The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde VI – The Farewell

By Gregory H. Revera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 () or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the over-the-top drinking song of the world’s sorrow; II – the lonely man in autumn; III – the nostalgic jade pavilion; IV – the reflection on beauty with the maidens and the horsemen; V – the raucous drunk who sings with the birds and ignores springtime.

But now we come to the finale of The Song of the Earth, which could polarise listeners a little bit. As I mentioned earlier, many conductors love this work of Mahler’s more than any other, so for them, this is amazing.

But for me, it took a long while to warm up to this piece, and especially this movement, which is 30 minutes long (so nearly as long as everything we’ve heard so far in the work) and – for the most part – an exercise in stillness and quiet.

Structurally, it’s pretty straightforward. Mahler took two of the original Chinese poems from the Bethge book (see my original intro if you need a reminder on that one) and combined them into one work. Have a read of the lyrics here. (I’m linking to the text on Wikipedia this time, because the normally amazing lieder.net only seems to have a translation of the first poem, but not the second one.)

And then let’s jump in:

Poem 1 (“Die Sonne scheidet”)

(0:00) I love the beginning of this movement. It starts with the sound of the tam-tam (a type of massive Chinese gong) with an accompanying growl from the low instruments and circling above it, a twirling theme on the oboe.

(0:57) A rhythm starts to begin – it hints that we’re in for a funeral march – but we don’t get to hear the full version of this until the middle of the movement.

(1:27) A very flat and quiet intro from the soloist – baritone in this recording. The flute keeps up the twirling idea that we originally heard from the oboe and then performs a solo of its own. Everything is very quiet as the sun disappears below the horizon.

(2:41) Another orchestral interlude and a hint of the march.

(2:59) One of the most gorgeous moments in the whole piece – especially the way Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings it here – is where the moon floats out like a boat. It’s a tiny moment of beauty in this otherwise morose landscape.

(4:51) At this stage, a slightly off-kilter rocking rhythm enters on the harp with an oboe solo above it. (Which, to have a completely tangential thought, reminds me a lot of the interval bell at the Sydney Opera House. “The performance will commence in 5 minutes time.” Anyway, back to Mahler.)

This next stretch is rather descriptive, as the poet describes the landscape at night. The next five minutes or so consist of some passionate interjections from the orchestra (like 8:01), a bit more of the bird sounds on the woodwinds (8:33), but overall the mood is becoming ever more quiet, as if the world really is going to sleep as described in the poem.

(9:53) At its most quiet, it is just a solo between the flute and the singer. You can lose track of this on a recording, but when you see it live, you see the massive orchestra that Mahler has arrayed, and yet so much of this movement are just intimate moments like this, where a couple of voices are playing, and the rest remain silent.

(11:10) A slightly more optimistic theme begins on the flute and strings. This is the Ewig (German for “ever”) theme which will return at the end. It is a hint of the place where we are heading for – a calm acceptance.

The singer gets one last big moment in the climax of the first poem where he is singing about beauty and eternal love (“O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens”).

Orchestral Interlude

(14:21) But after this we enter a long orchestral interlude. It’s mostly concerned with the opening swirl (which you should be able to instantly recognise by now) and doesn’t have much of a shape.

(15:06) But gradually, with a series of ominous thuds, a march begins. It’s a slow, crawling thing at first, almost as if the tune is struggling to pull itself out a quicksand. But once it picks up, it reminds me a lot of the funeral march from the opening of Symphony 5.  I find this funeral march sounds so classical and European that it takes me away from the Chinese feeling of the piece, but it’s so beautiful that I never mind the detour.

(19:40) Towards the end the march becomes more ominous.

Poem 2 (“Er stieg vom Pferd”)

(20:32) The tone becomes flat and still again, as the singer begins the second poem. After the description of night time, and mostly nature, now a scene of people emerges: two friends – one about to say farewell to the other and offering him the “cup of farewell”.

He asks his friend where he is going and why he must go? The Departing Friend says that fortune has not been kind to him (22:34 – note how the music becomes more warm and less flat as he expresses himself) and that he is off to wander.

Everything dies out to almost an awkward silence (25:36) and then the off-kilter rocking idea returns again as we enter the final stretch, heading towards the magical ending …

(27:06) The final lines speak with a quiet optimism about the spring and the earth renewing itself. Unlike the drunk from Movement V who saw nothing to like about spring, this time spring is a source of comfort and a promise of something else beyond this life’s suffering. It has some really unusual instrumental touches like a mandolin (an earlier precursor of the guitar) and a celesta (the tinkly little bell-like instrument – think of Danny Elfman scores or the Sugar-Plum Fairy).

But most striking is the way the music just fades, as the word Ewig (“forever”) is repeated over and over again. (Seven times, if you’re into numbers.)

Up until then, apart from the Mahler 4, which ended with a quiet song, and the Mahler 6 (which is the only one with a really unhappy ending), most of Mahler’s symphonies ended like the Mahler 5 we’ve already listened to – big, epic, massive walls of sound. But with Das Lied von der Erde, he was to introduce a new kind of sound, and it’s very tempting to think that it was inspired by thoughts of his own mentality. For this symphony, and Symphonies 9 and 10, there is no “big ending”. They simply fade out, as if the music has passed into another world.

Conclusion

So, as you can see, this piece is a bit of a tough beast to grapple with. It’s got a lot of singing, a huge orchestra that barely makes any huge sounds, a quiet ending and somewhat obscure lyrics. And yet conductors and musicians love it. I think it’s because you’re seeing a composer that you know could unleash a massive wall of orchestral sound, deliberately restraining himself. (It reminds me a lot of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg is quite capable of making huge battle scenes, action scenes, you name it, and yet has crafted a film that is predominantly conversation-driven.)

But what did you think?

And if you’ve had enough of the introspection and quiet, rest assured, we will be back with noise and clamor galore when we return next week with Mahler’s 7th Symphony.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde V – The Drunken Man in Spring

Photo by Philippe Alès [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – despairing drinking song; II – a lonely man in autumn; III – brief nostalgia in the jade pavilion; IV – the exploration of beauty, in the song about the flower pickers and the horsemen.

The Drunken Man in Spring

You may be thinking, given the title of this song, “What? Another drunk? That makes two for this song cycle!” Which is correct, but this guy is a far different character than the drinker from the first song. Or … here’s a thought … he could be the same character a few hours later. I’ll let you decide.

The contrast is mainly that if the drinker in the first song was serious and morose (almost fanatically so), this guy is a funny drunk. He’s staggering along home from a night at the pub. The sentiment is still that of misery with the world, but Mahler delivers it in a much more humorous way. Have a read of the original poem first:

http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20691

Now here’s the song:

(0:00) The first thing to notice is the drunken, staggering rhythm that Mahler has introduced at the beginning. Listen to the tenor’s first line, and you can hear an amusing sort of lurch as if the music has paused a bit too long and then sped up.

(1:39) There’s one of those little moments of drunken logic where the poet sings to one of the birds and imagines that the bird is singing back to him. (It also gives the piccolo a rare chance to have a solo.)

(3:24) The song then reaches its climax, as the drunk decides to keep drowning his sorrows and sing “until the moon shines in the dark firmament”. Who cares about springtime? He says. Let me be drunk.

Subtly, this song is a reminder of the first song, and also the opposite of the autumn song. The lonely man in autumn desperately wanted summer back as winter approached, but this drunken man sees spring coming in and simply doesn’t care.

So far all the songs have dealt with aggravation in the face of death, misery in the face of loneliness, nostalgia for a past that can’t come back and, in today’s song, a vain attempt to forget about everything.

But in the final, epic-length song coming up, Mahler takes his listeners on one last journey to the only place left for him to go when faced with such a sad world: acceptance.

See you next week.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde IV – Of Beauty

 Photo by Apassionata [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Where We’ve Been: Song I – desolate drinking song, full of despair. Song II – Loneliness in autumn. Song III – fluffy nostalgia piece that looks backwards to the past.

This song is one of the most interesting ones in the whole cycle, because it’s one of those poems that you can read a lot of metaphors into, depending on how philosophical you want to get. As always, have a look at the words first (or even better, follow along with them as you listen):

http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20687

The picture is very simple. Young maidens sit by the river picking flowers, and the first half of the poem is taken up with a picturesque description of the location and the girls.

But the turning point is when the young men come along, including one who has a runaway horse that tramples the horses of the young girls.

The interesting part in all this is where the maiden turns to watch him go, feigning a “proud demeanour” but really giving him “long, yearning glances”. Is this just a piece of romance? Or is it a deeper message that the people we love will trample and destroy our lives to some extent? Is it saying that we love them because we know they hurt us?

The honest answer is that I’m not sure, and nor am I sure that having a complete psychological explanation would make me enjoy it any more. But what we can perhaps all agree is that this contrast between the destructive nature of the boys and the delicate work of the girls, and the romance this inspires, is the heart of the poem. And Mahler has captured it perfectly in this song, which is sung by the baritone this time.

(0:00) The beginning is very “pretty” – lots of flute, in other words, as the girls are described picking their flowers.

(2:46) I always feel like this is a rip-off of the 1812 Overture, as the boys ride through on horses. (Though don’t take my word on that.) But it’s definitely the loudest part in the whole work, and almost impossible for any singer to really manage, as the music gallops faster than the singer can keep up.)

(6:13) The most beautiful moment in the whole work is the ending, where the girl looks longingly after the young man who has destroyed everything she has worked on – gorgeous woodwinds, high strings and a gentle fade out at the end.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde II – The Lonely Man in Autumn

Finally, a song that I can find an easy picture for! [By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]
This next song is the equivalent of a slow movement in a symphony. It’s quiet, meditative and an exercise in stillness. This is partly a result of the words. Have a read of them before you listen:

http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20682

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.

 

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde I – The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow

 

drinking
This picture has nothing to do with Das Lied except that people have clearly seen some strange things while drinking in the past …

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.

http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20678<

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?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Up Next – The Song of the Earth

das liedOur 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!