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!