Mahler’s Song of the Earth
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
  • Das Lied is a setting of six Chinese poems in German translation
  • Mahler considered this work to be a symphony, but declined to give it a number
  • Both poetry and music move from conflict to resolution
  • Pentatonic scales lend a subtle Chinese flavor to the score
  • The six movements grapple with big ideas: life and its meaning, the prospect of death
  • The closing Abschied is longer than the previous four movements combined

    In Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth], Mahler produced a composition that stands as a true swan song, much in the same vein as Brahms's Four Serious Songs, Op.121 and Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (1948).  All three works are songs of farewell, compositions that express each composer's coming to terms with issues of mortality, fulfillment, and catharsis.

    Das Lied was not Mahler's final composition.  He worked on the cycle primarily in 1907 and 1908, and lived until 1911.  Following the completion of Das Lied, he composed his Ninth Symphony and parts of a Tenth Symphony before his death.  But he turned to Das Lied during a year of great crisis for him.  During calendar 1907 he severed his long-standing relationship with the Vienna Opera; his young daughter Maria died of scarlet fever; and he was diagnosed with the heart disease that was to take his life just a few years later.  The tremendous inner conflict caused by these cataclysmic events found expression in these six songs.  Mahler chose to address joint themes – love of life and fear of death – in a major vocal cycle that many consider to be his masterpiece.

    He drew his texts from a collection of poetry entitled Die chinesische Flöte ["The Chinese Flute"], translated by Hans Bethge.  In compiling the collection, Bethge drew on English, German and French translations of poetry by the prominent eighth- and ninth-century Chinese poets Li-Tai-Po, Tschang-Tsi, Mong-Kao-Jen and Wang Wei.  Because of its traversal through several languages prior to German, Bethge's book is a very free treatment of the originals.

    Mahler took his musical cue from that freedom.  He depicts characteristic Chinese scenes in his music, and makes use of "oriental" sonorities such as the pentatonic scale. That stated, there is never any question that the musical language is Mahler's own, from the opening of Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde to the closing measures of the moving Abschied.

    Perhaps because Mahler thought of Das Lied as a symphony for alto and tenor soli and large orchestra, it is more unified than his earlier song cycles.  A single chord, built on the pitches C-E-G-A, recurs in every movement, a musical thread audibly woven throughout the hour-long piece.  Another contributing factor to the sense of continuity is a consistent mood among the song texts.  Perhaps because of their Chinese origin, they share a constancy of spirit even though they were written by different poets.  Themes of mournfulness, farewell, death and darkness suffuse the poetry.

    Mahler provided instrumental interludes separating the six vocal segments and binding them together.  These interludes help to shift gears as the psychological emphasis alters from one song to the next. Especially noteworthy is the funeral march inserted into the finale, Abschied, to separate the two poems Mahler combined in this movement (one of the reasons that the finale is as long as all five previous movements combined).

    Despite its huge orchestra, Das Lied has a decided chamber music feel for much of its duration, perhaps because of the intimacy and range of its human emotions.  The percussion section, for example, is quite large, yet Mahler employs it sparingly.  This is not a work of bombast.  Michael Kennedy has written:

    Das Lied seems continuously new, constantly renewing itself.  Yet it represents the culmination of the technique which Mahler had been developing since the First Symphony:  perpetual variation, no exact repetitions, and a magical web of melodic counterpoint.  The result sounds like a vast inspired improvisation combined with hypersensitive attention to details of tone-colour.

    Das Lied von der Erde is fascinating listening, touched with Mahler's genius and his extraordinary sensitivity to human nature and the challenges of life and death.  Among its numerous musical joys are effective use of woodwinds, harp and percussion in the first song "Drinking Song of Earth's Woe" and a mournful oboe solo in #2, "The lonely one in Autumn."  Mahler's gift for delicate scoring holds forth in the flute, violin and horn parts in #4, "Of Beauty," which has been likened to the background of a Botticelli painting, dappled with sunlight.  Finally, the ending of Abschied', with nine ethereal statements of the word "ewig" (forever, eternal), communicates with great power the complexity of Mahler's emotional message as he comes to grips with the prospect of death.

    The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), four clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, two harps, timpani, celesta, mandolin, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, bass drum, alto and tenor soloists, and strings.

    © Laurie Shulman, 2020