Gustav Mahler          Das Lied von der Erde

Having finished his enormous Eighth Symphony (“The Symphony of a Thousand”), Gustav Mahler was ambivalent about what he should call his next full-length orchestral work, which was once again a text setting. A song-cycle with orchestral accompaniment? Or a symphony?

That would have made it his “Ninth,” and the ghost of Beethoven loomed intimidating; so the work was called The Song of the Earth (or perhaps more idiomatically, The Song About the Earth, or perhaps most accurately, The Song About Earthly Existence). It is in its way a response to Beethoven’s epic work with its “Ode to Joy” Finale – a response by contrast. The first movement/song in Das Lied von der Erde is “The Drinking Song About Earth’s Misery.” Beethoven’s Finale sets a poem by Friedrich Schiller that celebrates life as it is enjoyed under the guidance of a benevolent God and in the companionship of all mankind, starting with a single friend. The Finale of Mahler’s “symphony” (like the other movements a setting of old Chinese poems) is also about an intimate friendship; but the long-awaited friend is revealed to be Death.

Yet, quite apart from the fact that three of its six songs are cheerful miniatures, Mahler’s inspired work is anything but depressive. It is about transcending human existence and, with a Buddhist underlay (via the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer), about being released from the bonds of being to re-enter the eternal cycle. The hauntingly poignant last, and by far longest, of the six episodes is “The Farewell,” which ends with an unfinished thought on the word “eternally.....” repeated many times over until it fades beyond hearing.

Read the poetry.

Listen to a recording of the last movement, "Der Abschied".

Notes by Michel Singher