Das Lied von der Erde
A Master Ponders Ways to Say Good-bye
As every Tin Pan Alley tunesmith knows, there are a million ways to say good-bye. The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler offers one of the most deeply affecting with his late set of symphonic songs Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). "The Farewell," which lasts around thirty minutes, follows a melancholy soul as he makes his long passage into the Next World.
It starts at dusk, with the sun sinking behind mountains. The protagonist, sung here by mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, draws attention to different nature images ("see how the moon above floats like a silver ship"); the orchestra diminishes correspondingly, until it's possible to hear the low strings of the harp, and the whisper of a flute. The lyrics focus on interior thoughts until, around fourteen minutes in, there's a pronounced shift—into a black-overcoat funeral march. The final moments of the piece suggest a transition to the afterlife, with the voice eerily trailing off as it reports that "horizons are blue and bright!"
Written during a feverish final creative burst that also yielded his massive Symphony No. 9 (see below) and the unfinished Symphony No. 10, this is one of the world's great elegies—German conductor and composer Bruno Walter once called it "the most personal utterance among Mahler's creations, and perhaps in all music." It's also among Mahler's more direct personal statements, music he wrote as he confronted his own demise. Ludwig and tenor Fritz Wunderlich both sound as if they're right in the middle of the conflict Mahler imagines, torn between life on earth and the quiet seductions of the afterlife.
The conductor, Otto Klemperer, was in a position to know what the composer intended—for a while during his early career, he served as Mahler's assistant. He conducts Mahler with a deep understanding, emphasizing certain sonorities so that the earth (or death) nearly assaults our senses. More than mere knowledge of Mahler is in play; this performance glows with a genius that transcends earthly concerns.
Released: 1967, EMI
Key Tracks: "Von der Jugend," "Der Abschied" (The Farewell).
Another Interpretation: Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, Vienna Philharmonic (Bruno Walter, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Symphony No. 8, Staatskapelle Berlin (Pierre Boulez, cond.).
Next Stop: Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (see p. 750)
After That: Sergey Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil (see p. 625)
Book Pages: 469–470
#1 from Christian Breedlove - 10/30/2010 10:12
An amazing piece of pure art.. Usually not a Mahler guy but coming across this while working on the 1,000, it was nothing but a pure joy.