Philharmonia Orchestra Logo



Das Lied von der Erde (1907-08)

  • Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde
  • Der Einsame im Herbst
  • Von der Jugend
  • Von der Schönheit
  • Der Trunkene im Frühling
  • Der Abschied

'My dear friend, when you have read the last part of the enclosed poem from Das Lied von der Erde, will you not expect the most wondrous things that music can offer? Something so heavenly, the like of which has never been heard of...For heaven's sake, what kind of music must that be?' Webern's letter to Berg, then in Vienna, went on to express incredulity that Berg could think of missing the forthcoming posthumous première of Mahler's work, in Munich in November 1911, 'because of a mere ten hours on a train!'. The première was conducted by Bruno Walter, whose insights into Mahler's character were second to none. He was quite clear that Das Lied was written under the shadow of death, and it is impossible to ignore that this was the first work Mahler wrote after the horrific summer of 1907. In July that year, his daughter Maria died at the age of four from scarlet fever. In the days that followed, a medical examination of Mahler revealed that he had heart disease. According to Alma, it was in this state of mind, taking refuge in the Tyrol later that summer rather than remain at their house at Maiernigg, that Mahler began to read the slim volume of ancient Chinese poems, which were to furnish him with the texts for his next major work. She may have misremembered this, since Hans Bethge's translations, published as Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), did not appear until October that year, but by the following summer, back in the Tyrol, he was at work on seven of them.

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow) opens in heroic fashion, with the orchestral introduction launched like a ship in full sail before the first vocal entry. Mahler clearly had a Wagnerian Heldentenor in mind, and directs him to sing 'with full power'. What he sings is a drinking song, but one very distant to the kind of merry Brindisi you might expect in an Italian opera; this is a Mahlerian drinking song, with the refrain 'Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod' ('Life is dark, so is death'). The angry tone subsides for the third verse ('The firmament is blue for ever') though only temporarily, since fury at the brevity of human life returns with renewed ferocity. It makes for a powerful and striking opening movement, in which Mahler deliberately strains the voice by keeping it high in the register for long passages at a time. For all its heroic tone, Mahler's writing imparts a quality of desperation.

After the sarcasm of the first song, the second seems to inhabit the borders of silence. Der Einsame im Herbst (The Solitary in Autumn) presents a frozen emotional landscape. A slowly winding figure in the violins suggests unbroken emptiness, over which repetitive little phrases in the oboe offer a semblance of life. Only gradually does some expressive warmth seep into the music, and even then it is short-lived. In a moment of protest it flares up - 'Sun of love, will you never shine again?' - before the voice returns to its muted, held-back tone. The whole song is like one of those exquisite Chinese landscape drawings in which the blank spaces are as eloquent as the marks of the pen. The third song, Von der Jugend (Of Youth), is one of Mahler's musical recollections, outside the main timeframe of the piece. Its air of unreality is signalled in the opening bar by the triangle and sustained by the fragile lightness of the orchestration. It paints a beautiful miniature of a little pavilion in the middle of a pool, where friends sit and chat, but the whole scene is viewed upside-down in the reflection on the water - 'The bridge stands like a half-moon, its arch upside-down'. The world, it seems, looks so perfect only in the inverted mirror of memory - and art.

Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) is similarly concerned with the memory of youth, specifically of love. It narrates a scene in which a group of young girls, picking flowers by the river, are interrupted by a group of lads on horseback, breaking into the opening delicacy with noisy and boisterous energy. The singer relates how one of the lads' horses shies and, in its frenzy, tramples across the flowers. A wistful return to the opening music conveys the yearning look of one of the girls: 'And the fairest of the maidens sends long glances of yearning after him. Her proud demeanour is only assumed. In the blaze of her eyes, in the dark of their heated gaze, hovers still crying the excitement of her heart.'

Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring) would rather numb his feelings through drink than experience the pain of reawakening - a musical version of TS Eliot's 'April is the cruellest month...mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain'. In the face of Mahler's yearning music, the tenor mounts a defiant opposition. But his attention is caught by the calling of a bird - spring has arrived in the night. The drunkard's sense of wonder is short-lived; despite the chirping of an entire dawn chorus he will not let spring disturb him: 'I fill my cup again and empty it to the dregs, and sing'. For all the humorous tone, we have come full circle back to the opening song.

Der Abschied (The Farewell) has the simple performance direction Schwer (heavy), conveyed musically by its C minor tonality, slow funereal tread, the constant tolling of a tam-tam and growling bass sonorities. And yet, for all that, this movement ends by conveying an extraordinary sense of weightlessness. From one to the other, it traces a remarkable and complex journey in several parts that lasts as long as the first five songs combined. Mahler drew on two separate poems, altered and added to with his own lines and divided by a central orchestral interlude, but the whole movement is unified by the recurrence of a few clear musical characters. The first of these is a kind of detached narrative voice, in recitative style, without regular rhythm. The soloist tells of the close of day and descending darkness, broken only by the wonder of the rising moon. But against this heavy and solemn stillness, Mahler introduces a second kind of music associated with aspects of the natural world - with the flowing of the stream on its first appearance and birdsong on its second. It is marked by the simplest of two-note accompaniment figures in the harp (the singer's 'lute') and asymmetric woodwind lines. These passages introduce a sense of new life - a burgeoning of nature that contrasts with the weariness of the human world of lost youth and the yearning of old age. In the face of the loneliness of the protagonist, waiting for the friend who does not come, the voice of nature opens out a gently expanding sonority. Two harps and a mandolin provide the accompaniment for the flute's wave-like ascent. Above this flowing texture, Mahler floats in the most free and flexible melodic line for the violins. This is the 'song of the earth' itself; everything else has been the 'song of earthly sorrows' (Mahler's original title).

After the extended orchestral interlude, which offers a kind of emotional commentary on what we have witnessed so far, the soloist takes on both the role of narrator and of the departing solitary figure who now leaves his friend and life behind to 'wander in the mountains'. Der Abschied is obviously a meditation on death, but it is less an enactment of dying than a rethinking of how to live. All the heaviness and darkness of the opening is left behind in its closing pages as the music seems to take flight. The last verse of the text is Mahler's own, a classic example of where the music dictates the necessary words. Its evocation of an eternally flowering nature is given musically by the containment of linear motion within an unchanging harmonic universe: the singer's repeated 'Ewig' ('For ever') falls, as the woodwind phrases rise, but their pull towards resolution is contained within the sense of a global harmonic space, whose sunlit edge sparkles with the bright sonorities of celesta and harp. Still moving, and utterly still, the music does indeed resound forever.

© Julian Johnson