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Das Lied von der Erde
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is particularly interesting among Gustav Mahler's symphonic works. It captures the composer at his saddest time but also his most innovative, at his most philosophical but indeed also his most neurotic.
Mahler conceived of the work in 1907, which was undoubtedly the worst year of his life. The summer of that year is likened to the three hammer blows of the Sixth Symphony (written in 1903-1904), three horrible events foretelling downfall and death. First, Mahler was pressured into resigning from his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera due to religious and social issues, then his oldest daughter Maria fell sick and died, and finally Mahler himself was diagnosed with a heart defect that he'd lived with since birth but still caused him much psychological suffering. With the negativity of these events compounded with Mahler's general superstition and fear of death, he was convinced that he would soon die.
In an attempt to cheer Mahler up, a friend gave him a copy of "Die chinesische Flöte" ("The Chinese Flute"), an edition of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge . Mahler was very taken by the verses and chose seven (two of which are combined into one movement of music) to adapt into a song-symphony. But there arose another problem. Mahler had already finished his 8th Symphony, and with all the other things that had happened, he was even more frightened by the "Curse of the Ninth", the fact that Bruckner and Schubert and Beethoven had not gotten past nine symphonies. Convinced that a ninth symphony would kill him, Mahler proceeded to compose Das Lied von der Erde, which he subtitled "A Symphony," skirting the issue of a Ninth (though it is interesting to note that the Symphony actually numbered Nine was the last symphonic work Mahler completed in full - most of the Tenth remains unorchestrated - and thus he did not truly avoid the "curse" in his numbering scheme). Originally the work was to be titled Das Lied vom Jammer der Erde (The Song of the Earth's Sorrows), but even Mahler found this too depressing, and as the poetry he chose to set involves idyllic and nature elements in addition to loneliness and farewells, he modified the title to its lasting state. The poems set were also modified to some degree by Mahler to better suit the messages he intended to portray within the cycle. Completed in 1908, Das Lied von der Erde is the first work of its kind, the first complete integration of song cycle and symphony, a form later imitated by other composers (most notably Shostakovich). It is also regarded as one of Mahler's most personal works, a statement echoed in one of the composer's own letters.
The first movement
The first movement is entitled "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("The Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrows") and deals with how life is so beautiful but so short, and that drinking is the best way to not think about how very short it is. The refrain, "Dark is life, is death", sets a tone for the rest of the piece. The original poem only uses the phrase once, but Mahler edited the stanzas to include it as a refrain because it so reflected his attitude at the time of composition. The music of this movement is dense and loud, but brightly orchestrated with many woodwind flourishes. Mahler uses quite a bit of impressionistic tone painting throughout the entire piece, though it seems less in this movement than the others. The opening motif in the horns is reminiscent a pseudo-pentatonic look to the Orient or a Wagnerian leitmotif-fanfare. Either way, it is appropriate to the toast that the lyrics suggest.
The second movement
This is followed by the far more subdued "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn"), which is an extended comparison of the mind and soul of a lonely person to the atmosphere of autumn. Mahler must have particularly identified with this text, because he makes no edits to the original. Contrary to the stereotypical image of Mahler's music, the orchestration in this movement is sparse and chamber music-like, with long and independent contrapuntal lines. The entire movement can be likened to drifting, of leaves and of the spirit.
The third movement
The third movement, "Von der Jugend" ("Of Youth") is a word painting of the classic and stereotypical scene of ancient China, with a porcelain pavilion, reflective pools, exotic animals, and people drinking tea. It is a definite contrast to the mood of the previous movement, but Mahler maintains its exact text as well. This is possibly because Mahler enjoyed the images of happy nature and pretty things, but also possibly because such a formal image is precisely the contrast of the statements in the previous movement. The music in this movement is definitely an effort to sound formally Chinese as well. Though not completely pentatonic, the main melody and countermelody come very close to that, and when one considers that the movement is opened by these sorts of figures in the high woodwinds, Mahler definitely has the well-known Oriental sound down. However, there is much of his own characteristic style involved in how he develops those motifs, and the blend of characters is natural. The way this movement is set up doesn't make it seem so bizarre that the people in this classic Chinese setting happen to be speaking German.
The fourth movement
Directly following this is "Von der Schönheit" ("Of Beauty"), which also fits directly into the image most people have when considering ancient China. The imagery of this movement involves maidens picking lotus blossoms by reflective pools and boys riding horses in a sunny river valley. While the original text of the poem contains this imagery, Mahler extends and embellishes upon the text, probably to make the thing more "beautiful" as the title of the verse suggests. The musical setting of this movement is very similar to that of the previous movement. Mahler is still trying very hard to sound Chinese, and he achieves that for the same reasons as in the previous movement -- pseudo-pentatonics and high woodwinds. The middle two movements practically go together as one sort of symphonic intermezzo.
The fifth movement
The true scherzo of the work is the fifth movement, entitled "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunkard in Spring"). The speaker in this poem is already completely drunk and commenting on his natural surroundings through the haze of such a state. In this manner, it can be considered a companion song to "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" - the narrator has already drunk away the fear of how short life is, and is enjoying himself perhaps too much, reveling, "Let me be drunk!" Musically, it also calls back to the earlier movement by using a horn theme reminiscent of the opening motif. Mahler's usage of tempo changes in this movement is brilliant. In addition to generally lilting and staggering dotted rhythms, the actual tempo changes every few measures, each tempo having practically no relationship to the previous one, and transitioning with sudden and random unpredictability, very drunk in nature. The tone color also changes with these tempo changes, and the incorporation of a solo violin line which sometimes quotes previous works of Mahler's (Seventh Symphony) indicates a confused state of mind in addition to a drunken stagger, which to many is an extremely effective bit of tone painting.
The sixth movement
The final movement of the work is titled "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), and it is as long as the previous five movements combined. Its text is drawn from two different poems, both involving the sadness of leaving one's friends behind. While the original poems most likely approach this in a more literal sense of having to go on a journey and physical leave one's friends and familiar surroundings, Mahler surely took this imagery in the sense of leaving due to death, and combined and edited the original texts accordingly. Depressing though this may be, Mahler's addition of some completely original lines to the end of the poem is practically optimistic in its look to natural beauty:
- The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime anew.
- Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue!
- Forever... forever... forever...
The music of this movement is very sparse and somber, definitely a small and intimate feeling despite the size of the orchestra required for the rest of the piece. The relatively simple vocal line is divided up throughout the movement, stanzas separated by long orchestral interludes and extended cadenzas. "Der Abschied" is the first symphonic movement to make use of long and free cadenzas, unmeasured by the conductor. There are also instances in the movement in which there is only the singer and a woodwind cadenza line, a very somber duet, rhythmically intricate but simple and sad. This sort of writing must make this movement very difficult to conduct, as do other bits where the rhythm, though in a strict meter, involves many strange groupings and sometimes flows over the barlines as if they're not there. This sort of free and impressionistic writing is very sad and beautiful, particularly next to some of the more strict rhythm sections of the movement, still soft and subdued but with a funeral march-like motif in low winds, horns, or low strings. True to the nature of the title, text, and previous music, the movement (and therefore the whole piece) fades out into oblivion, Mahler's own gentle farewell as he accepts and resigns to the concept of his own death.
Of Das Lied von der Erde Mahler himself wrote that "I think it is probably the most personal composition I have created thus far." Others say of music in general that the best pieces let you see into the composer's personality and spirit. Das Lied von der Erde most definitely reveals quite a bit about Gustav Mahler himself. While "Der Abschied" is the most direct personal statement in the work, through all six movements the piece showcases all of his musical styles, and the text choices show how his thought processes worked, from his deep-rooted fear of death to his equally deep yet childlike love for simple and beautiful natural things. A piece that so conveys the composer as a person and as a musician, as separate things and together at once, is truly brilliant.
Das Lied von der Erde is scored for large orchestra with tenor and alto soloists. It is approximately one hour long. Four of the Chinese poems used by Mahler (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, Von der Jugend, Von der Schönheit and Der Trunkene im Frühling) are by Li Tai-Po, the famous Tang dynasty wandering poet. Der Einsame im Herbst is by Chang Tsi and Der Abschied combines poems by Mong Kao-Yen and Wang Wei.
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