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 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 III – Of Youth

“Dalian劳动公园A159285″ by 陳炬燵 – Own work. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons .”

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 lyrics for the song are here:

http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20674

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.

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.