Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler’s attempt to trick fate. Finding some disconcerting precedent in composers’ fates after writing a ninth symphony (it was Beethoven’s last, Schubert did not outlive his by much, Bruckner died three-quarters through his Ninth, Dvořák didn’t live to start a Tenth), he simply skipped the numbering process in 1907/08. After initially referring to Das Lied as his “IX. Symphony” he eventually called this all-vocal symphony that followed his all-choral Eighth “The Song of the Earth”—and that only after he had completed the symphony now known as the Ninth. The work stands for the concluding synthesis of songs and symphonic form in Mahler’s œvre and doubtlessly constitutes some of the most innovative orchestral-vocal treatments ever composed. Das Lied is set to five fairly short and one epic songs in turn set to seven of Hans Bethge’s chinoisery poems based on—already liberally treated—French translations of 8th century Chinese poetry and then further adapted by Mahler.
Mahler was given the book with these Chinese poems in 1907, shortly after the death of his child. Alma Mahler suggests that the poems attracted Mahler—with intent to compose—because of their disillusioned tone and gloomy subject matter closely reflecting his depressed state of mind that summer. The oriental inspiration is authentic (Mahler even listened to Chinese music on phonograph cylinders), even if the Chinese-content isn’t much more authentically Chinese than an egg roll at Panda Express.
If Das Lied and the following two symphonies were not exactly—or not at all—farewells to a life he had absolutely no intention (or premonition) of leaving, they are certainly imprinted with grief. Das Lied with grief over losing his child, the Tenth over losing Alma. Stuart Feder calls Das Lied “an artifact of mourning and melancholia… mourning transformed into high art.” Mahler composed them over the course of eight weeks in the summer of 1908 in Toblach, confined to misery not just of the upheaval of the family tragedy in 1907 but also because his lifestyle, his vigorous routine of exercise—walking, hiking, and swimming—had been forbidden to him by the doctor who discovered his heart condition. “For my inner mobility [to work productively], I need outer mobility” he wrote to Bruno Walter in a touchingly personal letter. “Imagine if Beethoven had had to have one of his legs amputated. Knowing how he lived, can you imagine how he could have been capable of as much as sketching a single movement for a quartet?”
The structure of Das Lied is two-partite in that the first half is made up of five shorter movements and the other of the last (like the Third). Or three-partite in that the large(r) opening movement and Abschied—for high and low voice, respectively—bracket four movements, two for each voice type... akin to his Seventh.
The result, with its fragmented melodic bits and effects of estrangement, can be rather harder to get into than most his symphonies. The cruelly difficult tenor part, in particular, is thankless—for the singer, foremost, but also for the casual listener. Together with the Ninth and (whatever there is of it) the Tenth, it makes a final trilogy that one can divide Mahler’s symphonies semi-neatly—albeit simplistically—into. Symphony No. 1 as the prologue, the triplet of Symphonies Nos. 2–4 as the choral/vocal symphonies (and 1–4 altogether as the Wunderhorn symphonies), the middle triplet of Symphonies Nos. 5–7 as the orchestral symphonies, and Symphony No. 8 as the aberration; something he had to write to get back on with his work and life.
|G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Bernstein / King & Dieskau / WPh|
| Mahler, Das Lied, Kletzki / Dickie & Dieskau / Philharmonia|
UK | DE | FR