Sunday, April 15, 2012

Getting through, but not quite finishing with, Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" -- studies in emotional contrasts


Baritone Christian Gerhaher sings the raging, then emotionally wiped-out third of Mahler's Wayfarer Songs, "Ich hab' ein glühend' Messer," at the 2010 Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, with Herbert Blomstedt (age 83) conducting the Mahler Youth Orchestra.

by Ken

Here I was thinking we could cover the four songs of Mahler's Lieder eines farhrenden Gesellen) (Songs of a Wayfarer) in two posts (plus previews). Now it turns out that it's going to stretch to three.

In the first installment we got through the first two songs, "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" ("When my darling has her wedding day") and "Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld" ("Went this morning across the field"), which trace -- in an impressionistic rather than narrative way -- the aftermath of the wayfarer's rejected love. Then in Friday night's preview to today's post, we jumped to the great final song, "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" ("The two blue eyes of my darling"), which seems to resolve into some sort of acceptance. Along the way we've listened to the way Mahler recycled the second and fourth songs, or portions thereof, into key portions of the first and third movements of his First Symphony.

Well, we're going to hear the third and fourth songs today, all right. In fact, we've already heard the third, "Ich hab' ein glühend' Messer" ("I have a glowing knife") up top. But we're not going to do much more than that. I'm still struggling with how I want to get just a bit inside "Die zwei blauen Augen." And so I'm going to defer most of that to another time. We will, however, entertain a couple of Schubertian digressions.


SO LET'S HEAR THE FINAL WAYFARER SONG



Thomas Hampson adopts a deliberately deadened tone for the opening section of "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" ("The two blue eyes of my darling"), the last of Mahler's Wayfarer Songs, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The "Auf der Strasse" section begins at 2:46.


"CONTRAST" IS GOING TO BE OUR WATCHWORD TODAY.
NO COMPOSER DID IT BETTER -- OR MORE COMPULSIVELY


Take anger, for example. It is famously the, uh, well, one of the stages of grieving, and that's where the third of the Wayfarer Songs begins -- in spluttering rage. But soon enough it dissolves into something else, though we haven't heard the last of the anger.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer):
iii. "Ich hab' ein glühend' Messer"

("I have a glowing knife")


Maureen Forrester, contralto; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 28, 1958

Norman Foster, bass-baritone; Bamberg Sympony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Vox, recorded c1954


"TWO BLUE EYES"? IN THE SKY
HE SAW "TWO BLUE EYES"?


This is an indelible image for our wayfarer. We already devoted a fair amount of attention to "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" in Friday's preview, and now we're going to hear the two most beautiful performances of it I've heard, starting with the extraordinary one by Maureen Forrester which we heard then.

iv. "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz"
("The two blue eyes of my darling")


Maureen Forrester, contralto; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 28, 1958

["Auf der Strasse" at 2:36] Norman Foster, bass-baritone; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Vox, recorded c1954

As I mentioned, there's a great deal I want to ponder in this song. For today, however, let me just throw out a few thoughts. First, note the total absence of any nonvocal introduction. The earlier Wayfarer Songs keep the introducing to a minimum; here Mahler does away with it altogether.

Then there's the intriguing structure, or layout, of the song. There's a fairly "normal" first stanza and then, at "O Augen blau," what sounds like a fairly standard second stanza in the form of a varied version of the first, but it doesn't materialize. Then, at "Ich bin ausgeganen," we have what clearly sounds like a contrasting "B" section, but it doesn't quite materialize either, soon giving way to a really contrasting section -- the haunting "Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum."

And in case you thought we were heading for the commonly employed repeat of the "A" section, which you'll recall Mahler in fact did when he incorporated this section of the song into the First Symphony, there's nothing. We have a song that seems to start in mid-thought and to end in, well, no thought.


NOW AS TO THOSE TWO SCHUBERT
SONG DIGRESSIONS I PROMISED


As it happens, they both deal with those "contrasting" sections of "Die zwei blauen Augen," which I've labeled "B" and "C."

First, and this may just be stream of consciousness on my part, there's the revelation in the "B" section that the wayfarer isn't just grieving his lost (or rejected) love. Just like the journeyer in Schubert's immortal Winterreise (Winter Journey) song cycle, he has a vivid memory of slinking out of town in the dead of night, unnoticed and probably unremembered by anyone there. No one said farewell ("Ade") to him, he recalls.

When I hear that word of parting "Ade," I think immediately of a great Schubert song that seems to contain hardly any other words. It's the Rellstab setting "Abschied" ("Farewell") from the bunch of songs from Schubert's last year that were posthumously gathered into the collection Schwanengesang (Swan Song).

SCHUBERT: Schwanengesang (Swan Song), D. 957:
No. 7, "Abschied" ("Farewell")

-- translation by Arthur Bullard

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Alfred Brendel, piano. Decca, reccorded live at the Wigmore Hall (London), Nov. 5 and 7, 2003

Bryn Terfel, baritone; Martin Martineau, piano. DG, recorded 1991


AND SPEAKING OF LINDEN TREES

I can't say I hear any specifically musical reminiscence, but I can't believe that Mahler could write a song -- and remember, he created the words as well as the music for the Wayfarer Songs -- about a rejected lover coming to a linden tree without thinking of one of the most memorable songs from Winterreise.

SCHUBERT: Winterreise (Winter Journey), D. 921:
No. 5, "Der Lindenbaum" ("The Linden Tree")


-- translation by Arthur Rishi

Hans Hotter, baritone; Michael Raucheisen, piano. DG, recorded 1942-43

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano. DG, recorded August 1971

Let's just consider two points in the fourth stanza, rendered by our translator as:
And its branches rustled
As if calling to me:
"Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find you peace!"
First, the word that our translator quite reasonably renders as "peace" is the very word, "Ruhe," that I've translated in our song as "rest." In the German-speaking countries "Der Lindenbaum" has achieved quasi-folksong status, but often without the realization that the subject is the journeyer's serious contemplation of opting for eternal rest.

And then, in the seductive call to suicide which the journeyer imagines the linden tree's rustling branchese might be saying to him, "Come here, to me, friend" -- the actual word he uses is "Geselle." As in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.


THERE'S SO MUCH MORE TO BE SAID (AND HEARD),
BUT THAT WILL HAVE TO WAIT FOR ANOTHER TIME


But OOPS, I should have provided a reminder that we've got all four of the Wayfarer Songs sung by Yvonne Minton, Janet Baker, and Maureen Forrester.
#

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