1907 was a traumatic year for Gustav Mahler. The 47 year old composer not only lost his oldest daughter Maria Anna (1902-1907) but he was also confronted with his own mortality: he was diagnosed with a heart condition. He composed nothing that summer and instead read The Chinese Flute, a volume of poetry translated from the Chinese by Hans Bethge. Given his personal circumstances, the poems clearly made a deep impression on him: they became the basis of Das Lied von der Erde, which he composed during the summer of 1908.
Das Lied von der Erde is a symphony and should really have been Mahler’s Ninth. Like many other composers, Mahler stood in awe of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; one consequence of this was the conviction — partly from humility, partly from superstition — that it was not possible to compose more than nine symphonies. Spohr and Dvořák got no further than nine; Bruckner died composing his Ninth. After having completed his Eight Symphony, Mahler came up with a cunning plan: a symphony in the form of a cycle of six orchestral songs. This succeeded and Mahler was then able to compose his own Ninth Symphony. Convinced that he had outwitted fate, he then began a Tenth Symphony, which was nevertheless left unfinished at his death. According to the morbidly superstitious Arnold Schoenberg, 'It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.'
Of course Mahler took his work far too seriously to let something as essential as the form of a new symphony be determined completely by fear and superstition. Das Lied von der Erde follows a seemingly logical progression in Mahler’s body of work: his First, Second, Third and Fourth symphonies are based on songs, several of them from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, whilst his Second, Third, Fourth and Eighth symphonies contain actual song in greater or lesser amount. Das Lied von der Erde goes one step further, in that it is not a hybrid of orchestral and vocal music — here the symphony and the song cycle are fused into one coherent whole.
The six songs are organised into the customary four movements of a symphony. The first song — in sonata form — is a drinking song, in which the poet challenges death with the courage born of desperation. The second song — the slow movement — is a reflection shrouded in autumnal mists upon the end of summer and the end of life. Three short songs follow, which together form the scherzo: Von der Jugend and Von der Schönheit are nostalgic memories of better times; in Der Betrunkene im Herbst, the second drinking song, the poet surrenders himself totally to drink in order to forget. In Der Abschied, the fourth and last movement, the poet’s realisation of the eternal alternation of life and death and of the constant renewal of nature is the basis of a deeply moving reconciliation with fate.
Translation: Peter Lockwood