Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

Program from 1922 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

The Carnegie Hall and NY premiere of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde took place on February 1, 1922, with Sarah Cahier, contralto; Orville Harrold, tenor; and the Society of the Friends of Music conducted by Artur Bodanzky.

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Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 8 PM
Juilliard Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde

The Symphony at a Glance

Like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which concludes with a long valediction, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) seems to feel the shiver of night descending not only on its composer—terminally ill, though still in his 40s—but on a whole culture of huge achievement and grandiloquence. Words from ancient Chinese poets, distant in time and place, come to speak, or to sing, of evening, of autumn, of memory, of death. Solitary voices, tenor and baritone, stand on the edge of a world of sound and look out, confronting human mortality and finding a measure of solace and acceptance.

The Symphony In Depth

Created by someone who was conducting in the United States, composing in central Europe, and setting poems from eighth-century China, this work has strong claims on its title as The Song of the Earth. The voices singing here, however—those of the soloists and the orchestra—are always and unmistakably Mahler’s. The year before he started this work, he had moved the center of his conducting activities from the court opera in Vienna to the Met in New York, which offered him a higher fee for fewer performances. Against that positive development, he had lost his elder daughter, Putzi, from diphtheria in the summer at the age of four, and he himself had been diagnosed with a heart condition. He felt himself from this point to be dying and made in Das Lied von der Erde a great review of life—the tone is retrospective from the first—culminating in a prolonged farewell.

Also in 1907, he had been present at two important Schoenberg premieres, those of the younger composer’s first quartet and first chamber symphony, perhaps prompting him to consider lighter, more dislocated textures. There could have been some impulse, too, from Chinese music; he reportedly listened to several early recordings before setting his Chinese poems. An Asian tone is evoked by some use of the pentatonic scale (having five steps) and certain color effects, done with remarkable restraint and sophistication.

In their millennium-long journey from Tang-Dynasty China to Mahler’s composing hut in the South Tirol, the poems underwent some changes. Mahler’s source was Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), a small volume of 80 poems published by the German poet-orientalist Hans Bethge in 1907. Bethge, knowing no Chinese, worked from translations by Hans Heilman of versions in French by Judith Gautier and the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. Mahler chose four poems attributed to the most celebrated Chinese poet of the period, Li Tai Po (also known as Li Po, or Li Bai), which he placed first, third, fourth, and fifth in his sequence, though no Chinese original has been traced for the third poem (ironically the most “oriental” in Mahler’s setting), which may have been Gautier’s invention. For his second movement, Mahler took a poem by Chang Tsi, and in his finale he combined poems by Mong Kao Jen and Wang Wei, but in every case he adapted the texts transmitted by Bethge. In the process of writing music, he made the words his own.

As with his Ninth Symphony the following year, he drafted the work during his summer vacation at Toblach, between June and the start of September, and worked up the final score during the ensuing concert season in New York. It was only during this later process that the piece achieved its definitive title.

Mahler called his work a symphony, and must have chosen and changed the texts partly with an ear toward symphonic form. The first song, for example, has certain qualities of a sonata allegro (repeated exposition, with two contrasting thematic areas), but one abruptly curtailed; then come alternating slow movements and scherzos, followed by an adagio finale which, as in the composer’s Third Symphony and his Ninth yet to come, seems to be the inevitable destination. This finale, “Der Abschied,” is about as long as all the other movements put together. There is also another kind of symphonic dialogue going on across the vast space between the voices. Both seek escape from the world, but where the tenor’s route leads ebulliently, the mezzo-soprano (or alternatively baritone) is singing of evening and autumn as of death.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Das Lied von der Erde (V. Der Trunkene in Frühling)

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Das Lied von der Erde (II. Der Einsame im Herbst)

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Das Lied von der Erde (VI. Der Abschied)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

Spring, rather, is the season in which the tenor delights—the spring he evokes in his first song, with a lyrical change from the vociferousness that is almost forced upon him by the heavy orchestration, and again in his third, “Der Trunkene im Frühling.” (Audio 1) Yet even here death is present, defined by defiance; the tenor’s other two songs, exotic and humorous, are touched with the same clouds.

But it is the other singer who stands at the work’s heart: alone (“Der Einsame im Herbst”), (Audio 2) removed from the thrill of sensual pleasure (“Von der Schönheit”), and on the point of departure (“Der Abschied”), a departure that will last an eternity.(Audio 3)

—Paul Griffiths
© 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation