-most irritating finale. (Number one, of course, goes to the finale of the Mahler 7, but we’ll tackle that one another day.)