Showcase March-April 2015 - page 43

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Program Notes
Gustav Mahler
July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
May 18, 1911, Vienna
Das Lied von der Erde
(The Song of the Earth)
Das Lied von der Erde
is his final synthesis
of song and symphony. And though he lived
several years after composing it in 1907-08, it was also
his farewell to life.
Thoughts of death had preoccupied Mahler throughout
much of his life: during his youth he had lost family
members, and later, at what should have been the peak of
his personal happiness, he and his wife Alma buried their
four-year-old daughter, a victim of scarlet fever. In his
late 40s, at the summit of his career as one of the most
original composers and electrifying conductors of all time,
Mahler came to terms with his own fate: debilitating
heart disease.
The faith he had sought continued to elude him; only in
a sense of oneness with nature did Mahler find meaning
for human existence and the serenity to accept whatever
comes beyond. Thus, across the six great movements of
Das Lied von der Erde
, Mahler juxtaposed the sadness of
mortality with the ecstasy of life.
Mahler did not survive to hear a performance of
Das Lied
von der Erde
. His friend and disciple Bruno Walter led the
premiere in Munich on November 20, 1911, six months
after the composer’s death.
‘eine symphonie’
This work, which Mahler referred to as “Eine Symphonie,”
is a massive orchestral song cycle, lyric and dramatic,
for tenor and mezzo (or baritone), with the vocalists
forming a single protagonist. It is indeed a symphony,
not a cantata, but on its own Mahlerian terms, setting
forth conflict and a network of developable themes and
motifs in the opening movement, the most complex of the
six, and continuing with contrasting shorter movements
generated from the main idea. With the final resolution,
the poignant
, all the conflicts are dissolved.
Mahler’s original title page was headed
Die Flöte aus
(The Jade Flute), a variant of the title of a volume
of poetry,
The Chinese Flute
, sent to the composer by a
friend in 1907. Translated from the Chinese by Hans
Bethge, the verses project an aura of oriental fatalism
suited to Mahler’s mood at the time. To begin, he chose
a poem that contrasts the eternally renewing beauty of
earth with man’s ephemeral place on earth. And when he
approached the ending of this composition Mahler added
his own lines to reflect his passionate love of the earth
bidding it farewell.
Taking its cue from the poetic source, the music
often evokes a Chinese atmosphere by the use of the
pentatonic, or five-note, scale, importing further unity to
a score in which Mahler at times sidesteps into some of
the strongest dissonances he ever wrote, which hint at the
direction he might have followed had he survived longer.
the many moods of
Das Lied
A panoply of moods, always changing, springs from
Mahler’s fusion of the ecstasy of life with his acceptance
of mortality.
Terror looms in the opening
Drinking Song of Earth’s
—in the couching figure of the howling ape. The
subsequent movement,
The Lonely One in Autumn
, ranges
from the quietude of autumn’s mists to the rending cry of
the solitary protagonist, yearning for the sun to dry his tears.
The mood lightens in the three following poems and their
settings: first,
, in an almost tension-free memory,
marked by delicate
as it evokes a pavilion
where carefree friends are drinking tea.
, a slow movement, projects a fragile idyll: young
women are picking flowers at the river’s edge when their
serenity is interrupted by young men on horseback, riding
to vigorous march music typical of Mahler.
The fifth movement adds to the diversity of the work’s
center: a robust portrait of
The Drunkard in Spring
reeling from key to key in a boisterous celebration of life;
from his bed, he hears the cheery calls of the first bird
of springtime—an image that forges an inner link to the
work’s close.
The Farewell
Mahler ultimately delivers his own
valediction in a broad and moving coda.
music and poetry, equally powerful
The score is rich, and the forms complex, but it is the
texts of the poems that carry the listener across its
dramatic course, from defiance to resignation.
The first movement,
The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow
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