Columbus Symphony and The Song of the Earth

Conductor Bruno Walter(Photo: Wikipedia)
Conductor Bruno Walter(Photo: Wikipedia)

The Columbus Symphony presents Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in the Ohio Theater this weekend. Jean-Maire Zeitouni conducts, with Sacha Cooke, mezzo-soprano and Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) never heard Das Lied von der Erde performed. The premiere on November 20, 1911 in Munich occured five months after the composer’s death. Bruno Walter conducted. The soloists were William Miller, tenor, and Madame Charles Cahier, who was born Sarah Jane Walker in Nashville, Tennessee.

What is this work? It calls for an orchestra and two singers. No chorus. Is it a cantata? An oratorio? Certainly not an opera. Mahler was the supreme conductor of opera in the first years of 20th century, but he wrote nary a one.

Mahler subtitled this work A Symphony for Two Voices and Orchestra. Legend had it that no composer writing more than nine symphonies, where Beethoven stopped-would come to a miserable end. Schubert avoided the number nine. So did Mendelssohn. Brahms and Schumann stopped, at four. Not Mahler.

There is a Ninth Symphony by Mahler and part of a tenth. Das Lied von der Erde,if numbered would be 9A perhaps. Even Mahler for all his self-assurance as a composer, was loath to tempt fate by going one better than Beethoven. Das Lied, the symphony for two voices and orchestra, stands apart.

All of Mahler’s music, primarily symphonies and volumes of song, reflect the deepest concerns of humanity. Preparing for death, questioning the after life, brooding on the passing of time. Depressing, yes?

It’s true some people find Mahler a hectoring composer. Weeping and death and loud clanging orchestras, bellowing away either dissonances or smooth babbling brooks.

To me,  Mahler is the master of the orchestra. No one has used a large group of musicians better at expressing emotions and quickly changing moods, a kaleidoscope of emotion in music.

A love of nature and a belief in the supernatural were key to the romantic era in which Mahler was raised. His music has walks in the fields, laughing girls, angels, heaven promising the resurrection, hammer blows of death all on a huge scale.

Not for nothing is Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 called “The Symphony of a Thousand” (more like 350, but still).  His music is all about the struggle between hope and despair,  between peace and doubt. The darker sentiments are set off by dances, hunting horns, cow bells, and a robust love of the outdoors.

Oh, you say,  but Mahler wasn’t very prolific. No operas, no concerti, no chamber music, no quartets. The gargantuan symphonies, Das Lied among them,  were all written during the composer’s summer vacation.

Ten months of the year he had no time, what with running the Vienna Opera, conducting his own music where he could, planning concert tours and traveling to the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. All of this while suffering from endocarditis and a wife whose needs he couldn’t fulfill, for more on that read yesterday’s blog post. It’s a miracle he lived to be just 50 and accomplished as much as he did.

The Song of the Earth: Six songs for singers and orchestra. Numbers 1, 3 and 5 for tenor, 2, 4 and six for mezzo-soprano (baritone). The tenor needs to keep his voice near the top of the staff at full volume. Mahler must have disliked tenors.

The words are Mahler’s adoption of translations from the Chinese. The Chinese Flute was a book that was something of a fad in pre World War I Vienna. The original texts were thousand of years old, by Li-Ta-Po, Chang Tsi and Wang Sei.

Titles include The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth, Of Youth, Of Beauty,  and Farwell. Cynicism, giddiness and beauty prevail. The texts talk of Autumn mists and blue lakes, green pavilions and white porcelain, a little pool arching “like the back of a tiger.”

Der Abschied ends the work. This is longer than the other five songs combined. It is some of the most profound music I know. This is a long farewell of deep and beautiful music,  a last journey towards, what? Nothing? Death? Oblivion? Heaven? whatever the destination, this is a farewell without bitterness and without pessimism. This must be how heaven sounds.

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