Farewell in Chinese characters
Shortly after the tragic death of his daughter in 1907, Mahler began to read a collection of medieval Chinese poetry called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), given to him by Theobald Pollak. Or, rather, he read Hans Bethge's German poetic paraphrases (Nachdichtungen) of Hans Heilman's German translations of earlier French translations of classic Chinese poems. Further taking Mahler away from any real contact with the Chinese originals, the composer freely adapted the text of the final song, Der Abschied, by combining two poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei and even adding his own words. It is true that Mahler did make some studies of traditional Chinese instruments and scales -- Henry-Louis de la Grange (of the Bibliothèque Gustav Mahler), in an essay on Das Lied von der Erde, adds that Mahler apparently listened to phonograph cylinders made in China and kept at the University of Vienna. Tellingly, however, when Chinese listeners were asked at the post-concert discussion if Mahler's song sounded more Chinese when heard next to Chinese music, the consensus was, in one man's words, "It is not Chinese, but it is still beautiful."
Perhaps to give an idea of what Mahler may have heard on those cylinders, guest artists Min Xiao-fen and Wang Guowei played three selections on pipa and erhu, respectively. These pieces were labeled in the program only as "Traditional Chinese Music," whatever that means (century? region of origin? notated when, if ever?), as if no other information were required. They were beautifully performed, with the musicians in spotlights on the darkened stage and the back wall lit in a soft blue. Shi Hong Aldin's recitation of the original poems Mahler adapted exaggerated the tonic qualities of the Chinese language, expressly to make a point. The language, of course, had minimal influence on Mahler, but it was used directly in the new composition by Zhou Long, The Farewell. In the post-concert discussion the composer stated that he had based melodic motives in the work on the tonic sounds of the poem, as he heard them, as well as on a Chinese tune about bidding farewell. The effect was ethereal, with feathery strings and whispered percussion. As usual, there was an uneasy quasi-harmony between the orchestral instruments and the Chinese ones, as Chinese themes received a halo of dissonant chords.
Stephen Brookes, Post-Classical Ensemble (Washington Post, March 19)