Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song of the Earth)

Gustav Mahler

Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) was one of Mahler’s last completed works, and he explained to Bruno Walter, it occupied a very special place in his oeuvre. On September 1, 1908, he wrote to the conductor, “I have been hard at work…I do not know what the whole thing could be called. I have been granted a time that was good, and I think it is the most personal thing I have done so far.” It was completed one year after his diagnosis of congenital heart disease (1907), and three years before his death in 1911. Mahler was afraid of this diagnosis, and thought often about his mortality during these final years.

Thus, this gigantic synthesis of symphony and song has often been considered as his farewell to life. The year 1907 had been a dreadful, depressing time for Mahler. Not only the heart diagnosis, but also the death of his daughter Maria from diphtheria and his dismissal from the Vienna Opera fueled his despair. Although he had confronted death before in his music, at this point death was no longer an abstract concept but imminent. And he decided to react to that realization.

In this regard, he commented to Maestro Walter (who conducted the premiere on November 20, 1911, six months after his death), “If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness. I speak in riddles, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within. It is surely no hypochondriac fear of death, as you might suppose. I have long known that I must die… without trying to explain or describe something for which there are probably no words, I simply say that at a single stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind that I have ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vis de rien [face to face with nothingness], and now, at the end of my life, have to learn again to walk and stand.”

In 1908, Mahler read Hans Bethge’s translations of a set of poems written three thousand years before during the T’ang dynasty titled “Die chinesische Flöte” (The Chinese Flute) by Li Tai-Po, Mong Kao-Yen, Wang Wei, and Tchang Tsi. The poems not only comforted him, but also kindled his creativity and another investigation into life and the living of it. In fact, he was so energized by this collection that his wife noted he wrote Das Lied von De Erde in only two months during the summer and orchestrated it in the winter. At first, Mahler had considered a six-part song cycle, based on selected poems to be titled “The Jade Flute” but later changed to “The Song of Earth’s Sorrow.”

The composer subtitled his work Das Lied von De Erde, a Symphony for tenor, contralto (or baritone) and Orchestra. This would have been his ninth symphony, but it was alleged by his wife, Alma, that he was superstitious about that number, being aware that Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner all died after writing nine symphonies. Hence he did not give Das Lied von De Erde an ordinal number. However, before his death, he did lay aside the “curse of the ninth,” wrote another completed symphony designated “the Ninth,” and a tenth lay uncompleted in his desk.

There are six movements in Das Lied von der Erde, derived from the life experiences of a single person. Note that Mahler altered many of the poems to suit his message: life is brief and death is all-powerful and inevitable. Credit for the poems’ translations as quoted is given to the doctoral Thesis of Shioh-Ni Sun.

The first song is titled “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow)” based on one of 1,000 extant poems, by Li Tai-Po, aka Li Bai, a jolly member of the group known as “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” who (it was said) drowned in a drunken state, falling from a boat, while trying to lift a shimmering moonbeam on the water. The text speaks of wine’s ability to shake off fear, encourages the drinker to “drain the goblet” but each of three stanzas concludes “Dark is life, and so is death.” In Mahler’s setting, this foreboding, frightening refrain is sung on a higher pitch on each iteration.

The second song “Der Einsame in herbst” (The Solitary One in Autumn) is attributed to Tchang Tsi, also written and known as Qian Qi and Zhang Ji. The mood is sad and depressing as the female protagonist (a seamstress) reflects on the everlasting death of flowers and beauty during a quiet, dark night.

Bethge’s paraphrase reads:

The lonely one in autumn

My heart is weary…

My little lamp has burnt out with a splutter

It puts me in mind to sleep

I come to you, beloved resting place

Yes, give me sleep, I need refreshment

I weep much in my loneliness

Autumn in my heart is lasting too long

Sun of love, will you never shine again

To dry my bitter tears?

Note the rocking figure in the cellos which creates a resigned, contemplative mood. Muted violins create a soft background for solo oboe and soloist in a lyrical duet.

The third song “Von der Jugend” brings us to a party where friends are together in Mr. Tao’s green pavilion to drink and converse together. The poem was written by Li Tai-Po. In translation, the text reads:


Beautifully dressed, drinking and chatting

Several are writing down verses

Their silken sleeves slip backwards

Their silken caps perch gaily on the back of their necks

On the pool’s still surface

Everything appears fantastically in a mirror image

The upside down arch of the bridge

Appears like a half moon

Friends, beautifully dressed, are drinking and chatting

Everything is standing on its head

In the pavilion of green and while porcelain

This is the shortest of the movements and includes Chinese inflections, such as pentatonic scales and tam- tam participation. In a piano version, Mahler indicated directions: “Leicht und phantastisch (light and fantastic).” There are four basic themes, only the final theme casting a serious and deeper effect for contemplation. Notice the writing for bassoon which in its repetitive display imitates quick conversations.

Von der Schönheit (Beauty) by Li Tai-Po.  The scene describes young girls gathering lotus flowers on a riverbank. One of them falls in love with a young man, only to have her heart broken:

On the riverbank, maidens pluck flowers by the river’s edge

Amid the bushes and leaves they sit, gathering flowers

Sunlight weaves around their forms,

mirrors them in shining water, and mirrors

their slender limbs and sweet eyes

The breeze lifts with wheedling caresses

the fabric of their sleeves

And bears the magic of their fragrance through the air

Oh look: racing along, what handsome lads

There on the riverbank, on spirited horses.. lads in the flush of youth

They trample in sudden onslaught the fallen flowers

Look at the mane flapping, its nostrils steaming

And the loveliest of the maidens sends long

glances of yearning after him

Her proud bearing is only pretence

In the flashing of her large eyes, in the

darkness of her passionate glance

The tumult of her heart still surges painfully towards him.

The music is happy, and notice the frequent trills and dotted, jaunty rhythms which animate the scene. It is likely that Mahler was remembering happier moments in his own life.

Der Trunkene Im Frühling (The Drunkyard in Spring) reverts to a grim aspect of life: solitude, alienation, and sadness.  Alcoholic happiness has given way to reality. The source was from Li Tai-Po.

The drunkard in spring: If existence is but a dream,

Why then toil and fret?

I drink till I can drink no longer the whole live-long day

And when I can drink no longer…Then stagger to my door

And sleep wonderfully

What do I hear when I awake?

The bird sings in a tree.

I ask him if the spring is here; I feel as if I were dreaming…

The bird twitters yes!…

I fill my glass again, and drain it…

For what does spring matter to me? Let me be drunk!

Notice the bird references in the music (often from the piccolo) and the contrast of deep introspection characterized by slower tempi in the bird/human conversations.

Der Abschied (The Farewell)

This final section is the longest of the preceding, comprising over fifty percent of the entire work. Mahler derives this setting from two poems by Mong Kao-Yen “Staying at a Teacher’s Mountain retreat and Awaiting a Friend in Vain” and Wang Wei’s “Farewell”. The final lines are from Mahler.

I shall no longer seek the far horizon

Still is my heart and awaits its hour….

The lovely earth everywhere blossoms and grows anew

Everywhere and forever the luminous blue of distant space….Forever…forever….

The music opens with tam tam and oboe supported by deep orchestral responses, creating a stark resigned mood before the soloist begins the first text. The orchestration in this part will move from thick and multifaceted to very thin and delicate. Notice the intricate blending of Eastern and Western musical elements…lingering melodies, drifting melodies, unusual dissonances, high drama with lush coloration and crescendi. Between the two poems Mahler provides an orchestral interlude, allowing the listener to contemplate messages from both poets.

Das Lied von der Erde departs on a note of acceptance after a massive tracing of the life cycle. “Mahler realizes that life and death are only a natural part of living, not a unique, individual tragedy.” At the close, the word evig (forever) is repeated nine times. Forever there will be beauty, sadness, and the inexorable march of time as the same existential elements will be repeated and repeated. There will forever be tears and happiness in personal remembrances and experiences. Mahler’s quiet conclusion is breathtaking in its truth, revelation, and wisdom.

From this perspective, Der Abschied can be seen as revealing the future as well as embracing the past. As Mahler has eloquently transmitted solitude and persistent questions of life he has concluded that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same. As he faced his own death, Mahler rallied to produce work of profound impact and influence as we all confront the ending of our own life and what we can foresee for those who follow us.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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