Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle), harp, strings, and solo voice
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 6, 1953, Erich Leinsdorf conducting, with soloist Carol Brice
Having completed his musical training in Vienna and teeming with artistic ambition, Mahler in 1879 accepted a summer position with a well-to-do family in Hungary, where he was required to give their children piano lessons and occasionally, as he sardonically put it, “to send the family into musical raptures.” The 19-year-old clearly detested his status of “kept musician,” feeling as though he were “twitching in a spider’s web.”
During that summer Mahler sent a friend a letter that reveals with remarkable clarity the nature of his artistic temperament. Mahler complained that “everything around me is so bleak, and behind me the twigs of a dry and brittle existence snap. . . .When the abominable tyranny of our modern hypocrisy and mendacity has driven me to the point of dishonoring myself, when the inextricable web of conditions in art and life has filled my heart with disgust for all that is sacred to me — art, love, religion — what way out is there but self-annihilation?”
But suddenly, Mahler reverses course: “Then all at once the sun smiles upon me — and gone is the ice that encased my heart, again I see the blue sky and the flowers swaying in the wind, and my mocking laughter dissolves into tears of love.”
The exaggerated form of expression in the letter and the sharp juxtaposition of mood — between wild agitation and gentle reverence — appear again and again in his music, especially his early work. The sources of his mood swings were fairly consistent. Deceptive human behavior or sloppy compromises in art drove Mahler to despair; yet in typical Romantic fashion, he took great solace in the simple beauties of nature. Perhaps no work of his illustrates this more than Songs of a Wayfarer, written in his early 20s.
Songs of a Wayfarer is a cycle of four songs. It is the composer’s first mature work, and it also initiates a new genre — the orchestral song cycle — which Mahler would make his specialty. (Berlioz and Wagner had written songs for orchestra, but these were actually songs with piano accompaniment that had been orchestrated later. Mahler appears to be the first to have written songs expressly for orchestral accompaniment.)
Mahler wrote the texts himself, borrowing his style from the folk-like German poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) that he so admired. The poetic premise of the cycle comes straight from the Romantic tradition. A young man is betrayed by his sweetheart, who rejects him to marry someone else. Driven by grief to wander the countryside aimlessly, the Hero articulates a series of contrasting emotional states. (Not surprisingly for Mahler, the cycle has autobiographical implications, since he wrote it during his unsuccessful love affair with the soprano Johanna Richter.)
Foreshadowing structures in his later music, the cycle expresses a single narrative idea that unfolds through one song to the next. Mahler reinforces the poetic narrative with carefully planned musical devices. Specifically, he relies on a technique called “progressive tonality,” in which songs begin in one key but end in another. This tonal architecture — whether or not you are able to hear it — undermines any sense that the cycle presents four distinct, self-contained pieces. It produces instead a wandering, connective thread that mirrors the aimless progress of the spurned lover.
The opening lines of the first poem juxtapose the joy of the beloved’s wedding day with the sadness that this occasion provokes in the spurned lover. Mahler captures the conflicting emotions musically by setting the upbeat, festive sounds of the winds and percussion against a slow, pensive vocal melody. The fact that the voice sings the same motif as the winds at a drastically reduced speed seems to underline the lover’s inability to participate in the festivities. The rapidly fluctuating musical character captures in microcosm the mood swings so typical of the composer.
In the second song, the Hero saunters briskly out into a country meadow, cheerfully acknowledging the “good mornings” of a merry finch. Mahler presents one of the most world-embracing melodies ever written, a melody so full of energy it cannot be contained by the vocalist alone, but scampers off in several orchestral directions at once. The flute that doubles the voice provides an especially pastoral touch. At the end of the song, when the Hero recognizes that, however beautiful, the world will never blossom for him, his lusty spirit disintegrates. The Hero’s succession of psychic states thus advances through and beyond the song. The song itself functions not as a closed-off short story in a collection of four, then, but as the second chapter in a four-chapter novel.
The Hero’s pent-up bitterness bursts forth at the beginning of the third song. To express the turbulent emotional crises (“I have a burning knife in my breast!”), Mahler avoids the simpler, repetitive kinds of form used in the first two songs. He raises the volume level, too, and turns to faster tempos, relentless surface rhythms, and strident harmonic dissonances. He also unleashes the full force of his orchestra.
In the final song Mahler chose a funeral march to signal the Hero’s demise (or, at least, the demise of his love affair). At the very end of the song the Hero finds comfort in nature, in the form of a lime tree that offers a place to sleep and thereby respite from pain. Here we find another autobiographical connection: in the same letter quoted above Mahler told his friend how he escaped the drudgery of his existence: “In the evening when I go out onto the heath and climb a lime tree that stands there all lonely . . . I see far out into the world: before my eyes the Danube winds her ancient way, her waves flickering with the glow of the setting sun; from the village behind me the chime of the eventide bells is wafted to me on a kindly breeze, and the branches sway in the wind, rocking me into slumber.… Stillness everywhere! Most holy stillness!”
Like the finales of many later Mahler works, then, the ending of the Wayfarer cycle reaches a place of quiet resignation. The harp enters with soft strummed chords that sound nearly beatless, as if the music were separating itself from the physical world. Sweet consonant harmonies float the music to a dreamlike conclusion.
— Steven Johnson is Professor of Musicology at Brigham Young University. He has written on late 19th-century and contemporary American music and is the editor of and contributor to The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts.