The Song of the Earth

The only surviving calligraphy in Li T’ai-po's own handwriting

The only surviving calligraphy in Li T’ai-po’s own handwriting

The earth breathes deeply, filled with peace and sleep.
—from Das Abschied (The Farewell), Das Lied von der Erde

I’ve long had a CD of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). I don’t remember where or when I bought it. I set it aside, forgotten, on a shelf. This year, resolving to fill the yawning Mahler gap in my musical education, I began playing it from time to time. I was separated from the liner notes and, with a notable lack of diligence, failed to find out who wrote the texts Mahler set.

In a further effort to fill my Mahler gap, I ordered up all the symphonies I didn’t own and got Jens Malte Fischer’s hefty, well-recommended biography of Mahler out of the library. In a sterling example of learning the hard way, I found out from reading the biography that the texts Mahler set weren’t by half-forgotten German Romantics, as I’d assumed, but by Li T’ai-po (Li Bai) and other fine poets of the Tang Dynasty.

Mahler hadn’t previously shown much interest in classical Chinese poetry, but a book of Tang Dynasty poems came into his hands at just the right time. In 1907, which Fischer named Mahler’s “Annus Terribilis,” Mahler resigned from his position as director of the Vienna Court Opera as accumulating forces arrayed against him, not least of which was a relentless press campaign with a powerful strain of anti-Semitism. [Fischer 531] In the same year, his eldest daughter Maria died of diphtheria at age five, and his doctor bruskly pronounced to Mahler, after identifying what seemed to be a serious heart defect, “Well, you’ve no cause to be proud of a heart like that.” [Fischer 323, 552]

Mahler’s response to these events was complex, and contemporaneous reports offer conflicting views. His reaction to his own health at least, and particularly the prescription to forego active exercise of the kind he’d engaged in all his life, does seem reasonably clear. His wife, Alma, said of the diagnosis, “his verdict marked the beginning of the end for Mahler,” a comment Fischer greeted with skepticism, to say the least. [Fischer 323] (I enjoyed the Fischer biography and appreciated his insistence on accepting no received wisdom and evaluating the facts and circumstances to arrive at his own view. That said, even though it seems apparent that Alma Mahler was often an unreliable narrator, I found him awfully hard on her throughout the book, though I gather others have treated her far worse.)

The conductor Bruno Walter, described by Fischer as a “perennial optimist,” recommended that Mahler read Ernst von Feuchtersleben’s Diatetics of the Soul. This did not go over well: “for the emotionally fragile Mahler it was bound to seem an ineffectual product of the bourgeois Biedermeier age, the equivalent of an attempt to cure pneumonia with lime-blossom tea.” [Fischer 553] Mahler replied,

I shall say only that at a single blow I have lost all the clarity and calm that I had ever struggled to achieve. . . . I cannot work at my desk. Inner activity must be accompanied by outer activity. [Fischer 553-554]

The book Mahler obtained at the time was Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), “a collection of free adaptations” of Tang Dynasty poetry. [Fischer 555] (Bethge didn’t know Chinese and relied on existing French and German translations to create the German text.) Fischer disputed Alma Mahler’s view that the poems “are immeasurably sad” and stated that “Bethge’s selection—like Mahler’s own—includes poems that are light-hearted and cheerful alternating with others that strike a more tragic tone.” [Fischer 555] Von der Jugend (Of Youth) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) surely provide support for Fischer’s point.

Fischer also seemed to disagree with the views of Richard Specht that Mahler “was overwhelmed by the feeling of ‘having to say farewell’” and of Bruno Walter, who called the work “a creation sub specie mortis.” [Floros, Constantin, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies Loc 5478-5486] For Fischer, Das Lied von der Erde was not a work reduced solely to staring mortality in the face, but also one seeking consolation and coming to terms with what he had been through. In Fischer’s words, Das Lied von der Erde was “one of the vessels into which Mahler poured his attempt to achieve clarity and calm by wresting them back again.” [Fischer 556] There is no way to know, though I’m inclined toward Fischer’s more nuanced view.

Among the things that strike me is the contrast between Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09) and its immediate predecessor, the Eighth Symphony (1906). The forces required for the Eighth Symphony are monumental, while those for Das Lied von der Erde are considerably pared down. The choice of poems is telling, too. Commenting on the Friedrich Rückert poems Mahler had previously set, Fischer observed

Rückert had wallowed in his pain too pitilessly and too monomaniacally, and Mahler had followed him without restraint, retracing his lines with garish colours. Now screams of protest and outrage had to be replaced by delicacy, sadness and a slight sense of trembling in order to give expression to all that he had suffered, and for this Bethge’s reworked poems were ideal. [Fischer 556]

Four of Das Lied von der Erde’s six songs are derived from texts by Li T’ai-po:

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow)
Von der Jugend (Of Youth)
Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)
Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring)

The remaining songs are Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn), derived from text by Chang-Tsi (Qian Qi), and Der Abschied (The Farewell). Der Abschied is derived from two poems: Mong Kao-Jen’s (Meng Haoran) In Erwartung des Freundes (Expecting a Friend) and Wang Wei’s Der Abschied des Freundes (The Friend’s Farewell). The Farewell poems “have the same origin. As Bethge explains, Wang-Wei was the friend whom Mong-Kao-Jen expected . . . . Therefore the second poem relates to the first.” [Floros Loc 5889]

The title of the work, Das Lied von der Erde, is Mahler’s. Mahler liberally changed the texts throughout and changed Bethge’s titles for the third, fourth, and fifth poems as well. (In Bethge, they are Der Pavillon aus Porzellan (The Porcelain Pavilion), Am Ufer (At the Shore), and Der Trinker im Frühling (The Drinker in Spring). [Floros Loc 5496]) A notable change is to the final lines of Bethge’s derivation of the Wang Wei poem (“Die Erde ist die gleiche überall/Und ewig, ewig sind die weissen Wolken…,” loosely translated as “The earth is the same everywhere/And forever, forever are the white clouds”). Mahler revised the Bethge text and added to its lines:

Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!
Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…

One of various translations into English is below.

Everywhere, the beloved earth
blooms in the spring and
is newly green! Everywhere and forever
the distances are blue and bright!
Forever . . . forever . . .

Alban Berg and Anton von Webern traveled to Munich expressly to hear the premiere of Das Lied der Erde on November 20, 1911. Well over two years had passed since Mahler completed it. [Fischer 562] Bruno Walter conducted, as Mahler had died six months earlier, though not before leaving the further legacy of his magnificent Ninth Symphony and substantial work on his Tenth. Three days after hearing Das Lied von der Erde, Webern wrote to Berg:

. . . it is like the procession of life or, better yet, of that which has been experienced before the soul of the dying. The work of art is intensified; that which is mere fact evaporates, but the idea remains. That is what these songs are like. [Floros Loc 6020]

Mahler's signature

Mahler’s signature

Selected Reference Materials

A well-displayed comparison of the original Chinese, Bethge, and final Das Lied von der Erde texts in German may be found here.

For an English translation of the texts, program notes, and other useful materials on Das Lied von der Erde, click here.

Listening List

In addition to the below, George Grella reported on the Argento Ensemble’s live performance of the Schoenberg/Reihm reduction and advised, “This was the finest performance of Das Lied on der Erde I’ve experienced, ideal singing.”  We can only hope for a recording soon.On Spotify: Three versions of Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09)

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, Christa Ludwig & Fritz Wunderlich (the one I own, and considered by many to be the “gold standard”)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, James King & Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (I’m very partial to this one, too)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, James King & Janet Baker (OK, I’m very partial to this one, too)

On YouTube:

Das Lied von der Erde (complete): New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, Christa Ludwig & Fritz Wunderlich

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow): Berlin Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado, Jonas Kaufmann

Von der Jungend (On Youth): Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado, Jonas Kaufmann

Der Abschied (The Farewell): Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Fabio Luisi, Anna Larsson

Credits: The images may be found here and here, respectively. The quotations are from the sources linked in the text, with pages, or, for Kindle volumes, location numbers, where available.

8 thoughts on “The Song of the Earth

  1. Brian Long

    That is an excellent overview and introduction, Susan. As you know, I have also read the Fischer book and found it admirably well-balanced and sober. As you note, the contrast between Mahler’s eighth symphony and The Song of the Earth is enormous and reflects the anguish he must have suffered during and after the events you describe. I, for one, cannot begin to imagine what he, and Alma, must have gone through with the loss of a child, his dream job and the certainty of his own health all in one summer. It is also easy to forget that he was just 47 at the time. He had been married six years, was at the height of his composing powers (as evidenced by the eighth symphony) had two young children, was financially secure and deserved to be enjoying life to its fullest. To be hit by multiple tragedies at precisely that moment must have been particularly hard. To then find the artistic courage to make a radical stylistic break with one’s own preceding work is testimony to the anguish he was experiencing as much as his artistic courage.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: I’m very grateful for your insights here, and particularly the connections you draw between the circumstances of Mahler’s life and the trajectory of his work. You’ve articulated beautifully what I sensed but for which I really didn’t have the words. Das Lied von der Erde stands, certainly, as both an enduring work of art and a powerful testament to his artistic courage in those times.

  2. David N

    I find it very moving that Shostakovich consistently placed two 20th century works above all others – Das Lied von der Erde and Britten’s War Requiem. Supreme examples of the transcendent. What a terrible shame that Abbado, the first anniversary of whose death we marked yesterday (you know it well, just adding for everyone else’s benefit), didn’t get round to performing it with his Lucerne team.

    The mezzo to hear in it now is Alice Coote, no question, though Christianne Stotijn with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra made me weep buckets too. I’ll never forget Brigitte Fassbaender’s performance of JUST ‘Der Abschied’ for a CrusAID concert in the 1990s.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I must have known, but didn’t recall, that Das Lied von der Erde and Britten’s War Requiem were the two 20th C works Shostakovich placed above all others, and am very glad you noted it here. Shostakovich is always in my mind in listening to and thinking about Mahler. Beyond the significance to his own work, I am also struck with the artistic courage of both Shostakovich and Mahler, who, in the face of unimaginable obstacles, have left us with so many enduring works. Thank you, too, for noting the additional performances of Das Lied. I have been on the lookout for a more recent recording, and I am glad to see there is a Netherlands Phil performance featuring Coote.

  3. shoreacres

    The Chinese poetry entranced me. I especially enjoyed this, which isn’t a part of Das Lied von der Erde, but was included with Wang Wei’s “The Farewell”:

    Bid each other farewell in the mountain
    Closing wooden gate at dusk
    Spring grass green again next year
    Will the honored friend return?

    I couldn’t help but think of a famous quotation from the Tao Te Ching. You can see it here, compliments of the cat who has achieved enlightenment.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I am also entranced by these poems. The lines you note are one of the many reasons why (it looks like these are from the literal translation, which I find evocative in a way literary translations are not–though I certainly like them, too–each has their own character). I also love the way you’ve followed the trail of the grass to that lovely quotation, which I didn’t know (and on the heels of responding to your comment on the Pasternak/Ashbery post, I am again reminded of Pasternak’s comment that poetry is in the grass).

      PS: I only wish our cat would achieve a state of enlightenment . . . but, come to think of it, she does like to chew on grass . . .

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Nice spotting, as you always do. And, of course, in Haydn’s, the fading away is literal in the sense that the orchestra members leave the stage bit-by-bit.

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