Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Created | Updated May 23, 2013
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The Adagietto from the 5th Symphony | 6th Symphony
The Order of the Middle Movements in the 6th Symphony | 7th Symphony
8th Symphony: Part 1 | 8th Symphony: Part 2 | Das Lied von der Erde
9th Symphony | 10th Symphony
As a composer of large-scale symphonies and of intimate-scale songs, it is entirely fitting that Gustav Mahler should have written a large-scale symphonic song cycle. Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth] is an hour-long setting of poems of Chinese origin, composed for a large orchestra, with tenor and alto voices. Although completed in 1909, Mahler never heard the work performed by an orchestra – it and his Ninth Symphony were premièred posthumously by Mahler's close personal friend and protégé, the conductor Bruno Walter.
The alto part is normally sung by a contralto or a mezzo-soprano, but Mahler's score does state that it may be taken by a baritone voice; this tenor/baritone combination is occasionally used in performances of the work.
Each of the six movements is based on one poem, except the last, which brings together two poems with a related theme, to which Mahler also adds some words of his own. The six movements are:
- Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde – The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow (for Tenor voice)
- Der Einsame im Herbst – The Lonely One in Autumn (for Alto voice)
- Von der Jugend – On Youth (Tenor)
- Von der Schönheit – On Beauty (Alto)
- Der Trunkene im Frühling – The Drunken Man in Spring (Tenor)
- Der Abschied – The Farewell (Alto)
In 1907 Gustav Mahler was ousted from his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, and was immediately taken up by impresario Heinrich Conrad for the remainder of the 1907/8 season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, starting on New Year's Day, 1908. Conrad already had the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini under contract; the presence of a second prestigious conductor at the Metropolitan would surely make his opera house the finest in America, if not in the world.
That first New York season ended in mid-April with a performance of Richard Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle. Mahler conducted the second and third operas, Die Walküre and Siegfried, the conducting duties for the other two operas – the opening Das Rheingold and the concluding Götterdämmerung – being taken by Alfred Hertz.
Return to Europe
After Easter, Mahler set sail for Europe, arriving at Cuxhaven on 2 May, 1908, where he was scheduled to conduct his own First Symphony in Wiesbaden, Germany, and the opening concert in Prague of an Exhibition mounted to mark the 60th Jubilee of the reign of Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef I. Conducting commitments completed, Mahler was at last able to head for the southern Tyrolean village of Toblach1, which would be his summer retreat for the remaining three summers of his life, and where he could start composing again.
The year 1908 was to be full of new beginnings for the composer. The appointment in New York placed him in a situation where both the culture and the language were alien to him. Summer breaks from the Vienna Court Opera had been spent at the villa he had had built at Maiernigg, on the southern shore of the Wörthersee. However the previous year, 1907, his beloved daughter Maria had died there – a victim of scarlet fever and diphtheria. The villa now held too many painful memories, and Mahler never returned to it. Shortly after Maria's death his own heart condition was diagnosed, a factor that would be a significant contributor to his own death in 1911. An immediate effect of the diagnosis was a ban by his doctor on the vigorous exercise and long walks in the mountains that Mahler loved so much. This exclusion had a direct influence on the genesis of Das Lied von der Erde.
In addition to his composing, which usually took place in the mornings, Mahler would read a great deal and, when he had been allowed, swim in the lake and take long walks or bicycle rides in the mountains. The forbidden physical exertions meant that more time was now available for reading.
The Chinese Flute
Mahler had recently2 been given a present by a friend, Theobald Pollak, of a volume by Hans Bethge (1876 - 1946) entitled Die chinesische Flöte [The Chinese Flute]. This volume comprised translations into German of a collection of some 80 Chinese poems. These greatly appealed to Mahler, who took seven of them and arranged them into the six songs of Das Lied von der Erde. The sixth song includes two poems, with Mahler making his own additions to the text in the process.
Mahler worked entirely from Bethge's German text – he would not have known what the author's sources were. In fact Bethge worked from three principal sources:
- Chinesische Lyrik [Chinese Verse], by Hans Heilmann (1859 - 1930), published in 1905. This derives mainly from two French sources, not the Chinese originals:
- Le livre de jade [The Book of Jade], an 1867 translation from Chinese into French by poet, novelist and orientalist, Judith Gautier3 (1845 - 1917).
- Poésies de l'époque des Thang [Poetry of the T'ang Period], translations made in 1862 by the eminent French Chinese scholar, Marquis d'Hervey-Saint-Denys4.
Gautier and Hervey-Saint-Denys could not have been more different. Judith Gautier, an amateur hobbyist, was in her early twenties when she made her translations, and was more concerned with freedom of style in the then-current vogue for things oriental than she was with literary accuracy. Hervey-Saint-Denys, on the other hand was a respected academic – Professor of Chinese at the Collège de France.
Bethge had no knowledge of Chinese, so at best he was working from secondary sources, not the originals. His principal source seems to have been Heilmann, who in turn, as we have seen, derives in part from Gautier and in part from Hervey-Saint-Denys. In fairness to Bethge though, he describes the poems in his volume as Nachdichtungen [Paraphrases]. So when you read the song texts in the little booklet that accompanies a CD recording of Das Lied von der Erde, it is worth bearing in mind that (for English readers), the words of each song are a translation into English of the German text that Mahler adapted from Bethge's version, which is derived from French translations of the original Chinese!
A Problem of Translation
Chinese poetry does not follow the form and rhythmic patterns that Western eyes and ears are accustomed to. It is stripped of all grammatical syntax – there are, for example, no past, present or future tenses. The poet forms a regular pattern of perhaps six lines of five (Chinese) characters.
Each character represents one syllable which may have meaning on its own, or it may be part of a character group – it may also have one meaning in isolation, but a different meaning when followed by another character or characters. Each character, or character group, represents a (possibly ambiguous) object, or an abstract idea, or a tenseless verb. Unlike the Roman script of Western languages, where the letters are merely writing codes which have no meaning until they are combined to form words, Chinese characters have more intrinsic meaning.
The poetry is formed in the mind of the reader, and thus may be different for each reader, or even for the same reader on different occasions. This results in many pitfalls for those not thoroughly familiar with Chinese style and language.
The principal poet, and author of four of the seven poems selected by Mahler, is T'ang Dynasty poet Li Bai, also called Li Tai-Po, both names being Romanized forms.
The T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), was the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Li Bai (701 - 762 AD), considered to be one of the greatest Chinese poets of all time, was born on the steppe of Central Asia, but while he was still a boy, the family moved to western China's Szechuen province. Aged 25, he left home and started on a long series of travels around China, all the while writing his poems, his name becoming more and more known in the upper echelons of China's rigid, feudal society. Eventually he was given a position in the Emperor's Court, but soon realising that he was no more than a kind of fashion accessory, he continued his travels. Trying once again to get closer to the centre of power, he became involved in an internecine political struggle, ended up on the losing side, and was sentenced initially to execution, the sentence later being commuted to exile. While he was enroute to exile, the old Emperor died and Li Bai was pardoned. Now disillusioned with power, he turned to drink but was still able to produce great poems, a number of which make reference to alcohol. His death in 762 AD was attributed either to the medical effects of heavy drinking, or to drowning while drunk.
Li Bai is the poet attributed by Bethge as the source of the first, third, fourth and fifth movements, although the original poems have suffered during translation, the third so much so, that for many years it was not possible to identify the original source.
The authorship of the second poem – Der Einsame im Herbst – remains a mystery. Bethge's text names the poet as Tschang-Tsi, but Heilmann's, and hence Bethge's, source must have been Judith Gautier since the poem is not included in the Hervey-Saint-Denys collection. The Chinese characters printed alongside the name Tchang-Tsi at the head of the poem in Gautier's original edition represent Li Wei, a name not known in Chinese poetry.
For the sixth movement, Mahler took two poems from The Chinese Flute and combined them – one poem by Mong-Kao-Jen (or Meng-Hao-Ran)5, about whom little is known, the other by Wang-Wei6. As well as being one of the great T'ang Dynasty poets, Wang Wei was also an artist, a calligrapher and a musician. His work reflects the Buddhist worldview, with a love of unspoiled Nature and a feeling of sensory illusion. Unlike Li Bai, Wang-Wei took and passed the official shin-shih examinations which opened access to a career in the prestigious civil service, at which he was successful and accumulated considerable wealth, much of which he either gave to, or used to found, monasteries.
Although it is so in all but name, Mahler was superstitious about calling this work a symphony, fearing that like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, writing a Symphony 9 would be his last. He did in fact follow Das Lied von der Erde with a work entitled Symphony 9, but joked that he had cheated the system as the new symphony was really his tenth. His superstition was well founded – the Ninth Symphony did prove to be his last completed work.
The Music and the Songs
In terms of compositional development, there are two Gustav Mahlers – Mahler the symphonist, and Mahler the composer of Lieder7. Despite the frequent use of, or quotation from, his own songs in the symphonies, they and the Lieder developed relatively independently. In the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, these developments came together to produce something quite new.
The work divides into two parts, both in duration and in philosophy. The first five songs occupy roughly half the total duration of the work, with the remainder being devoted to the sixth song, the great Abschied – the Farewell. The same division applies to its philosophy; the first five songs are concerned with the fears and mental conflicts that arise from contemplating the imminent approach of one's own death. The sixth song considers the final inner contentment that comes with the resolution of these fears and conflicts.
Part One exhibits a structure familiar from other Mahler symphonic works such as the Second Symphony – the arch. The first and fifth songs/movements are the pillars supporting the second and the lighter third and fourth movements, placed between them. They are not matching pillars, though drinking is their shared theme. The first song warns that Life on Earth is short, and that the Earth will remain long after we as individuals are gone; therefore Man should make the most of it while he can. The fifth song is distinctly nihilistic, with drinking to excess seen as the only means of coping with the burden of Life.
Throughout, and in a myriad ways, some subtle, others more overt, Mahler makes use of the pentatonic scale8; this helps to give the music its oriental feel. Also, in addition to the large orchestra normally required for his work, Mahler uses celesta, mandolin, glockenspiel and tam-tam to add distinctive colour to the orchestra's sound palette.
The composer's choice of key signature for each of the songs is highly significant: I – A minor; II – D minor; III – B-flat major/G major; IV – G major; V – A major/F major; VI – C minor. Bearing in mind his superstition (mentioned previously about the finality of ninth symphonies), with the exception of the second song he avoids the use of the key of D minor – the Ninth symphonies of both Beethoven and Bruckner are in D minor, and later, Mahler's own Ninth will be in the same key. The second song is the one most clearly about the fear of death, and the use of D minor here can be no coincidence. In the concluding, fifth song of part one – the most despairing of the cycle – F major, the relative major of D minor, is prominent.
In the final song, the principal key, C minor, moves finally to the major mode, C major, the relative major of the A minor key in which the work starts.
The English texts given below for each song are only brief fragments, but reflect the essential mood of the poems. The translations keep as close as possible to Bethge's German text, with no attempt at a poetic interpretation.
The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow
Already the wine beckons in golden goblets,
but don't drink yet; first I'll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow
shall sound laughingly in your soul.
When sorrow draws near,
the gardens of the soul lie desolate,
joy and song wither and die.
Dark is life, dark is death.
Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde starts the symphony/song cycle in emphatic style with a pentatonic figure for the horns. A short introduction precedes the tenor's strident first line. Almost throughout, the song maintains high energy and drive. Late in the poem, the singer describes a scene of a ghostly ape, sat in a moonlit graveyard, howling, and the music at this point becomes very agitated. Although this image is a potent symbol in its own right, it is also possible that it conceals a pun. Mahler was very fond of literary puns; they occur regularly in his letters, especially those to his wife Alma. The German noun Affe translates as 'monkey', but in colloquial German, einen Affen haben means to have had 'one over the eight', to have had a skinful – in other words to be very drunk. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde is after all, a drinking song. Pun or not, the song soon ends as emphatically as it began, with a single, heavy, A minor chord.
The Lonely One in Autumn
I weep much in my solitude.
The autumn in my heart lasts too long.
Sun of love, will you never shine again
to gently dry up my bitter tears?
This slow, reflective song begins with the violins accompanying a plaintive oboe theme that characterises it – a joyless musical landscape. Etwas scleichend. Ermüdet. (Somewhat lingering. Weary) is Mahler's direction at the head of the score. At the words of the final two lines of the poem – Sonne der Liebe... [Sun of love...] – the Alto reaches for a brief climax with a yearning plea, but it is denied and the song ends as it began, with the plaintive oboe and violins lament.
In the middle of the little ponds
stands a pavilion of green
and white porcelain.
Like the back of a tiger,
the bridge of jade arches
across to the pavilion.
In the little house sit friends,
finely dressed, drinking, chatting, some writing down verses.
This poem suffered a gross misinterpretation at the hands of Judith Gautier, and only in recent years has it finally been authenticated as being by Li Bai. The Chinese character that Gautier translated as 'porcelain' is a dual-meaning character that can also indicate the family name 'Tao'. The following character means 'family' or 'house', but the two characters occurring together should be taken to mean 'Tao's family' and not 'porcelain house'. Further, the 'green and white' and the 'arching bridge of jade' are entirely of Gautier's invention.
Musically, On Youth and the following On Beauty, are much lighter in mood than the other songs. In On Youth, flutes, oboes and clarinets provide the main orchestral colour, in addition to the strings, with gentle support from the horns. The chinoiserie is overt – this is 'Willow Pattern' in music.
Young girls are picking flowers,
Picking lotus flowers on the riverbank.
Between the bushes and the leaves they sit,
collecting blossoms in their laps and calling
teasingly to each other.
The golden sun weaving around their forms,
reflecting them in the shining water.
The poem goes on to describe how a group of youths on horseback appears, and how one of the horses rears up, its hooves trampling the grass and fallen blossom on the ground. One of the girls exchanges passionate glances with the youth on the horse. The Chinese original makes it clear though that, far from being pleased by this, the girls are upset by the damage done to the fallen lotus blossom. The true emotion of the poem has been lost in the translation.
The musical structure of the song can readily be described as Girls – Boys – Girls. Each has their own depiction – the girls' music slower, quiet and dreamy; the central boys' section boisterous, rumbustious and march-like.
The Drunken Man in Spring
If life is only a dream,
why then is there trouble and torment?
I drink till I can drink no more,
the whole livelong day
I fill my cup anew
and drain it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines out
in the black sky
And when I can sing no more,
I go off to sleep again;
What concern then to me is spring?
Let me be drunk.
If this fifth song, the last in part one, were a purely symphonic movement, it could be described as an A major Scherzo, with a brief D flat Trio. The A major tonality is not allowed to become too established, and apart from during the Trio section, alternates regularly with F major.
Like the opening song, it is a drinking song, but this time the drinker seeks oblivion. At one point, he awakes and hears a bird singing in a tree. He asks the bird whether Spring has arrived. Yes, the bird, portrayed by a piccolo, replies, it came overnight. This is the start of the Trio section, its key of D flat representing the arrival of Spring. As the bird sings and laughs, the Scherzo resumes, the drinker refills his cup and starts drinking again.
The birds perch silently in their branches.
The world is falling asleep!
It blows cool in the shadow of my pine trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
Where am I going? I am going to wander in the mountains
I seek peace for my lonely heart
I go to my homeland, my abode!
I will never roam so far afield.
My heart is still and awaits its hour
As stated previously, the two threads of Mahler's compositional development came together in Das Lied von der Erde. The precise point of that joining is the sixth and final movement, Der Abschied. In this, he at times enjoys a new freedom from the rhythmic confines of the printed bar line that is reminiscent of post-1910 Stravinsky.
Unusually, rather than play the new work to him on the piano, Mahler gave the completed manuscript to his friend Bruno Walter to take away for study. When he returned it, Mahler pointed to a section of Der Abschied and asked Walter, Have you any notion how this should be conducted? I haven't!9
The two poems that Mahler takes for this final song are entitled, in The Chinese Flute, In Erwartung des Freundes [In expectation of a friend], and Der Abschied des Freundes [The parting of the friend].
The music opens in the key of C minor, with three slow, repeated Cs in the lower strings, harps, horns and contra-bassoon, plus a tam-tam. At the third of these, the oboe cries a little five-note figure that will recur throughout the movement. The sparse harmony reflects the scene of the text that is to follow.
In Mong-Kao-Jen's original source poem, it is a chilly evening after the sun has gone down. The poet is waiting on a path bordered by vines. But where does the path lead, and who is he waiting for? The person awaited is expected to stay the night there. Is it the path to a house? The poet tells us that he is carrying a qin, a classical Chinese instrument: a 7-stringed zither. Is the poet waiting for his music teacher? Since this instrument is closely linked to spiritual contemplation, perhaps the path leads to a Buddhist monastery and the poet is waiting for a monk or a priest. Such is the way with this poetry – it is up to you, the reader, to interpret it.
In Heilmann's Chinesische Lyrick, this poem appears under the title Abend [Evening], and is a direct translation into German of a poem that appears in Hervey-Saint-Denys's French set, there entitled Le poète attend son ami Ting-Kong [The poet awaits his friend Ting-Kong]. Hervey-Saint-Denys's translation sticks closely to the Chinese original, as one would expect; however, it does introduce the idea that the poet is waiting for a friend. The qui is translated as being a lute.
Bethge's version of this poem, In Erwartung des Freundes, is a close, if slightly expanded portrayal of the scene, up until its conclusion. Whereas in the Chinese original, and in both the French and German sources, the poet is left waiting patiently, in the last line Bethge introduces an impatience:
Wo bleibst du nur? Du lässt mich lang allein!...O kämst du, kämst du, ungetreuer Freund!
[Where are you? You leave me long alone!... O come, O come, faithless friend!]
And what does Mahler do with this text? Again he expands it slightly, but without major deviation, save for two critical lines. Firstly, he inserts the line:
Ich harre sein zum letzten Lebewohl
[I wait to bid him a last farewell]
Then, at the end of this section of Der Abschied, Mahler replaces Bethge's last line with his own:
O Schönheit, o ewigen Liebens, Lebens trunk'ne Welt!
[O beauty, O eternal love and life intoxicated world!]
In these two lines, Mahler has installed the idea that the purpose of the would-be meeting is to say goodbye to someone, and has replaced Bethge's impatience with a celebration of the Joy of Life. Note also the significant introduction of the word Ewig – Forever.
The conventional interpretation of the sub-text of this section is that following the diagnosis of his heart condition, Mahler became obsessed with death – hence his avoidance of writing a Ninth symphony, substituting instead a song cycle. He is brooding on the fact that his time on Earth is now very limited, and that he may soon be denied his love of Nature and indeed Life itself. He is taking a last look over his shoulder at what has been.
Between the Waiting and the Parting
In the five-minute orchestral interlude between the two poems, Mahler inserts a heavy, funeral-like march – in fact, a 20-bar introduction followed by the funeral march proper – featuring a prominent figure in the brass and woodwind sections that begins with three repeated quavers10. Once again, the key is C minor. Why a funeral march? Because this marks the transition between the fear of the loss of Life, and the contentment that comes with the realisation that the cycle of Life continues after our Death.
The second poem that Mahler uses in Der Abschied is based on an original by Wang-Wei, entitled At Parting. In this, the poet dismounts from his horse and offers wine to the one departing. Where and why are you going?, he asks, You say you are returning to the southern mountains. Let me go and do not ask me why, says the other, there are endless white clouds there.
Heilman's version, Abschied von einem Freunde [Parting from a friend], is a pretty faithful replica of Wang-Wei's original. Bethge's text, Der Abschied des Freundes, expands on it very slightly; significantly, the word Ewig [Forever] appears in the last line. Mahler had made use of this word at the end of the first poem, and will do again, so effectively, at the end of this one.
Mahler changes the text from the first to the third person – to maintain continuity with the first poem – together with some other modifications. Then at the end, he adds some words of his own:
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz and grünt aufs neu!
Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen,
[The dear Earth everywhere
Blossoms forth in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever, the distance shines blue,
At the onset of this poem, the music continues in the key of C minor. After the march, the atmosphere becomes other-worldly. The alto voice enters, with the composer's instruction: erzählend und ohne Espressivo [In a narrative voice, without expression]. The departing one, now Mahler, tells us he is going to wander in the mountains – where in life he (Mahler) was at his most contented. Just prior to the words I go to my homeland, the key finally moves to the C major it was destined to achieve from the song-cycle's very beginning in A minor.
The final word of the text, Ewig, is intoned slowly and quietly by the alto nine times, accompanied by shimmering arpeggios on harp and celesta, fading to nothing.
Problematic though the texts of these poems are to us today in terms of deviation from the Chinese originals, this must be ignored completely when considering Mahler's settings of them. The discrepancies have become apparent since his death; as far as he was concerned, Bethge's text was a true and accurate reflection of the poets' original thoughts.
Bruno Walter conducted the first performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich, on 20 November, 1911, with the contralto Sarah Jane Charles-Cahier and the tenor William Miller.
Of the many sound recordings made of this work, two stand out – for different reasons, but with a connection. The first is the now legendary 1952 recording by Kathleen Ferrier, with the tenor Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter. At the time of the recording, Kathleen Ferrier was in considerable pain from the cancer from which she was suffering. The orchestra were aware of just how ill she was and played their socks off for her. The result is one of only a handful of occasions when something quite magical is captured on disc. Kathleen Ferrier died, 17 months later, at the age of only 41.
The second recording is that by the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the tenor Fritz Wunderlich, conducted by Otto Klemperer. A casual glance at the credits lists two orchestras – the Philharmonia Orchestra and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The work is certainly scored for a large orchestra, but two orchestras? No, only one orchestra was used, but the story behind it is somewhat bizarre. The whole recording was made in three distinct sections over a total period of 29 months. Christa Ludwig's songs 2 and 4 were recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Kingsway Hall, London, in February 1964. Fritz Wunderlich's songs (1, 3 and 5), also with the Philharmonia Orchestra, were recorded at EMI's famous Abbey Road Studios in November 1964. Although Ludwig, Wunderlich and Klemperer had performed the work together in London in 1961, the two singers did not meet during their respective recording sessions. That left only the final Der Abschied with Christa Ludwig to be recorded. After the first two sessions however, the Philharmonia Orchestra was disbanded following a disagreement, and reformed itself thereafter as the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Christa Ludwig completed the work with the reconstituted orchestra, under Otto Klemperer, at Abbey Road in July 1966. And the connection? – the tenor Fritz Wunderlich died in September 1966, aged only 35.