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Rückert-Lieder (1901-02)

  • 1. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
  • 2. Ich atmet' einen linden Duft
  • 3. Liebst du um Schönheit
  • 4. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
  • 5. Um Mitternacht

Mahler's turn to the poetry of Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) marks something of a turning point. Aside from some juvenilia, all his songs from 1888 onwards had been settings of folk poetry he found in the three-volume collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. With the turn to Rückert, Mahler's songs change tone, moving from third person descriptions and character types to a first person, lyrical voice. His songs no longer narrate folk tales in balladic style, but speak directly of the feelings of the individual. In the summer of 1901, Mahler set seven poems by Rückert, four of these songs, plus three of what were to become the Kindertotenlieder. To the four free-standing songs he added a fifth the following year; Liebst du um Schönheit was written as a gift for his new wife, Alma. Clearly Mahler did not think of them as a cycle since in performance he reordered them to suit different singers and occasions, and at times performed just a few rather than all five, but they share a mood of intimacy and quiet withdrawal.

The delicacy and restraint of these musical miniatures makes a striking contrast to the monumental tone and public voice of the large-scale symphonic works that surround their composition (the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony were written in that same summer of 1901). In different ways, each song seems to inhabit a world in which time is stilled. Friedrich Rückert was also a scholar of Oriental culture, learning Persian in the 1820s and translating many texts from Oriental languages into German. Though the poems set by Mahler are not taken from those volumes explicitly influenced by Asian culture, there are certainly several moments in these songs that anticipate Mahler's later settings of Chinese poetry in Das Lied von der Erde. There is a quality of suspended animation to this music, partly from Mahler's tendency towards pentatonicism (Debussy was exploring the same idea at this time) and partly from his use of winding ostinato figures, whose slowly repeating patterns work like abstract motifs in painting. Indeed, a similar atmosphere can be found in the landscapes painted by Gustav Klimt around the Attersee at just this time. His depictions of orchards and farmhouse gardens, and the dappled surface of the lake, construct a close visual parallel to Mahler's inward music.

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (Do not eavesdrop on my songs!) is a rather mischievous song, warning off those who would pry into the poet's songs before they are ready. It might be read as giving the lie to Mahler's claims that his music could only be understood by reference to his life. More likely, it was aimed affectionately at his close friend Natalie or his sister Justine, both constant companions during his long composing summers before his marriage to Alma the following year. There is a deliberate naïveté to Mahler's setting, but its simplicity is also a means of avoidance, of averting a direct gaze in favour of one more oblique.

Mahler's chief biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, describes Ich atmet einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) as 'a miracle of transparency, refinement and economy...comparable only to a spider's web' - in other words, a million miles from the noisy and bombastic music with which Mahler's detractors have always associated him. This song anticipates the delicacy of 'Der Einsame im Herbst', the second song of Das Lied von der Erde; it has the same gently flowing ostinato figure in the violins, over which a solitary oboe seems to improvise its melody, and the same quality of stillness from its pentatonic harmony.

Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty's sake) is perhaps not typical of Mahler's style at this time, and its origin as a private gift to Alma may partly explain it. Mahler's self-deprecating humour in choosing this text should not deceive the listener; don't love me for beauty, youth or riches, the poem counsels, but only for love (Mahler was nearly twice Alma's age when they met in 1901). But there is a poignancy to this song that breaks out in the final melisma of the vocal line, 'as if the feeling could not get out, but was suffocating in its own excess...It can't finish what it is saying, all it can do is sob.' (TW Adorno).

Mahler's most sustained statement of inward withdrawal, before Das Lied von der Erde, is found in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have lost track of the world). It is the song of a man whose hectic professional life for most of the year gave way, every June, to six precious weeks spent in the quiet retreats of his composing huts situated in the lakes and mountains of the Austrian countryside. But it is also the song of a man whose professional and creative life was a constant giving out, exhausting his inner strength in endless rehearsals, performances, battles with administrators, politicians and recalcitrant musicians. It is the song of a man who retreats within himself to leave behind the world's commotion (Weltgetümmel) for the peace of his own art. Its withdrawal is a kind of death of the self, but one experienced as a letting go, hence the astonishing quality of release in this music.

Um Mitternacht (At midnight) might well be heard as Mahler's reflection on his experience of a nearly fatal haemorrhage in February 1901. Despite its use of a more symphonic sound world, this song also constructs a sense of inward movement similar to the others, a contraction of the world into the darkness of the midnight hour, the solitariness of 'thoughts stretched out beyond dark boundaries' and, ultimately, of religious faith.

© Julian Johnson