Mahler Das Lied von der Erde

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Mahler Das Lied von der Erde Program Notes

Gustav Mahler, director of the Vienna State Opera, was near the end of his stormy tenure at the pinnacle of music-making in the German speaking world, was introduced to a newly published German-language volume of Chinese Tang dynasty poetry, entitled “The Chinese Flute.” A poetic translation by the German poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), its poems would be used by several composers, including Richard Strauss, Bohuslav Martinů, and Karol Szymanowski.

It spoke to him deeply. The attacks in Vienna had been bitter, and the job all-consuming. After his last Vienna performances, in the summer of 1907, Gustav, his wife Alma, and their two daughters Maria (4, born in the first year of their marriage) and Anna (2) retired to their country house. Maria and Anna soon fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria, with Maria dying within weeks. Adding to this, increased medical attention led to Gustav’s diagnosis of some heart issues himself, and he was warned that any ambitious scheduling as a conductor could lead to his early death.

The next year was his first as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as the year progressed he added the New York Philharmonic to his schedule. Returning to Vienna for the summer of 1908, he composed this symphonic song-cycle, which is close to an hour in length.

I. The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth With tenor, the horns and a lush, full late-Romantic orchestra play anguished music. Already the wine beckons in the golden goblet, But do not drink yet, first I will sing you all a song! The song of trouble shall ring laughing in your soul. When trouble nears, the gardens of the soul lie barren, Dark is life, dark is death. Master of this house! Your cellar holds an abundance of golden wine! Here, this lute I call mine! To strike the lute and empty the glasses, These are the things that go well together! A full cup of wine at the right time Is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth! Dark is life, dark is death. The firmament shines blue forever and the earth Will long endure and blossom forth in springtime. But you, man, how long do you live? Not a hundred years may you delight In all the fragile trifles of this earth! See down there! In the moonlight on the graves Squats a wild ghostly form – It is an ape! Hear how it howls Shrill out into the sweet fragrance of life! Now take the wine! Now it is time, comrades! Empty your golden cups to the lees! Dark is life, dark is death! After Li T’ai-po

II. The Lonely One Autumn Over melancholic scales in the strings, a plaintive oboe introduces the mezzo-soprano’s first song. The woodwinds and horns play, but there’s no brass or percussion. Autumn mists float blue over the lake; Covered with frost are all the grasses; It is as if an artist had sprinkled jade dust Over the delicate blossoms. The sweet odor of the flowers has vanished; A cold wind bends down their stems. Soon the wilted, golden leaves Of the lotus blossoms will drift on the water. My heart is weary. My little lamp Has gone out with a sputter; I am put in mind of sleep. I come to you, dear resting-place! Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment! I weep much in my time of loneliness. The autumn in my heart persists too long. Sun of love, will you shine no longer, To gently dry my bitter tears? After Chang Tsi

III. Of Youth Mahler mirrors this vignette’s Chinese imagery with pentatonic melodies, accompanying the tenor. The orchestral forces are modest in this, the shortest of the songs. In the middle of the little pool Stands a pavilion of green And of white porcelain. Like the back of a tiger The bridge of jade arches Over to the pavilion. In the little house sit friends, Beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting. Some write down verses. Their silken sleeves slip Back, their silken caps Perch comically low on their napes. On the little pool’s still Surface everything appears Wondrously in mirror image. Everything standing on its head In the pavilion of green And of white porcelain. Like a half-moon stands the bridge, The arch inverted. Friends, Beautifully dressed, drink, chat. After Li T’ai-po

IV. Of Beauty This song uses the entire orchestra, but only in the boisterous central section, for the wildness of horses and careless young men. The beginning and end are delicately written, as the mezzo-soprano sings of the young girls’ sensitivity. Young maidens pick flowers, Pluck lotus blossoms on the bank. Among bushes and leaves they sit, Gather flowers in their laps and call Bantering to each other. Golden sun weaves about the forms, Reflects them in the bright water, Sun mirrors their slender limbs, Their charming eyes, And the zephyr with caresses lifts the fabric Of their sleeves, carries the magic Of their perfumes through the air. Oh see, what handsome youths romp There on the bank on spirited steeds? In the distance they gleam like the sunbeams; Now between the branches of the green willows The vigorous lads trot along. The horse of one neighs merrily And shies and gallops off, Over flowers, grasses, its hooves stagger, Recklessly and stormily they trample the fallen flowers! Ah! How its mane waves in frenzy, Its nostrils steam hotly! Golden sun weaves about the forms, Reflects them in the bright water. And the most beautiful of the virgins casts Long glances of desire after him. Her proud bearing is only pretense. In the flashing of her large eyes, In the darkness of her burning glance, The agitation of her heart still trembles in lament.

V. The Drunkard in Spring Mahler’s lurching rubato in this song humorously portray the drunkard’s unexamined carefree nature, and is sung by the tenor. If life is only a dream, Why then trouble and care? I drink until I can drink no more, The whole day long! And when I can drink no more, Because throat and soul are full, Then I stagger to my door And sleep wonderfully! What do I hear on waking? Hark! A bird sings in the tree. I ask it whether it is already spring, It is like a dream to me. The bird chirps, “Yes! Springtime is here, it has come overnight!” Lost in gazing, I suddenly took heed, The bird sings and laughs! I fill my cup again And empty it to the dregs And sing until the moon gleams In the black heavens! And when I can sing no more, Then I fall asleep again. What has the spring to do with me? Let me be drunk! After Li T’ai-po

VI. The Farewell This song is close to thirty minutes long. With the mezzo-soprano’s poetry filled with natural imagery and of a long journey, Mahler echoes the marches of earlier symphonies (such as the fifth or sixth), but softer, and more haltingly. Although there are interludes of warmth which may evoke the night-music of his seventh symphony, much of this end is a bitter one. The sun departs behind the mountains. Into all the valleys the evening descends With its shadows, which are full of coolness. Oh see! Like a silver barque The moon floats upward on the blue lake of heaven. I feel a soft wind blowing Behind the dark spruces. The brook sings, full of pleasant sound, through the dark. The flowers pale in the twilight, The earth breathes, full of quiet and sleep. All longing now wants to dream, Weary men go homeward, To learn again in sleep Forgotten happiness and youth. The birds perch quietly in their branches, The world falls asleep! A cool breeze blows in the shade of my spruces. I stand here and await my friend; I await him for a final farewell. I long, O friend, to enjoy The beauty of this evening at your side. Where are you? You leave me alone so long! I walk up and down with my lute On paths that swell with soft grass. O beauty! O world drunk with eternal love and life! [Long orchestral interlude] He alighted from his horse and offered him the draught Of farewell. He asked him where He was bound and also why it had to be. He spoke, his voice was veiled: My friend, Fortune was not kind to me in this world! Where do I go? I walk, I wander into the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I go to my homeland, my abode! I will never roam in distant lands. My heart is still and awaits its hour. The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime Anew. Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue! Forever… forever… After Meng Kao-yen and Wang Wei

Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czechia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Categories: Program Notes