Nickel for Your Thoughts: Mahler’s Song of the Earth

Program Spotlight, Tony Nickle

In his own words, Artistic Administrator Tony Nickle shares what he believes to be the high points of the program, but with a little edge and humor for good measure.

Boy, do we have a doozie for you this week: The Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler may be the program I’ve been most excited about all seasonI’ve never seen it performed live, and I’d venture to guess a lot of you would say the same. It has so many amazing aspects, and we are very lucky to have two world-class singers joining us; mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Richard Cox are both sought after by some of the most major opera companies and orchestras in the world.  

The piece is about an hour long and made up of six movements, each of which is set to a different poem. These six poems are German adaptations or paraphrases of ancient Chinese poemsEach poem is topical – Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Lonely One in Autumn,” “Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” “The Drunkard in Spring” (hear! hear!), and “The Farewell” – but together they share a voice of someone reflecting on all that is wonderful about life once they moved from being terrified of the imminence of death to serene acceptance. I truly believe the fundamental is something that everyone can connect with in their own way because I don’t think it’s actually coming from a morbid place, but rather one that emphasizes the brilliance life holds once one tosses aside the rubbish of fear. Yes, it’s a bit deep, but the beauty of German Romanticism is that it’s unapologetically optimistic about humanity’s ability to identify and pursue that which makes life most awesome, and they never shy away from powerful metaphors in that pursuit.  

If you like to put things in boxes, you can certainly make this piece loosely work in standard symphony form: “Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow” is a substantial opening movement; “The Lonely One in Autumn” is the slow movement; “Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” and “The Drunkard in Spring” represent three sections of a Scherzo movement; and “The Farewell,” long as the first five movements combined, is a quintessential Mahler finale in its culmination of all that preceded it.  

Mahler wrote this work for a fairly large orchestra – one too large for the COVID-19 safety measures we’re taking this season (with amazing success, I might add). So, we are performing an arrangement for chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg, a giant in the German-Viennese tradition one generation after Mahler. Both versions are amazing in their own right, and this chamber version is very successful at emphasizing the intimate themes by allowing the two soloists to finesse some phrases rather than having to sing their faces off the entire time.  

This isn’t a work that gets performed particularly often, so don’t assume if you miss it you’ll be able to catch it again in a few years. As with all vocal music we perform, there will be English translations projected on the walls above the stage throughout, which is much easier than trying to follow along in your program. 

Learn more about the Mahler’s Song of the Earth program here.

By Tony Nickle, Artistic Administrator