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Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-85)

  • 1. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht
  • 2. Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld
  • 3. Ich hab' ein glühend Messer
  • 4. Die zwei blauen Augen

There is little doubt that Mahler cast himself in the central role of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Outwardly, his own life was certainly that of a wandering young apprentice. Since completing his education in Vienna in 1880, Mahler had taken on a series of junior conducting posts, each of them relatively brief and requiring him to move considerable distances across Europe. When he arrived in Kassel in August 1883, aged 23, to become the second conductor at the theatre, it was his fourth such post in three years. In poems and letters to friends he referred to himself as a 'fahrenden Gesellen' - an itinerant journeyman with no permanent home.

The poems were written for Johanna Richter, a young singer at the theatre (Mahler's succession of conducting jobs at different opera houses was paralleled by a sequence of failed relationships). But writing to his friend Fritz Löhr, on New Year's Day, 1885, he was already anticipating the end of his present happiness: 'She is everything that is lovable in this world, and I would like to give my last drop of blood for her. Nevertheless, I know that I must leave.' Though Mahler's poems to Johanna were written during 1884, they were probably not set to music until the following spring after their final break. Even the buoyant happiness of springtime, so prominent in the second song, turns out to be just a memory of happier times.

The breezy opening of the first song - Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my sweetheart marries) - evokes a little rustic band playing dance music for the wedding celebrations of the title. But the tone changes almost immediately; it is indeed the wedding day of the beloved - but to someone else. From an outward picture of collective merrymaking, we cut immediately to the inward pain of the protagonist. An introspective version of the dance music haunts his consciousness, turning slowly like a knife. The song alternates between these worlds - the hollow sound of public festivities and the private pain of the lover. Only the middle verse suggests the possibility of some consolation - in the richness of the spring landscape, with its blue flowers and chirping birds - before, in the final verse, the singer retreats more deeply into his sorrow.

The bright opening of the second song - Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld (I walked this morning over the fields) - suggests all this has been left behind. The folk-like tone projects a sense of innocent youthfulness. This is a walking song, an energetic striding out into the fields on a spring morning without a care in the world. The calling of the birds carries over from the previous song, once again insisting that the world is beautiful. But the youth's confident gait and exuberant tone become progressively waylaid. The music loses its sense of direction, becoming dreamlike and distant. The thrice repeated line 'Good day, isn't it a lovely world?' has failed to convince the lovesick wanderer; his performance of high spirits has come to nothing. Spring, it seems, is only on the outside.

The third song - Ich hab' ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife) - plunges us into a furious storm with a violent outburst of the lover's bitterness: 'I have a gleaming my breast...It cuts so deep into every joy and every pleasure'. The constant agitation of the orchestra and its edgy sound suggest a Wagnerian music drama rather than the more restrained world of Lieder. In the slower central section, the lover is haunted by spectral, supernatural visions of his beloved, before the return of the opening storm music. With the force of an operatic climax, the wanderer wishes that he were already in his coffin. With odd, scurrying figures of death, the song closes without hope.

The final song - Die zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes) - is a funeral march, faltering in its tread, with the singer's voice held back as if emotionally numb. 'My sweetheart's two blue eyes' have made an outcast of the protagonist, sending him out alone into the world like the traveller in Schubert's Winterreise. This is the first example of one of Mahler's most central themes - the farewell - and the march-like tread and falling contour of the repeated 'Ade' can be heard echoing throughout his work to the closing Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde. But against this cold world, Mahler sets another - a dreamlike vision of a linden tree offering the wanderer rest. As its blossom snows down upon the broken soul, the music suggests another of Schubert's hapless lovers, the young miller of Die schöne Müllerin, lulled to sleep in the bed of the mill-stream. Mahler too accompanies this final act with the gentlest of lullabies, blurring the boundaries between sleep and death.

© Julian Johnson