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”).
(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.
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.