About this Recording
8.573536 - MAHLER, G.: Lied von der Erde (Das) / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (arr. A. Schoenberg) (Platts, Reid, Williams, Falletta)

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), arr. Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)


On 23rd November 1918, Arnold Schoenberg founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in Vienna. This ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’, run and organised by Schoenberg’s pupils and colleagues, had the very specific aim of giving audiences a chance to become acquainted with modern music. The formalised prospectus, written by Alban Berg in 1919, set out the conditions required for such an endeavour: that performances must be high quality and thus wellrehearsed; that works should be repeated so that listeners could have several opportunities to hear something new; and that the whole procedure should be carried out without the ‘corrupting influence of publicity’. There were no public advertisements or reviews of concerts, and audience members were not allowed to show any signs of approval or disapproval during a performance (no clapping or booing!)—the programmes were not even announced in advance, so that preconceptions associated with certain composers or work types could not influence a member’s decision to attend or avoid an event.

A few months before the Verein was officially initiated, Alban Berg wrote excitedly to his wife: ‘Schoenberg has a marvellous idea, to start next season another society, setting out to perform works from the period “Mahler to the present” once a week for its members.’ And so it was that, across the three years of its operation, the Verein gave over 100 concerts, featuring music by Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Ravel, Reger, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Webern, Wellesz, Zemlinksy and many other composers besides—including Gustav Mahler.

However, funding, personnel and space being relatively limited, larger-scale works could not be easily accommodated in their original formats. Symphonies, for example, were simply not practicable. Instead, the Verein included arrangements of certain pieces that were considered particularly deserving of performance. Initially, these were usually given in transcriptions for piano duet or two pianos. Gradually, straightforward piano reductions were replaced by arrangements for chamber orchestra, carried out by Schoenberg and his pupils, for an instrumental combination which tended to consist of piano, harmonium, flute, clarinet and string quartet, occasionally augmented by other players as required.

The works featured on this recording are arrangements made for performance by the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen between 1918 and 1921. Mahler had been an early supporter of Schoenberg’s music, and although the relationship between the two men was somewhat ambivalent (Mahler considered the younger man’s works interesting but could not understand them; Schoenberg seems to have fallen in and out of love with Mahler’s music at various phases of his career), there was evidently mutual respect right from their first meeting in 1904. Mahler attended the première of Schoenberg’s First String Quartet in 1907, and berated fellow audience members for hissing music that he himself deemed worthy of applause. Schoenberg featured Mahler’s music in many of his concerts (not just those of the Verein) and wrote a passionate article ‘In Memoriam’ following his death in 1911, declaring, ‘Gustav Mahler was a saint. Anyone who knew him even slightly must have had that feeling.’

The arrangement of the four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was almost certainly made entirely by Schoenberg. Mahler worked on the songs through the 1880s and 1890s, providing his own texts, inspired by the writings of Wilhelm Müller and Eichendorff—and an unhappy affair with Johanna Richter, a soprano working at Kassel, where he worked as a conductor from 1883–85. In fact, much of Mahler’s original scoring is in itself rather chamber-like—it is really only in the third song, Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer, that the original version makes substantial use of the orchestra’s heft, both in its doubling across instruments and the climatic ‘Oh weh! Ich wollt’ ich läg’ auf der schwarzen Bahr’’ (‘I wish I could lay down on my black bier’). There are no timpani in Schoenberg’s scaled-back version, but he does retain much of the original division of material between winds and strings, using the piano and harmonium to add colour and variety. (In fact, he did not even produce a separate full score from which to conduct the first performance in 1920—he simply annotated Mahler’s full score with his own instrumental changes.) The piano is a particularly useful replacement for the harp, and certain oboe lines; the harmonium provides an effective analogue for horns in the third and fourth numbers. And the triangle, so crucial to the tinkling flowers and birds of the first two songs, appears in the chamber version as well. The overall effect is one of great intimacy, the audience permitted the role of emotional confidant to the wandering apprentice as he tells of his joys and sorrows.

Mahler completed and premièred the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in 1896, the year before his arrival in Vienna. Das Lied von der Erde, on the other hand, was written after his departure for New York in 1907, and was only given its first performance six months after Mahler’s death, in November 1911. The piece requires a substantial orchestra: three flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and trombones, four horns, tuba, two harps, strings, an array of percussion instruments, celesta and mandolin. How, then, was such a piece to be transcribed for the Verein’s ensemble? Schoenberg began the arrangement himself, and then passed it to his pupils to complete (it is not known exactly who worked on it, although it is possible that Webern was involved). He frequently gave such tasks to his students, considering it a valuable exercise in determining the most direct means of conveying the principal musical material with limited forces, and many of the Verein arrangements were collaborative efforts.

In this instance, there is a more considerable difference between the impact of the full orchestral version, and that of the chamber score. In particular, the overwhelming Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde is deprived of some of its menace and sonic force here—although the standard Verein ensemble was considerably expanded for the project. The flautist and oboist are both required to double (piccolo and cor anglais respectively), and two clarinettists are included, along with bassoon, horn, harmonium and celesta, piano, strings and a considerable amount of percussion. The cost of hiring and transporting the percussion, plus the larger line-up, would not have been insignificant, and it does not seem as if the arrangement was ever given at a Verein concert. (It was largely due to spiralling inflation in Austria that the organisation was eventually forced to cease activity in 1921.)

Although the lighter scoring does not quite pack the punch of Mahler’s orchestral writing, it does have the advantage of clarifying aspects of the instrumental texture, and removes the danger of the soloists being overpowered, particularly in the opening number. Once again, Mahler has provided distinctly chamber-like scoring for many passages within Das Lied, and although the precise instrumentation is sometimes fractionally altered (principally to fill gaps, such as the trumpet, and account for the presence of only one principal player of each wind instrument, rather than three), the sense of the original is clearly maintained. The percussion both highlights the oriental inspiration of the work—many movements use Chinese scale structures—and provides additional drama at crucial moments. And within the miraculous final movement, Abschied, the change of pace at ‘Ich sehne mich, o Freund, an deiner Seite’ (‘I long, my friend, to be by your side’), seems even more magical for its soft and intimate arrival in this version. Here, as Schoenberg himself remarked, Mahler captures with deftness and beauty ‘the finite nature of earthly things’.

Katy Hamilton

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