Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde

In her biography of her husband, Alma Mahler called the year 1907 a year of "Sorrow and Dread" for Gustav Mahler. For in that year the composer suffered several blows: the death of his daughter Maria Anna from scarlet fever, the loss of his post as director of the Wiener Hofoper (Vienna Opera), and the discovery of a severe heart condition that doctors warned would likely be fatal. Mahler had always been given to melancholy--he later felt that the great hammer blows in his Sixth Symphony had been a prescient foreshadowing of 1907's events--and his melancholy was deepened with these losses. 

1907 was also the year he completed his huge Eighth Symphony, called the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the hundreds of orchestral musicians, choral singers, and soloists it required. That work was outward-facing, a resounding cry of hope and faith. Now Mahler turned inward to confront his sorrows and express both his love for the beauties of nature and life, and his regret at the transience of each individual life. He found his inspiration in a book of Chinese poems adapted by German poet Hans Bethge, called Die chinesiche Flöte, given to him by Theobald Pollak, a friend of Alma's father. Alma writes: 

"He was delighted with it and put it aside for future use. Now, after the loss of his child and the alarming verdict on his heart … [the poems'] infinite melancholy answered his own. Before we left Schluderbach [the Mahlers'1907 summer home in Tyrolia] he had sketched out, on our long, lonely walks, those songs for orchestra which took final shape as Das Lied von der Erde a year later." 

Bethge's poems are free adaptations; since he did not know Chinese, he worked from German, English, and French versions of the source texts. Mahler selected seven of the poems and made his own changes, giving some of them new titles and combining two poems into the last song in his setting, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell). He originally titled his work Das Lied vom Jammer der Erde, The Song of the Sorrow of the Earth, but later amended it to its current title, leaving the listener freer to hear not only the sorrow in these poems but the love of nature, the wistful nostalgia at youth, the defiance at death, and the strength of friendship that these poems also convey. It has been written that Mahler did not want to name this work a symphony since that would make it his ninth, and therefore possibly his last (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorák were at the time all thought to have completed only nine symphonies). However, whether symphony or song cycle, Mahler clearly saw the work as a symphonic whole, and the songs themselves can be grouped into parts analogous to symphonic movements: the first and second standing as the first two movements, the middle three constituting the work's scherzo, and the farewell song as the last movement. 

The first movement, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow), opens with a sweeping, indisputably Mahlerian declaration, over which the tenor's song extols the joys of wine as a way of facing sorrow. The movement gradually develops to an ethereal section of gentle strings and quiet calls from brass and woodwinds, depicting the beauty and eternity of the blue firmament, but then plunges back into the opening theme's sweeping drama as we contemplate our own short lives. The music slows in seeming resignation at the final "Dunkel ist das Leben" (dark is life), then swells to a final, defiant forte in the face of death. 

Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn) moves us from defiance to weariness--Mahler's marking reads "ermüdet" (weary)--opening with hushed strings under an oboe solo. The orchestral textures in this movement are restrained throughout, the ever-moving string lines evoking autumn winds. The contralto's lines are slow and sustained, depicting the poem's regret and longing. 

The third song, Von der Jugend (Of Youth), is the brightest of the entire work. It has been called a "musical Chinoiserie," with its pentatonic melody first introduced by the flutes. The poem for this piece can be interpreted in many layers: as a description of a "knick knack" in jade and china on a mirror, as a nostalgic look at the innocence of youth depicted there, and as an ironic reflection on this reminiscence, as the poet views the perfect little world reflected upside-down in the mirror. Mahler's music is perfectly matched to this layered text: light, with bright textures accented by piccolo and triangle, but with occasional utterances from strings in a minor mode.

Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) also speaks of youth, not of innocence but of young love. The opening andante section pictures the young maidens with a gentle melody, soon interrupted by horn calls and a burst of musical motion as the dashing young men rush in on their horses. The musical contrast between the sections captures brilliantly how the young men's power disturbs the women's gentle calm, with timpani pounding and brass calling. The contralto's lines become ever faster and more breathless, until the music slows to regard the effect of the young men on one particular girl. Repeated gestures in the strings gradually slow, mimicking the beating of the girl's heart, while a passage in the woodwinds depicts her longing glances at the riders. 

Mahler renamed Li-Tai-Po's poem from the Drinker in Spring to the Drunkard in Spring (Der Trunkener im Frühling), and his music emphasizes the contrast between the inebriated fellow's stumbling and the gentle images of spring. The motifs used as the drunkard extols his drinking recall the opening movement, yet this time the gestures include humor: a trumpet pushes just a little brassily as the tenor sings of tumbling drunkenly into sleep. Trilling woodwinds and a fluttering violin solo evoke the spring, the music swelling to a crescendo as we glance at the "black firmament," but soon the drunkard is back to his bottle and his bed with a brilliant fanfare. 

Der Abschied (The Farewell) begins with an ominous tolling of drums and horns, as a lonely figure waits for a friend. This movement is by far the longest of the work, with longer orchestral interludes prefacing each of the two poems and interspersed between emotional points within each poem. The musical tone of the first half of the movement is as longing and plaintive as the poem it depicts, while the music for the poem of departure begins with a long funereal march, the contralto finally entering against a tolling gong. The final stanza is Mahler's own writing, providing a quietly optimistic patina to the end of the piece. With broad chords in the strings and harp arpeggios, Mahler leads us into his depiction of the beautiful mountains of "my native land, my home" (here also a metaphor for heaven), a theme always dear to his heart. As the poem speaks of eternity, the singer repeats the word "ewig" (forever) in ever quieter tones, the instrumentation gradually receding into the heavens.

November 11, 2003