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?