About this Recording
8.572498 - MAHLER, G.: Lied von der Erde (Das) (J. Henschel, Kunde, Houston Symphony, Graf)

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)


The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating a symphonic form that included in it the tradition of German song in a varied tapestry of sound particularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler’s work a reflection of its own joys and sorrows.

Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.

It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, then in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, before moving to a position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he effected significant reforms in the Court Opera. He made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place a week after his final return to Vienna, on 18 May 1911.

Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, together with his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied van der Erde. The greater part of his music was written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house, a miraculous achievement in view of his other obligations.

The year of 1907 brought Mahler troubles greater than those posed by his resignation from the Court Opera. During the summer, spent as usual at Maiernigg, the elder of his two daughters caught scarlet fever and died. The mother of his wife Alma, who was visiting the family, had a heart-attack and the doctor called in to treat her also found weaknesses in Alma’s heart and advised rest. Almost in jest, Mahler suggested that the doctor should test his heart. The result was the diagnosis of a dangerous weakness of the heart and the immediate advice to restrict all physical activity. Superstition had, since the time of Beethoven, composer of nine completed symphonies, suggested the association of the ninth symphony of any composer as possibly his last. Mahler’s illness and the necessity of continued work as a conductor, now particularly in New York at the Metropolitan Opera and with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led him to regard his last major works, a Ninth and Tenth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde as his farewell to the world. At the point of his death, the Tenth Symphony was never finished and he never heard performances of either of the other two works.

Mahler sketched Das Lied von der Erde during the summer months of 1908, spent at Alt-Schluderbach, near Toblach in the South Tyrol, after his first season at the Metropolitan. The work was scored in the following year, but had its first performance only after Mahler’s death, when Bruno Walter directed it in Munich on 20 November 1911. Das Lied sets six poems taken from Hans Bethge’s fashionable collection of translations of Chinese or supposedly Chinese poems, Die chinesische Flöte. The German versions of Bethge relied on translations, very probably, indeed, on German versions of French translations from the Chinese and in one case at least on a German version of a fabricated pseudo-Chinese poem by Judith Gautier.

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking-Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) sets Bethge’s version of a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li Be (Li Tai Po). The four horns of the orchestra announce the opening motif, followed by strings and woodwinds before the tenor enters, with his song of sorrow, of the darkness of life and of death (Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod). The four stanzas set by Mahler contrast the command to drink with the inevitable death that lies ahead. The poetic structure is echoed in the music.

The second song, Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn), apparently based on German versions of a chinoiserie poem by Judith Gautier, opens gently with an accompaniment figure played by muted first violins, above which the oboe enters. Second violins join the first and horns and clarinets are heard, followed by other instruments in scoring that remains translucent. The contralto enters with the descending melodic line of Herbstnebel wallen bläulich überm See (Autumn mist hangs blue over the lake). The solitary voice of the singer laments the changes of autumn, the fading of the flowers, weariness with life and loneliness, finally seeking the sun of love to dry her tears, in a tautly constructed song of melancholy.

Von der Jugend (Of Youth) changes at once to a more cheerful mood, with flutes and oboe weaving their sinuous line over the ringing tones of the French horn. The words set seem again derived from Gautier rather than from any Chinese original, although Bethge attributes the poem to Li Tai Po. The tenor enters, his melody shared with the piccolo, with the words Mitten in dem kleinen Teiche / Steht ein Pavillon (In the middle of the little pond/Stands a pavilion). Of the seven stanzas, the first two are echoed by the last two in an instrumental texture that suggests a romantic form of chinoiserie.

In Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty), its German words now an identifiable version of a poem by Li Be, flutes and violins, joined by the French horns, create a delicate opening texture. Music and words are of summer. Now Junge Mädchen pflücken Blumen (Young girls are picking flowers), the melody of the singer accompanied by pentatonic figuration from the woodwind. Trumpets and drums introduce a new element, as the boys are seen riding on the river-bank and a further marching passage leads to a description of the horses. Again the golden sun gilds their bodies, reflected in the water, and a girl feels the pain of love. The music and the beauty it echoes, fades away to nothing.

Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring), derived from Li Be, is a second drinking-song. Mahler, in his usual detailed instructions to the performers, suggests that the song should be keck (bold or pert). There are three bars of introduction before the tenor sings Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist (If life is only a dream, why labour and worry?). He is interrupted by a version of the opening horn motif, which returns in various forms as the music continues. The drunkard sleeps, and wakes again to the sound of the birds, joined now by a solo violin, telling him that spring has come. He drinks again and sleeps again, for what is spring to him?

The last movement, Der Abschied (The Farewell), joins poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei. Two friends bid each other farewell, but for Mahler this was clearly a farewell to the world, in a setting that is almost the length of all the other movements together. In an opening marked Schwer, the oboe is heard over the ringing notes of double bassoon, horn, harps, gong and lower strings. The contralto, in erzählenden Ton, ohne Ausdruck (relating the story, without expression), tells of the setting sun, Die Sonne schiedet hinter dem Gebirge (The sun sinks behind the mountains), as the world takes its rest. This is the time for the letzte Lebewohl (The last farewell). There is a celebration of the beauty of the world, as the poet longs to be by the side of his friend. The second poem takes up the tale, as friends now part, the traveller riding to his homeland, from which he will never return: the dear earth is renewed in spring, everywhere and for ever shining blue and bright in the distance. The beauty of the world continues for ever, as the music dies away to nothing. Der Abschied brings death and parting, with the final acceptance of death.

Keith Anderson

Close the window