Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder
From his earliest days as a composer, Gustav Mahler drew much of his inspiration from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), an anthology of German folk poetry in many styles and subjects published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano between 1805 and 1808. From 1888 to 1901, Mahler wrote 22 songs based on these poems. For this program, the artists have chosen six songs from the set, including three that belong to the subset of "military" songs—full of bugle calls and drumrolls that recall the sounds from the barracks in Kalischt that Mahler heard constantly as a child.
It seems surprising that such a sophisticated and well-read composer as Mahler should be attracted to such naive verse. Yet the man who was born into poverty in Kalischt, a small town in what is today the Czech Republic, never lost track of his folk roots and found in these poems a source of true human experience and a close connection to Nature. In the words of Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange, "In Mahler, the folk musician was never entirely submerged by the art-music composer. He never ceased to be closely identified with the people."
When Mahler had exhausted this poetic source, he turned with equal passion to Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866), a Franconian poet who was as different from the anonymous Wunderhorn poets as possible. Rückert was a man of literature, not folklore; his verse was refined, delicately beautiful, and often given to word play. From 1901 to 1902, Mahler set five Rückert poems for voice and orchestra—and simultaneously for voice and piano—while composing his Fifth Symphony. They are among Mahler's greatest songs, and we hear two of them this evening: "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."
Also in 1901, Mahler began setting another group of five Rückert songs for the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which he completed in 1904. During the winter of 1833 to 1834, Rückert lost two of his young children to scarlet fever. To express his grief, he poured out 425 poems on the subject in the following year. Though Mahler would lose one of his own daughters in 1907 to this same disease, he did not yet have children in 1901. As he began the cycle, he was probably thinking back to a childhood surrounded by death. The composer was one of 14 children, of whom seven died in infancy and several more at young ages. For Mahler, the most painful loss came in 1873 when his favorite brother, just one year younger than himself, died in his arms; uncannily, this brother was named Ernst, also the name of Rückert's son. We hear the second and third of the Kindertotenlieder: "Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen" and "Wenn dein Mütterlein."
A Closer Listen
Composed in 1901, "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" ("I breathed a gentle fragrance") sets one of Rückert's series of spring poems from 1833. The poet plays with the different meanings of the words linden ("delicate") and Linden ("lime tree"), while also making alliterative use of words beginning with the letter L. Mahler described this song as "the feeling one experiences in the presence of a person one loves and of whom one is quite sure, two minds communicating without any word needing to be spoken."
Later in the program, we hear "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the world"), also from 1901. Many consider this beautiful, entranced lied as Mahler's finest single song. Mahler wrote it just after moving into his tranquil lakeside "composing cottage" at Maiernigg in the Carinthian Alps and said that it was a very personal expression of his contentment creating in this setting. Henry-Louis de La Grange notes, "Thanks to harmonic and tonal as well as rhythmic immobility, the whole song resembles the calm surface of a lake reflecting the sky or the repose of a Zen garden."
Two songs from the Kindertotenlieder are enclosed within a section of songs on this program dealing with the death of children. "Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen" ("Now I see well, why with such dark flames") is a rapt and visionary ode to the otherworldly power of the lost children's eyes. In the most heartbreaking song, "Wenn dein Mütterlein" ("When your mother"), the poet remembers his wife entering the room with the two little children beside her; the pianist's left hand imitates their footsteps.
Connected to this theme is "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life"), one of the Wunderhorn songs dating from 1893. A starving child cries out for bread; the mother patiently assures that it will come soon, after the harvesting and baking are finished. But when the bread is finally ready, the child is dead. The piano's furious ostinato whirls endlessly along, indifferent to their words. Mahler explained that this song has a deeper symbolic meaning: "What I wished to express is that the necessities for one's physical and spiritual growth are long delayed and finally come too late, as they do for the dead child."
Also fitting with this theme of children going to another world are "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") and "Es sungen drei Engel" ("Three angels were singing"), which became the penultimate movements, respectively, of the Second and Third symphonies. Both reflect the simple, fervent religious faith of children. "Es sungen drei Engel" is filled with archaic musical devices appropriate to its medieval text and in the Third Symphony is scored for women's and children's choruses. Mahler instructed that "Urlicht" should be sung with "the tone and vocal expression of a child who thinks he is in heaven."
Mr. Goerne and Mr. Andsnes have also chosen three of the celebrated Wunderhorn military songs. The gentlest and most lyrical is "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" ("Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow"), which Mahler composed from two poems in 1895. The anxious conversation between the lovers takes the form of a swaying ländler or country waltz, underpinned by the piano's variants on bugle signals. While some commentators maintain that the nocturnal visitor is the soldier's ghost, Mahler believed him to be still alive but imagining his future death on the battlefield.
Mahler considered "Revelge" ("Reveille") of 1899, a poem from the Napoleonic era, to be the most beautiful and successful of his Wunderhorn cycle. Conventionally beautiful it is not—this is a bitterly ironic marching song of soldiers departing from their town, being mowed down one by one in battle, and returning home to form up again as ranks of skeletons. Urged on by relentless drumming, their jaunty refrain of "Trallali, trallaley" becomes progressively more grotesque as their ranks are thinned.
Written in 1901 as the last of the Wunderhorn songs, "Der Tamboursg'sell" ("The Drummer Boy") tells the heartbreaking story of a hapless drummer boy awaiting his execution, presumably for desertion. Many of the words are in the Bavarian dialect. The sepulchral growl of the drums in the piano representing the march to the gallows provides a grim accompaniment—Mahler directs it should be sung "with naive delivery without sentimentality." The stark, pared-down power of this lied links it musically to the Kindertotenlieder and makes it one of the composer's greatest song achievements.
—Janet E. Bedell
Songs from the Michelangelo Suite
Dmitri Shostakovich had long admired both the well-known art and the lesser-known poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti, so when the 500th anniversary of that protean Italian artist's birth approached in 1975, he decided to honor him by setting some of his verses as a song cycle. He was probably inspired by the example of his friend Benjamin Britten, one of the composers he admired most. Early in 1967, Shostakovich had heard Britten and tenor Peter Pears present Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. And he also found many parallels between Michelangelo's fiercely expressed discomfort with the corrupt Florentine society of the 16th century and his own battles within the Soviet regime.
In a preface to his score, completed in July 1974, Shostakovich elaborated on his feelings about Michelangelo:
Although Michelangelo himself had an extremely modest opinion of his talents as a poet, I was fascinated by the beauty of his poems, the profundity of his ideas, and the simplicity, fervor, and grandeur of his message. Everything accomplished by this great man has made a deep impression on me. What repeatedly attracted me was his poetry, for the profound philosophy it embodies, its lofty humanity, and the acuity of the poet's perception of art and love.
The suite's 11 songs are structured into a prologue, three sets of songs each grouped around a common theme, and a concluding epilogue ("Immortality"). The settings are spare throughout, with the text presented with absolute clarity. The vocal part is predominantly in recitative style, seldom blossoming into true song; it is usually the piano rather than the singer who conveys the inner emotional meaning of the poems, as well as their most telling dramatic effects. Before his death in August 1975, the composer also orchestrated the Michelangelo Suite.
A Closer Listen
We hear six of the 11 songs this evening. In weaving them together with the Mahler lieder, the artists have chosen a different order from their placement in the cycle; these notes reflect how they fit within Shostakovich's original sequence.
"Morning" and "Separation" come from the more lyrical first group of songs. A sensuous song of the remembrance of young love, "Morning" epitomizes the austerity of the composer's musical approach with its calm, chant-like setting of the words that avoids any flowering of passion. Michelangelo's verse for "Separation" follows the courtly conventions of Renaissance love poetry. Shostakovich gives it a tragic weight with the singer's noble, stoically restrained declamation above the piano's dark, slow-moving harmonic background.
"Dante" deals with the corruption of Michelangelo's society and its unjust treatment of artists. In this sonnet about the exile of the 13th-century poet Dante from his native city of Florence, Shostakovich found a powerful parallel to the exile of writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier in 1974. He heralds the greatness of the poet with pealing fanfares. The forthright vocal part is a ringing statement of the composer's own convictions and values, as well as those of Michelangelo.
The extraordinary "Night" relates to Michelangelo's reclining female statue of that name on the Medici tomb in Florence's San Lorenzo. A beautiful, dreaming piano part surrounds the voice of the creator, who is too weary of life to continue protesting any longer against "shame and crime." As the song "Death" begins, we hear the piano fanfares with which the cycle begins. The suite here reaches its peak of heaviness, darkness, and tragedy. The song powerfully expresses both the composer and the artist's profound weariness with life and total disillusionment with their respective societies. Death is now a welcome release.
Suddenly, the burden of mortality is lifted completely away in his "Immortality" epilogue as Shostakovich contemplates a state of complete freedom after death. The naively joyful theme comes from a piano piece the composer wrote when he was nine. Knowing that "I live on in the hearts of all loving people," Shostakovich proclaims that "mortal decay cannot touch me." In his orchestral version, this disembodied music trails away on the bell-like sounds of the composer's favorite celesta.
—Janet E. Bedell