After having heard a performance of Mahler's Ninth on Friday evening, I went again to David Geffen Hall on Sunday afternoon to hear Simon Rattle lead the London Symphony Orchestra in another concert devoted to the composer's music, part of a series entitled Mahler Transcending. Once again there was only one work on the program; that featured on this occasion was Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909).
Termed a "symphony of songs," this late work brings together in a single piece Mahler's two main preoccupations as a composer - the lied and the symphony. He had, of course, created choral symphonies prior to this but it was only here that for the first time he orchestrated in symphonic form an entire song cycle, a tour de force that led Leonard Bernstein to describe Das Lied von der Erde as Mahler's "greatest symphony."
Previously, Mahler had taken the texts for his songs and choral symphonies from two sources. The first was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and so critical was this text to the development of Mahler's early style that the first four symphonies are commonly referred to as the "Wunderhorn symphonies." This miscellany of folk poems and songs exerted a huge influence not only on Mahler but on the entire course of nineteenth century German Romanticism; it's not surprising that it fired the composer's youthful ardor. The second influence was the poetry of Friedrich Rückert for which the more mature Mahler, by then a successful conductor, provided a number of musical settings, most famously in the 1904 song cycle Kindertotenlieder but even earlier in the Rückert-Lieder. (Both works premiered together in 1905 in Vienna.) Like Wunderhorn, Rückert's poetry was also a major influence on nineteenth century German culture and his verses were set to music by a number of major composers besides Mahler.
It's apparent then that throughout his career the texts Mahler chose to set were not incidental to the music but reflected, each in its turn, the composer's state of mind in various stages of his life. Beyond that, each was a touchstone of German culture. But something radically different was needed as Mahler entered an entirely new stage following the annus terribilis of 1907. If not broken, he was disillusioned and uncertain of his future As he wrote to Bruno Walter, "With one stroke I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn." That Mahler should have turned to Hans Bethge's translation of Tang dynasty poetry, Die chinesische Flöte, is not entirely surprising. At once exotic and suffused with Romanticism, the Chinese verses also offered an alternative to the mainstream German heritage that had treated Mahler so shabbily.
If the break from the past were to be complete, however, Mahler would need not only a new source of inspiration but a new musical form in which to set it. This he discovered in Das Lied von der Erde. Jens Malte Fischer, in his brilliant biography of the composer, writes:
"The secret of the work's unusual impact lies in the sense of a coincidentia oppositorum, a union of opposites, song and symphony no longer being forced beneath the same yoke, as is otherwise the case with Mahler, but allowed to flow freely into one another as if at the end of a lengthy tradition. The boldness of the concept is subsumed by the purity of its realization."
Here then Mahler was attempting to move in an entirely new direction in his music, one that left behind the last vestiges of the Classical symphony as first formulated by Haydn. In this sense Das Lied von der Erde cannot but be seen as a truly revolutionary masterpiece.
If the performance on Sunday afternoon was not as breathtaking as Friday evening's performance of the Ninth, this was due solely to the nature of the music itself. Das Lied von der Erde is a deliberately understated work and perhaps for that very reason a more difficult piece to perform and conduct. Simon Rattle was once again brilliant and once again well supported by a truly excellent orchestra. The performance could not have been a success, however, without the contributions of heldentenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Christian Gerhaher. Both were superb in their alternating parts.