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Composed: 1908
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = 2nd piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabass bassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion )ass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam tam, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, mandolin, strings, and solo voices
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 18, 1937, Otto Klemperer conducting, with soloists Herta Glaz and John Heinz

No composer said farewell more eloquently, poignantly, and frequently than Gustav Mahler. The theme of death runs through Mahler’s music like a current, at times swiftly, then gently, then again ferociously. For verification, pick any work, from any period in his output: from the early, bloody Songs of a Wayfarer and the First Symphony, where death is treated ironically; to the Second Symphony where death is the prelude to resurrection; from mid-career, the Fifth Symphony with its blaring funeral marches; and the last three, death-impregnated compositions: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the Ninth Symphony, and the uncompleted Tenth.

These final works proceeded from events that took place in the year 1907, when, in quick succession Mahler suffered the death of his elder daughter, Anna Maria, and was forced as a consequence of various intrigues against him to resign his position as director of the Vienna Court Opera. And the final blow: He was diagnosed as having an incurable heart ailment. Mahler responded not by taking to his invalid’s bed or the analyst’s couch (although he did have a meeting with Sigmund Freud not long after), but by assuming the posts of principal conductor of both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

“I have been going through so many experiences for the last year and half,” Mahler wrote in 1909 to Bruno Walter, who would conduct the posthumous premiere of Das Lied von der Erde in 1911, “that I can hardly discuss them. How should I describe such a colossal crisis?... Yet I am thirstier than ever for life and I find the ‘habit of living’ sweeter than ever.” These feelings are reflected in the old Chinese poems, in Hans Bethge’s German paraphrases (published in 1907 as Die chinesische Flöte – The Chinese Flute), which were chosen for Das Lied.

Mahler called Das Lied von der Erde “a Symphony for Tenor, Contralto (or Baritone) and Orchestra,” without assigning it a number; he firmly believed that no one should be allowed to surpass Beethoven’s total of nine, and that in challenging fate he would be hastening his own end – as Bruckner did with his unfinished Ninth.

Immediately before setting to work on Das Lied, Mahler wrote the following wrenching letter, again to Bruno Walter, which tells us as much, and then some, as we might want to know about his state of mind:

“If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness. I speak in riddles, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within. It is surely no hypochondriac fear of death, as you might suppose. I have long known that I must die... Without trying to explain or describe something for which there are probably no words, I simply say that at a single stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind that I have ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vis de rien [face to face with nothingness], and now, at the end of my life, have to learn again to walk and stand.” By these last words, he would seem to mean learning to find a meaning in life while facing death. This “facing of death” is most clearly expressed (since we have words to guide us) in Das Lied, wherein the singer-poet-composer finally takes leave of earthly delights, ending in quiet ecstasy and resignation:

My heart is still and awaits its hour.
The beloved earth everywhere blossoms and greens in springtime
Anew. Everywhere and forever the distances brighten blue!
Forever… forever...

The late Mahler expert Deryck Cooke parsed Das Lied von der Erde as a “symphony in the Mahlerian sense... first movement: conflict; four shorter movements bearing on the central idea; complex finale bringing a resolution; the whole composed of motives developed symphonically, if not in traditional forms.” Then, in a reaction that has been repeated countless times, cool analysis is followed by total, uncritical capitulation to the sheer emotional pull of this music; Cooke adds: “The last, appalling tension in Mahler’s spirit forced from him music of indescribable beauty and poignancy... In The Song of the Earth the sudden bitter awareness of imminent extinction is confronted and fused with a hedonistic delight in the beauty of nature and the ecstasy of living, both now possessed so briefly and precariously... It is as if the sudden taste of mortality had dissolved all solidity out of the world, leaving it sharply etched in thin lines and clear water-colors. These are, of course, appropriate to the Chinese atmosphere of the text... The Song of the Earth has a new, naked kind of harmonic texture and orchestration which, although sometimes prefigured in Mahler’s earlier works and partly retained in his two later ones, really belongs to this work above all, and is like no other in music.”

It would be foolish to attempt to better Cooke’s rapturous summing-up. In conclusion, then, a brief characterization of the individual movements:

“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow” shouts defiance of impending death, with a central section whose vision of earthly beauty prefigures the very end of the entire piece. But the bleak refrain, “Dark is life; dark is death,” dominates. “The Lonely One in Autumn” is the symphony’s slow movement, beginning in weary resignation, building to a tremendous climax of despair, then receding again into weariness, all passions – and hope – spent. The following movements, “Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” comprise a wistful scherzo in three parts, recalling, with touches of irony, past joys.

“The Farewell,” as long as the other five movements combined – and to many listeners Mahler’s crowning achievement – is a marvel of orchestration, reflecting (and enhancing) the text’s visions of crushing tragedy and bittersweet regret, achieved by using as many players as possible, and as few. A chronicle of the weariness of body and soul, an embracing of death, then, finally, an exquisitely lyrical outpouring of faith in life’s renewal in a huge C-major coda, concluding with the previously-quoted passage, fading into the distance... “Everywhere, forever... forever and ever....”

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.