Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth””), a symphony in six movements (described as “songs”) was completed in 1909 and addresses Mahler’s thoughts and emotions based on subjects taken from a series of oriental poems with some text edited by the composer.
Although the sources of the text are of Chinese origin, the “songs” are in German and are shared between two adjacent voices, tenor and alto or tenor and baritone, although a celebrated 1992 recording conducted by Barenboim employs tenor and mezzo-soprano.
Leading up to the composition, Mahler was experiencing a particularly introspective (some might say melancholy) time of life after a series of personal tragedies and this can be seen in the somewhat fatalistic titles of the subjects chosen:
- Drinking song of the misery of the earth (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde)
- The solitary one in autumn (Der Einsame im Herbst)
- Of youth (Von der Jugend)
- Of beauty (Von der Schönheit)
- The drunkard in Spring (Der Trunkene im Frühling)
- The farewell (Der Abschied)
From a programmatic point of view, Mahler takes pains to underline the sentiment of the lyric with suitably dynamic music and for the greater part succeeds.
In Von der Jugend, the verse portrays a group of friends sitting together, chatting, writing poetry, drinking, and the tone of the music is suitably whimsical and light. Not a hint of darkness is heard from the flutes or bells. In Von der Schönheit we are left in no doubt from the positive harmonies and sweeping strings that we are experiencing beauty and all parts of the performance are in concord. Conversely, in Der Abschied we are given plaintive oboe and low brass and it can only be a lament.
Mahler has produced an exhaustive and beautiful depiction of the six scenes and because of the accompanying lyric he has succeeded in bringing us the full story.
This doesn’t detract from the fact that the music on its own wouldn’t have been able to convey anything but the most basic of concepts; happy music for happy things, sad music for sad, etc., leaving the listener to sort out the details after providing a descriptive framework.