Canadian-Luxembourg baritone David John Pike has a widely varied repertoire covering early music, oratorio, symphonic, opera, and commissioned works. In his native Canada, in the UK, and across Europe, [...]
They spoke about it
Mahler songs with organ accompaniment
Mahler was not an organ composer. Only in two symphonies, the second and the eighth, did he use the instrument to amplify sound and as a “sound symbol” for the sphere of the metaphysical (cf. Constantin Floros). The composers of the Second Viennese School had already discovered the use of the harmonium – the little brother of the organ – to lend symphonic coherence to their chamber arrangements of Mahler’s works (for example, Arnold Schönberg in his version of the Gesellen songs). Baritone David John Pike and organist David Briggs take this approach further. Briggs plays the great Eule organ of the Konstantin-Basilika in Trier, creating an intimate and symphonic sound with his registration. Thus he intensifies the religioso sound of choral-like songs such as Urlicht and lends appropriate and necessary force to dramatic songs such as In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus. Pike and Briggs present this version for baritone and organ that mediates between Mahler’s own versions for piano and orchestra.
“The core of Mahler’s music is the folk song,” observed Willem Mengelberg, conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and a contemporary of Mahler. Not only the music, but also the linguistic composition of the texts he chooses is often lifelike. He was fascinated by the “style and character” of the folk poems collected by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, poetry which, as Peter Revers writes, does not so much want to be art as “nature and life.” Mahler himself wrote the text of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) in 1884–85, but he clearly leaned on the “folk tone” of the Wunderhorn poems – up to and including borrowing a few lines directly. The biographical background was an unhappy love affair with Johanna Richter, a singer at the theatre in Kassel, where Mahler was music director at the time. In a letter to his friend Friedrich Löhr, he wrote that the songs were secretly “dedicated to her.” There is a clear parallel to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise: the unhappy, loving protagonist goes out alone into the world. A type of march is omnipresent in Mahler’s cycle – from the cheerful wandering song in the first piece to the funeral march at the end. An essential difference from Winterreise is the contrast between the inner and outer worlds: while in the Schubert, cold, inhospitable winter landscapes reflect the soul of the lonely wanderer, Mahler’s journeyman wanders through blossoming spring. In contrast to the sere- nity of the world, his sadness is therefore rendered all the more profound.
The romantic poet Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) expressed and attempted to deal with the despair over the death of his children Luise and Ernst in several hundred private poems published post-humously. From 1901 to 1904, Mahler set five of them in his Kindertotenlieder. In July 1907, he lost his own daughter Maria Anna. Looking back, he confessed, “I imagined myself in the position that my child had died; once I had lost a daughter in reality, I would no longer have been able to write the songs.” When the first Kindertotenlieder were written in the summer of 1901, Mahler was in a period of intensive study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Deeply fascinated, he wrote: “It is impossible to say how much I always learn, more and more from Bach.” Mahler’s appreciation of Bach left clear traces in the songs. His musical language became more linear, more polyphonic. Thus the first song, Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n shows a sparse, mildly dissonant counterpoint that seldom goes beyond two voices, and the third song, Wenn dein Mütterlein, is arranged as a quasi-Baroque trio movement with an upper voice duo over a supporting bass.
Parallel to the Kindertotenlieder, Mahler created five further Rückert songs. These do not form a cycle but rather a collection that is disparate in content and connected only via the poet. The first song, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, has a distinct perpetuum mobile accompaniment. Mahler thus often symbolizes the “tumultuous world” that he detests in all its meaninglessness and thoughtlessness; here, however, it stands for the creative man’s bee-like diligence, unconscious of himself. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft is perhaps the most delicate of all Mahler’s songs. With ethereal lines floating up and down, the composer depicts the scent of a lime branch placed in the room by his lover. In contrast, Um Mitternacht is about the painful struggle of the individual for the “sufferings of mankind.” Mahler’s gloomy setting, with pendulating, stationary figures and resigned scales sinking into the depths, clearly expresses defeat from the very beginning. In the last verse, however, in which the protagonist places his fate and that of the world in God’s hands, Mahler creates an extreme contrast to the previous stanzas: radiant fanfares and rushing arpeggio figures represent the majesty of God. The song was probably written in connection with a personal trauma. In February 1901, Mahler almost died from heavy bleeding during the night; an emergency operation saved his life. Liebst du um Schönheit takes another, completely different path. Mahler wrote this rapturous little love song as a gift to his young wife, Alma, in 1902 or 1903. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is undoubtedly the most profound of the five Rückert songs. With its floating harmonics, exotic pentatonic scales, and four-tone motifs overlapping each other in subtle irregularity, it foreshadows the great final chant “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde. The song is about an almost unconscious withdrawal from everyday life and the transcendental experience of loneliness:
I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
– Friedrich Rückert
© Oliver Korte and Ya-Chuan Wu
Translation: David John Pike