On Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton, offers his impressions of studying and rehearsing Mahler's Das Lied van der Erde:

Writing on Mahler, in a famous essay, “The Metaphysical Cosmos of Gustav Mahler,” the historian William McGrath declared: “No one was more aware than Mahler of the difficulty of expressing...verbally the content of his music; it is perhaps because of this realization that he succeeds as well as he does.” As someone eager to give an account of Das Lied von der Erde, I can boast of an equally intense feeling of perplexity: it is very difficult to express the content of this music in words! But unlike McGrath on Mahler, I cannot imagine that the very weight of my perplexity will guarantee my success.

Now this burden might be lifted a little by what the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Mahler’s contemporary, calls “the fascination of what’s difficult.” This is the important phrase, even if Yeats’s reading of it is onerous: “The fascination of what’s difficult,” he writes,

              has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
              Spontaneous joy and natural content
              Out of my heart. * * *

On the contrary, I feel that the fascination of the difficulty of doing justice to Das Lied von der Erde is driving sap through my veins and pouring spontaneous joy into my heart.

If you try to give another voice to this symphony, you will be confronted with a quite peculiar difficulty in the object itself—the dazzling intricacy of its layerings, especially in Schoenberg’s (never completed) “reduction”. We have the interlacement of voice, verbal image, and instrumentation in the moment of listening and at the same time the sense of another depth of time: a time when Central Europe—here Vienna—suffered its own fascination with the poetry and painting of the Far East. The text of the six songs of “Das Lied von der Erde” will surprise the listener whose preconception of that “Erde”—that “earth”—in the musical imagination of an urbane Hapsburg composer is the earth of the Viennese woods. In fact it is the earth of rural China [!], though one filtered through many modulations of a turn-of-the-century European sensibility. The Chinese poems used by Mahler—“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Misery,” “The Lonely One in Autumn,” Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell” —were composed by Li-Tai-Po, Mong-Kao-Yen, and Wang-Wei, wandering poets of the T’ang dynasty (618-907), a period of high cultural and military glory. The lyrics come down to Mahler in the “imitations” of Hans Bethge (1876-1946), a poet and scholar of T’ang dynasty poetry, in his book The Chinese Flute (1907). They lend themselves to musical settings, as witness works by Strauss, Schoenberg, and von Webern, among others. Bethge’s imitations rely, in turn, on other people’s versions, themselves not notably rigorous, found in Hans Heilman’s Chinese Lyric Poetry (1907). And Heilman, in turn, draws upon French translations from the Chinese, several of which are from The Book of Jade by Judith Gautier, the daughter of the important poet and critic Jules Théophile Gautier (“Art for Art’s Sake”)—a woman sexually intimate with Richard Wagner. It is bemusing, finally, to think that Wagner would have turned over in his mind the very texts that were to find their way into Das Lied von der Erde. In Mahler’s hands, however, they serve a quite different, indeed an opposed position to Wagner’s philosophical mythology: Wagner’s collective symbolism is, in the words of Carl Niekerk, “conservative, nationalistic, and religiously dogmatic.” In “Das Lied von der Erde, instead, we hear echoes of “an earlier Romantic sense of a community of all living beings, fundamental relativism toward religious orthodoxy, and the constitutive roles of irony and fragment.” The implicit irony is that these Chinese poems have traveled a long way from the T’ang Dynasty, and in the course of their wandering acquired a decided Central European flavor. And so we are back, although not altogether back, in the Viennese Woods.

In fact we are now in the woods of Vermont, the perfectly responsive setting, listening to Yellow Barn’s rehearsal of the “Lied", here where lovely earth predominates and its misery is a thing of the past. In this assembly hall, all is presentness, symphony, immediate communication not only musical: I am awed by the swiftness and economy of word and gesture with which the players relate to one another in their tireless devotion to the score—“vanilla,” “bring out the duplets", “sforzando!” Not a wasted word or gesture: the rehearsal is the very model of intimacy, which I am lucky to share, a dip into an Edenic world unlike our everyday—a world of cooperation, precision, and felt purpose. Hearing these players I recall words spoken by Heather Betts—greatly talented artist and wife of the greatly talented composer Brett Dean: “the condition of health is a sense of purpose, security, and belonging.” This rehearsal—itself an affair of “intimate decisions”—bodies forth this maxim. You hear it with a renewed understanding of Nietzsche’s aperçu, “Every artist knows how far from the feeling of letting himself go his “natural” condition is...how strictly and subtly he then obeys thousandfold laws which precisely on account of their severity and definiteness mock all formulation in concepts—.”