A Tribute to Gustav Mahler…

Album cover of Das Lied von der Erde

Yesterday was the 101st anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). Mahler was one of the greatest composers of all time. He is also one of my favorite composers. I am sure more people don’t know who he was than do know who he was, but what everyone should know is how important he is in the history of western music. Gustav Mahler ushered in the modern era of music. His influence can still be heard today in music as diverse as John Williams film music (E.T., Star wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, etc…) to Neil Young. (I have an idea for a blog I want to write called “Neil Young, Gustav Mahler and the Dirge). I’m sure Neil Young doesn’t think his music is influenced by Mahler but I can hear it clearly in many of his songs.

The music I have chosen to post in tribute to Mahler is the powerful song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde. (The Song of the Earth). This composition was one of the last works Mahler completed. His last complete work was his Ninth Symphony. His tenth symphony was on his work desk, with only the first movement completely fleshed out, when he died. Mahler never heard Das Lied von der Erde performed, nor did he ever hear his 9th Symphony performed. Das Lied was premiered by Bruno Walter on November 20th 1911. Bruno Walter was a student of Mahler.

Mahler was a very famous man in his time, but he was better known for his conducting than his compositions. He was probably the greatest conductor of his time. His principle occupation was being the conductor of the Vienna State Opera. Mahler virtually invented the modern concert experience by codifying the etiquette of the concert experience. He invented the concept of Opera direction and set design. He started the classical music tradition of not allowing late comers to enter the concert hall during a performance. He began the disintegration of tonality.

He had a tragic life, but ultimately he triumphed over his grief. This composition is a beautiful example of how he lifted himself from tragedy to triumph.

Das Lied von der Erde is really a symphony. (It was sub-titled by Mahler “Symphony for Contralto and Tenor Voices and Large Orchestra). Mahler was superstitious about composing a 9th symphony because Beethoven died after he composed his 9th symphony. Although this composition requires a large orchestra, the entire orchestra is used sparingly. Many times the music takes on an almost chamber music style. In addition, there are part of the composition where the vocalist seems to be accompanying an instrumental solo instead of the reverse. The song cycle is made up of 6 different movements. The lyrics are derived from ancient Chinese poetry. Some of the poems were used as they were originally written and some of the poems are combinations of two different poets, and Mahler himself added some lines of his own devising. I have included translations of the lyrics because the songs are all sung in German.

This performance is by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The Tenor is James King and the Mezzo-soprano is Janet Baker. One of the reasons I chose this performance is because Mahler actually conducted the Concertgebouw orchestra for a period of time. And now, Das Lied von der Erde

1. “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth)

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The main feature of this movement is the repeating of the phrase “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist das Tod.” (Dark is life, is death). Each time the phase is repeated it is pitched slightly higher than before.

Here is the translation of the poem:

The wine already winks from the golden goblet, but do not drink yet – first I’ll sing you a song! The song of sorrow shall burst out in laughter in your soul. When sorrow draws nigh, the gardens of the soul lie wasted, both joy and song wither away. Dark is life, is death.

Master of this house! Your cellar holds the wealth of golden wine! Here, this lute shall be mine! Strumming the lute and draining the glass – these are things which belong together. A full wine-goblet at the right moment is worth more than all the riches of this world! Dark is life, is death.

The firmament is forever blue, and the earth will long remain and blossom into spring. But you, fellow man, how long do you live? Not even for a hundred years may you take your delight in all the false trifles of this world!

Look down there! On the moonlit graves squats a ghostly, bestial figure. It’s an ape! Listen t his howls piercing through the sweet fragrance of life!

Now drink the wine! Now is the time, comrades! Drain your golden goblets to the bottom! Dark is life, is death…

2. Der Einsame Im Herbst (The Lonely Man in Autumn)

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The second song is softer and quieter than the first. Note how chamber music like the scoring is.

A blue autumn mist hovers over the lake; all the grass-blades are striped with frost; one would think an artist had strewn jade-dust over the delicate blossoms.

The sweet fragrance of the flowers has been blown away; a cold wind has bent their stems down. Soon the withered, golden lotus leaves will shift about on the water.

My heart is weary. my little lamp went out with a hiss, reminding me of sleep. I am coming to you, beloved resting-place! Yes, give me peace – I need to be refreshed!

I weep much in my loneliness; autumn has lasted too long in my heart. Sun of love, will you never shine again, and gently dry my bitter tears?

This poem is so obviously about the death of Mahler’s eldest daughter. She died after a brief illness. The line “My little lamp went out with a hiss…” is almost too sad to bear…

3. Von Der Jugend (Of Youth)

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Note in this movement the extensive use of Our western musical scale consists of 8 notes.

In the middle of the small pond stands a pavilion made of green and with porcelain.

Like a tiger’s back, the bridge forms an arch of jade stretching to the pavilion.

In the little house friends sit, well-dressed, drinking, chatting; some are writing down verses.

Their silken sleeves glide back, their silken caps perch merrily on the backs of their heads.

On the quiet surface of the pond everything appears marvelously in mirror image.

Everything turned upon its head in the pavilion made of green and withe porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge, its arch inverted. Friends, well-dressed, drink and chatter.

4. Von Der Schonheit (Of Beauty)

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Young girls pick flowers, pick lotus blossoms form the bank. They sit among bushes and leaves, collecting blossoms in their laps and teasing each other.

The golden sun dapples the figures, reflects them in the smooth water. The sun reflects their slender limbs, their charming eyes, and the caressing breeze lifts up the fabric of their sleeves, carries the magic of the fragrance through the air.

O, look, what handsome youths exercise their horses near the water, gleaming far and bright as sunbeams, already the sportive ones are trotting in between the green willow branches!

The horse of one of them neighs gaily, shies and dashes away; moving over flowers and grass, the giddy hooves, like a storm, heedlessly crush the drooping blossoms. Ha! How his mane flutters in a frenzy, how steamy the breath from his nostrils!

Golden sunlight dapples the figures, reflects them in the smooth water. And the most beautiful of the maidens sends longing glances in his direction. Her proud bearing is only fluff. In the sparkle of her wide eyes, in the darkness of her heated glance, the excitement of her heart still vibrates in lament.

5. Der Trunkene Im Fruhling (The Drunkard in Spring)

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This movement acts as the Scherzo of the symphony. Note the constantly shifting rhythms

If life is only a dream, what good are cards and worries!? I drink until I can no more, the whole day long!

And when I can drink no more, when body and soul are full, then I stagger to my doorway and sleep marvelously!

What do I hear upon awakening? Listen! A bird is singing in the tree, I ask him if it is already spring – to me it seems like a dream,

The bird twitters: Yes! Spring is here; it came overnight! Roused form inward gazing I hear the bird singing and laughing!

I fill my goblet once again and drain it dry and sing until the moon shines out form the pitch-black sky!

And when i can sing no longer, I fall asleep again; what do I care about spring!? let me be drunk!

6. Der Abschied (The Farewell)

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Der Abschied is easily one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard. This is highly emotional and intensely personal music. The composer lays his soul bare to the world. After Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde, he showed it to his friend and student Bruno Walter. He said ” This is surely the most personal thing I have ever written.” The he showed Walter this last movement “Der Abschied”. He asked “Can this be endured at all? Surley the people will kill themselves afterwards?” i think I know what he meant…

The tempo is marked “Without regard for Tempo” . It is very difficult to conduct because of all the cadenza’s for the vocalist and instrumental soloist. The movement is almost as long as the other 5 movements combined. The last lines are added by Mahler himself and it turns all of this sorrow into happiness. “Everywhere the good earth once more greens and blossoms into spring. Everywhere, forever, distant spaces shine light blue! Forever…forever

The last word is repeated over and over, quieter, and quieter until the last word is “imprinted on the atmosphere” as the composer Benjamin Britten beautifully described it.

The sun departs behind the mountains. Evening descends upon the valleys with its cool, refreshing shadows. O look! The moon, like a silver barque, glides upward on the sky’s blue sea. I notice a slight breeze blowing behind the dark fir-trees!

The stream sings melodiously through the darkness. The flowers turn pale in the twilight. The earth breathes a deep tranquility; now all longing wants to dream. Weary people make their way home, to learn once more in sleep forgotten happiness and youth! The birds perch quietly on the branches. The world falls asleep!

A cool breeze blows in the shade of my fir-trees. I stand here in wait of my friend; I wait to bid him a last farewell. O friend, I long to relish the beauty of the evening at your side. Where do you tarry? You leave me so log alone! I wander to and fro with my lute on paths swollen with soft grass. O beauty! Flush with love, with life unending – O drunken world!

He alighted from his horse and offered his friend the drink of farewell. He asked him where he was heading and why it had to be so. He spoke – his voice was muffled; My friend, fortune has not favored me in this world! Where am I going? I go wandering now in the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I wander to my homeland, my abode. I will never roam in the distance. My heart is quiet and awaits its hour! Everywhere the good earth once more greens and blossoms into spring. Everywhere, forever, distant spaces shine light blue.




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About John

I taught myself how to play the piano and read music when I was 9 years old. I've been been consumed by music ever since. I majored in Piano performance in College and I still play, although not as well as when I had time to practice 4 -6 hours per day. This blog is about music. Music is the sound track of our lives. All it take is one song, one composition; and we are transported across time and space. I think it was Beethoven that said: "Music is the landscape of the soul."
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2 Responses to A Tribute to Gustav Mahler…

  1. Ken West says:

    A great review-I was wondering when you’d get around to good old Gustav 🙂

    Just finished an interesting book, Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht, a birthday gift from Larry. A very entertaining read, although he makes some pretty tenuous connections between Mahler’s music and modern issues, like environmentalism. I haven’t listened to Das Lied in many years, and I really need to revisit this work-just ordered the Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording with Maureen Forrester and Richard Lewis. The 9th has gotten under my skin big time the last couple of years, and I love the 10th, too. Are you familiar with the Benjamin Zander Mahler recordings on Telarc? The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th come with bonus discs of Zander talking about the music, complete with excerpts from the recordings as well as him illustrating on the piano (he occasionally uses excerpts from related works from other composers, too), and his enthusiasm and love for Mahler’s music is infectious. They are all outstanding performances, in typically great Telarc sound-highly recommended.

    Yes, I still foller Mahler 🙂 Now more than ever! The older I get, the more intellectual and spiritual nourishment I get from his works.

    • John says:

      I have that book “Why Mahler?” on my table to read next. Currently I am reading “The Rest is Noise – Listening to the 20th Century” by Alex Ross. I am almost done with it, so I will be reading the Mahler book soon. The Reiner “Das Lied” is a classic. I remember when Zander did those Mahler recordings but I have never heard them. I bet they sound great. I’m probably going to do the “Touch” blog soon. Thanks again for sharing such interesting music. I’m also working on a blog about “Canned Heat” and one on “Captain Beefheart and his magic band”. I think the Captain beefheart could be the most compeling becasue I can ask one of the major questions about music for discussion: Is music for the masses or is music for the musician? I wish I had more time to blog. I have way more ideas than I have time. Thanks for your friendship and support! By the way, I wish I still had that t-shirt “I foller Mahler”! I’d love to wear that around town… I too get more and more nourishment from Mahler. I just thought I understood him when I was young. I think my perspective is much better these days!

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