Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

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Lead by maestro Kent Nagano, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal offers a brilliant rendering of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Along with baritone Christian Gerhahaer and fellow German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, they embark on a musical journey depicting a meditation on human destiny.

First performance: 20 November, 1911, the Tonally in Munich, with Bruno Walter conducting.

The title is slightly enigmatic, so is the work. Could it be a symphony which doesn’t dare to claim its name? After eight symphonies, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), superstitious, avoided the fateful number nine, in order not to challenge destiny. He chose the middle way, a synthesis of cycle of lieder and symphony.

The Song of the Earth is a poignant meditation on human destiny, man as pilgrim in this world, his attachment to it and final withdrawal. Torn between beauties of the nature and nostalgia for ephemeral life, it is the last song of a man facing death with serenity. Drunkenness, trance, sensuality celebrate the cycle of seasons. Finally, in the shadow of the Death, the sublime chant promising the eternal renewal of Nature. Ewig…Ewig…

Mahler had selected a mosaic of poems from the collection The Chinese Flute, centuries old poetry of the T’ang dynasty (8th century). Using free verse translations, the composer adapted its style, adding a number of lines of his own invention, mostly in the last strophes. The final version preserves the subtlety of the oriental imagery and verses, with a shade of romantic spirit.

The Song of the Earth is made up of two parts of equal length. The five shorter lieder are the first part, preparing for the last one, The Farewell, which constitutes the second part. Two vocal soloists – a tenor and an alto (or baritone) with the orchestra – reflect two contrasting sides of the same personality. Their alternative songs create harmony of contrasts, a central feature of the poetry as well as of Mahler’s world-view: night and day, drunkenness and contemplation, autumn and spring, youth ant death. Is it a romantic reminiscence of Yin and Yang? Or the dualistic nature of the will, Dionysian, antipode of Apollonian, which inhabit the music as well as the human spirit? Two larger outer movements are the pillars of the work; in between, the lieder follow a search for the meaning of life through dream and reality, in the bitter-sweet festivities of youth, in the light of oriental wisdom.

How Mahler transformed this poetry in music is magnificent. First of all, he did it by the synthesis of song and symphony, the intimate lieder and the large orchestral form. It was the ideal he was searching for since the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer – c. 1885) and the symphonies with voices, which prepared the path. The structure of the work is in many respects close to his symphonies, especially the Third (1896), whose final Adagio could be linked to The Farewell of the Song of the Earth. Both of them are dealing with the transience of earthly beauty, the relationship between Nature and the soul, and serene departure from the world. The work is impregnated with pentatonic sonorities, a thematic web links the songs in a coherent unity. Suspended dissonances, chromaticism and subtle instrumentation weaken the links with traditional tonality.

1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow)

The raucous nocturnal drinking of the opening movement is a blend of the sonata form and the strophic song, manifest in the refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben…” heard trice, each time in a slightly different shape. Mahler used modulations, each one raised by semitone, in order to increase the expressive intensity of each strophe. The tenor sings in the extreme range, on the border of the scream, accentuated by the orchestra; the poem depicts a monkey howling on the gravestones as an omen of death. An episode evokes a Viennese waltz, distorted, alluding to the vanity of the pleasures of life. The refrain is a pure reminiscence of Wagner.

2. Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely one in Autumn)

At the turn of the seasons, the poetic depiction of autumn landscape in transition toward winter. It is a metaphor of the wistful meditation on the passing of life. The same figure, as in the first song, but the look is different. The violin ostinato and the solo oboe line create the veiled, damped sonority, as well as the effect of clair-obscur. The Chinese heptatonic scale (close to Lydian mode on F) brings the subtle touch of the exotic; while the vocal line draws the arabesques, as “an artist had strewn jade dust” over the whole. There are two main ideas – autumn and recollection of summer – developing in dialogue, according to the rondo scheme. The poem and the music are reminiscent of certain lines of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children): “My heart is tired. My little lamp blown out.”, and the last question: “Sun of love, will you never shine again?” receives its answer without words, through the violin ostinato.

3. Von der Jugend (Of Youth)

Together with the following three, the lied Of Youth is a kind of aphorism, Chinese-style paintings drawn with a stroke of the brush. The lightest and shortest of all, it stands as the scherzo in symphony, with its delicate and wistful charm. The dramatic tenor in the first song turns to the lyrical, seductive voice. The poem describes carefree youths, chatting, playing, living on the surface of life, as the arching bridge over the pond. The oriental atmosphere is suggested by the pentatonic and whole-tone scales; and the flute playing arabesques in its high range. At the end, the music dissolves as a mirage. The overall shape is symmetrical, in arch form, according to the verses; the piece concludes just as it began.

4. Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)

A charming pastoral scene in the country – young girls pick flowers on the river bank –before a group of the young men irrupt onto the place on horseback. The contrasting, animated scene accentuates the feminine and masculine polarities. In the musical frenzy, percussions and brass instruments bring shining colors to this “horse music”, with a quote of 1812 Ouverture by Tchaïkovsky . But shortly after, the cavalcade disappears, the memories return, the tender and ardent longings remain. Sensuality, desire, touches of eroticism in the poem inspired the music. The lied is free tripartite form, with orchestral interludes between the strophes, and a subtle concluding epilogue, illuminating the gravity of the other songs. The last sounds of harp, glockenspiel, flute and clarinet vanish into space.

5. Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring)

The second drinking song of the cycle is a parody of Dionysus’ festivities of spring, with only one worshipper of the god of wine. Living in the denial of reality, the drunkard is disturbed by the bird song, a messenger of spring. For a moment, he comes back to reality (with a quotation of the Kindertotenlieder),before emptying the next cup of wine, and sinking again into a deep ethylic dream.

It is the flipside of the first song, heard through the melodic lines and pentatonic horn calls. Its poem and music announce The Farewell.

6. Der Abschied (The Farewell)

Strokes of the gong punctuate the farewell from life. The last movement is an allegory of life and death, the composer’s spiritual and musical fulfillment. “It is the most personal thing I have yet created”, as Mahler wrote to Bruno Walter.

The structure of the finale is simple. It is based on two poetic parts – an imaginary dialogue between two poets. Musical effects are created through ostinato motifs, harmonies of the pentatonic scale, chromatic escape from the tonality, consecutive tritons, and a translucent sonority of the orchestra with the voice hovering over, as coming from the Otherworld: “O Beauty! O eternal love-and-life drunken world!”

“Why must it be so?” Question and answer come in the second part, brought by the long awaited friend: the archetypal figure of Death, as a pale rider from the Scriptures. It is the serene acceptance of natural and divine law, illuminated by the promise of the eternal return of spring. The music blurs metric and tonal marks, it fades in the reverberating sounds of gong and tam-tam, the voice ending in the near-silence. Ewig…Ewig…

© Dujka Smoje

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Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM)
Kent Nagano
AN 2 9887

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