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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Song of the Earth

In the summer of 1906, Gustav Mahler composed his massive eighth symphony, a vast musical canvas requiring hundreds of singers and instrumentalists which celebrates the redemptive power of love. It wasn't until four years later - in September 1910 - that he was able to see the eighth symphony through to performance, when he conducted its premiere in Munich.

But after writing the eighth in 1906, Mahler had to face the fact that his next symphony would be his ninth. The so-called "curse of the ninth" is a silly myth really, and the idea that composers are terrified of writing their ninth symphonies lest they die is vastly over-rated. Mahler would of course have known that Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies and that Bruckner died before completing his ninth. But he most likely did not connect nine symphonies with either Schubert or Dvořák, despite the fact that both had come before him. Schubert's "Great" C major symphony was not always called his ninth - in many circles it was published as his seventh - and during Mahler's lifetime Dvořák was widely thought to have only written five symphonies. The first four were not published until after Mahler's lifetime.

It does seem that Mahler was conscious of the significance of writing a ninth symphony, even if based on the examples of Bruckner and Beethoven alone. But the real world intervened in more ways than one after he composed the eighth in that burst of energy in mid-1906. He returned to his work at the Vienna Court Opera but it was the beginning of the end. By mid-1907 he had been forced out of the post - possibly the most prestigious musical post in the world - by intrigues, rivalries and anti-Semitism. Then, three days after arriving in the Alps for his customary summer vacation, his elder daughter contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. After two horrendous weeks the girl died, leaving her parents shattered.

And then came the third blow: Mahler was found to have an incurable defect with a valve in his heart. This focused his mind on his mortality as never before and he mused on fate, the fickleness of life and thoughts of the hereafter. These three dreadful experiences conspired to make it impossible for Mahler to compose at all in the summer of 1907.

Gustav Mahler (1907)

New work soon distracted him as he enthusiastically took up the post of director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York the following winter. But on returning to Europe for his summer break in 1908 he soon succumbed to melancholy. Being ordered to rest made it worse as his summer hikes and cycling refreshed his mind and gave him ideas for composition. Now even that was thwarted.

The old Metropolitan Opera House in 39th Street, New York City

Thus began, to quote Peter Gutmann, a process of rediscovery and intense introspection, a process which coincided with Mahler being given a copy of a book of poems called The Chinese Flute. These purported to be translations of ancient Chinese poetry by Hans Bethge, but subsequent research has shown that Bethge - who was himself a poet but spoke no Chinese - drew much of his work from other sources, while adding material of his own. The effect on Mahler though, was cathartic, as he found in the world-weary, fragile, introspective emotions of Bethge's book a mirror for his own.

Hans Bethge

Mahler drew seven poems from The Chinese Flute to set as six movements in a work which summarises the two great preoccupations of his composing life - symphony and song - and despite calling the work a symphony, he didn't give it a number, so it's not officially his ninth. He called it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and subtitled it "A Symphony for Tenor, Contralto (or Baritone) and Orchestra". The entire work was completed in short score in only two months in the summer of 1908 and orchestrated the following winter.

The first movement is titled Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth's Misery). In this the tenor soloist celebrates the transitory power of wine to drown out thoughts of fear. Life's fleeting nature is contrasted with the permanence of the natural world, exemplified in a striking image of an ape sitting among graves. Each verse ends with the weary lines, "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod" (Dark is life, is death) which are sung a semitone higher each time. The tenor is required to fight in this song, singing at the top of the vocal range and against big orchestral textures in a way which suggests the struggle reflected in the words. [listen]

The second song is Der Einsame in Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn). The tenor's bravado and ultimate crashing to earth in the first song is here replaced by the contralto's meditation on solitude, tears and loneliness. Despite the complete difference in mood between the first two songs of The Song of the Earth, it's important to note that Mahler manages to make the music sound both symphonic and song-like. This is especially true in regard to the orchestration; solo instrumental lines often come to the fore (as they do in the regular symphonies) to colour the text and the general mood. The solitary poet at the start of this song is evoked in the solitary oboe. [listen]

The third song in The Song of the Earth is by far the shortest of the six. Von der Jugend (Of Youth) sees the tenor describe a scene in which friends gather in a pavilion which sits in the centre of a pond. They chat, drink, write verses. The overt chinoiserie of the text brings out in Mahler musical lines which suggest a faux chinoiserie of their own. The darkness of the first two songs is here - albeit briefly - dispelled. [listen]

Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai (created 1559)

Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) is the fourth song and it's given to the contralto. At first the music hints at some of the chinoiserie of the previous song but it soon becomes clear that Mahler's musical palette here is somewhat different. The voice sings of young girls picking flowers in the sun, playing innocently by the river while the breeze catches their hair.

The idyllic scene is interrupted by brash boys thundering past on horseback, but the gentler music returns as the poem describes the deeply-felt glances between one of the girls and one of the boys. [listen]

The pleasures of drink are invoked again in the fifth song, and again by the tenor. Called Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring), it is in many ways the exact opposite of what most celebrations of spring are. Normally spring is to be embraced, enjoyed and appreciated. Here the poet can't stand the happiness, can't bear the birds or the flowers or the things which remind him of what he doesn't have. He chooses rather to drink until he sleeps, just to get through the whole sorry business.

As in the first song, the inebriation of the poet is reflected in the bombast of the vocal line, taking the singer high in the range again and again. The very effort required to sing this music is part of Mahler's portrayal of the struggles described in the words. [listen]

The first five songs in The Song of the Earth take about 30 minutes in performance but in a very real sense they are swept away by the sixth and final song, which on its own takes about half an hour. It is given solely to the contralto and its text is a conflation of lines from three sources. The bulk of the poem is made up of two poems from Bethge's book by different poets, but at the end Mahler added five lines of his own to personalise the song even more. It's called Der Abschied (The Farewell).

At evening two friends meet to see each other for the last time. The opening few minutes of the song allow Mahler to express the foreboding, the failing light of the approaching night. The farewell is not only the parting of two friends but it is a farewell to life.

To experience the entire final song of The Song of the Earth is one of music's great experiences. The world-weariness, the sounds of night, the impending pain of separation are all there as the singer describes the scene. The beauty is equal to the pain and Mahler seems to find a perfect way of painting it in the music of the central section of the movement.

Mahler's own lines, which close the song and the whole work, are translated: I shall no longer seek the far horizon, / Still is my heart, awaiting its hour! / The lovely earth everywhere blossoms and grows anew. / Everywhere and forever blue lights the horizon! / Forever... forever...

Those final words - ewig... ewig... in German - are set simply yet profoundly. At first they reach the tonic note of C but their final iterations are unresolved, on the note D. The feeling of eternity was never more simply yet more assuredly portrayed in sound. Mahler seems to have reached a peace, of sorts. [listen]

Mahler never heard The Song of the Earth performed. Bruno Walter conducted the premiere in Munich in November 1911, six months after the composer's death. In the recording I've linked to here we hear Walter conducting in a famous recording featuring Mildred Miller and Ernst Häfliger as the soloists, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bruno Walter (1912)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2014.

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