Mahler's Eternal Recurrence...Das Lied's "Ewig"


Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

This is one of those handful of artworks that take on different and deeper feelings as you yourself go through life. I find it to be Mahler’s masterpiece, along with the 9th symphony he wrote directly afterward. In fact, the two pieces represent one long thought. With nothing more to “prove” in terms of form, orchestration, and technique, Mahler in one sense unwinds and stretches his artistry in this autumnal work, and in doing so, creates an entirely new musical form—a symphonic artsong cycle. Das Lied at its core mirrors Schubert’s Winterreise, a set of songs that progress through deep feelings of grief and nostalgia towards apotheosis. The final great slow movement even refers—on many levels—to Schubert’s final song cycle Der Winterreise. But Mahler’s songs lie embedded so organically in an orchestral symphony, that the boundaries between voice and instruments are both blurred and fused. The vocal parts float freely and weave back and forth between the top melodic line to the  middle accompaniment and even the bass. This is the sublime union Schubert created in his songs, where piano and voice are truly equal musical and dramatic partners, but now Mahler expanded it to the entire orchestra. The musical unity is even stronger. The blissful final chord of the piece (C major with an added note A) expresses vertically the four note motive that the horn sounds at the beginning of the symphony (A-G-E-C).

Das Lied von der Erde possesses a clarity not afforded Mahler’s other symphonies. Each movement expresses a poem. There is no hidden program. We don’t have to “guess” what the music is trying to say. And perhaps for that reason, that the music serves the text and that Mahler himself placed these specific poems in this specific order, this symphony has a clearer natural progression from movement to movement than his other works. A statement of life’s sorrows leads to loneliness, leads to reflections on youth and beauty, to a drunken exclamation that Spring has managed yet again to return—and finally, inexorably, towards a great, deep farewell. Many people remark of Das Lied’s unique larger form, that the final movement is roughly equal in length to the five preceding movements all together. What a brilliant idea! But if you look at the score, you realize that the length is due to its slow tempo; the number of pages of each movement are roughly the same. That said, the five movements are clearly the prelude to the final movement Der Abschied, a farewell to all of life, rather than the personal parting of Beethoven’s farewell in his piano sonata Das Lebewohl (a goodbye to a friend). Yet Mahler clearly references and echoes repeatedly the descending notes of farewell in Beethoven’s work with his own final statement of the eternal—ewig.  Actually, Mahler is referencing and echoing the gorgeous ending of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, a work of which I believe he was obsessed. And both the Strauss and the Mahler reference the Beethoven sonata!

For all its backward reference,Das Lied von der Erde discovers the techniques that would soon unleash the modern musical style that obliterated tonality all together. Harmonically, Mahler writes counterpoint that leads to some very original dissonances. Some anticipate Schoenberg, others anticipate Bill Evans! Mahler becomes fascinated with the whole tone scale to create fresh forms of modulation. This is the scale that Debussy used to “escape” major and minor keys. Even more striking though is that Mahler repeatedly composes sections that don’t seem to have a clear meter. They escape the regular accents and pulses that define time. He layers several different speeds of notes grouped in two and three. He suddenly speeds the music up or slows it down. Sometimes he does away with the bar line altogether so that the flute, for instance, plays in a free improvisatory manner. This marks a new plasticity in musical phrasing, one still being a central technique used and prized by composers. Like Mahler’s ninth symphony, Das Lied von der Erde straddles the old and new worlds; it looks back with deep nostalgia and loss, and looks forward to the new and the promise of an “eternal blue horizon.” 

 Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde