Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is sort of Mahler's Symphony No. 8½. Even though it's a series of six songs with orchestra, alternating between tenor and alto (or baritone) soloists, he probably would have called is his Ninth Symphony if the already-dying composer hadn't been such a baby about that "Ninth Symphony" business -- their Ninths had been so fateful for Beethoven and Bruckner. Since he had his next symphony mapped out, he thought that by calling that his Ninth, when it was really his Tenth, he would have the jinx beaten. As we know, though, the joke was on him. He did complete the symphony he called his Ninth, but died leaving his Tenth incomplete.
We've spent a lot of time with Das Lied (I'll try to have all the links Sunday), in particular the opening and closing songs, the tenor's "Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" and the alto's half-hour "The Farewell," and we've also covered the tenor's two other songs, both gemlike little character pieces, "On Youth" (No. 3) and "The Drunk in Spring" (No. 5), but that still left the alto's first two songs, "The Lonely One in Autumn" (No. 2) and "On Beauty" (No. 4).
I thought tonight we'd hit "On Beauty," the song nestled between those little tenor gems, about which I have least to say, then cover "The Lonely One in Autumn" Sunday before going through the entire piece, in some performances we've heard and some we haven't.
Tonight we're going to hear three very different voices: a wonderful mezzo (Christa Ludwig) and a wonderful contralto (Maureen Forrester), and a baritone. As I've said before, although Mahler's baritone option seems like a legitimate one, I've never heard it work really well. The big problem is that when you transpose the vocal line down an octave, very little of the writing lies in places where a baritone can make much of a vocal effect, and the tendency is either to hyperemote or else just mark time. We've had the two recordings by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, quite different and neither without interest but both pretty frustrating. You figured surely it can be done better, only mostly I've heard it done worse. (As we'll also hear in our three performances, it sure helps to have a conductor who has a clue, rather than just painting pretty sound pictures.)
Note that in this paean to beauty we have, first, those young maidens plucking flowers, then the handsome lads on horseback, then the beauty of those horses themselves, and finally the loveliest of the maidens with her passionate glance toward "him" -- and I'm guessing that "him" is not the horse but his rider. And note the importance of those reflections mirrored in the water, mirroring the image of the idyllic youths in the preceding "On Youth."
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iv. "Von der Schönheit" ("On Beauty")
Young maidens are plucking flowers,
plucking lotus flowers by the river's edge.
Amid the bushes and the leaqves they sit,
gathering flowers in their laps, and calling
to one another teasingly.
Golden sunlight weaves around their forms,
mrrors them in the shining water.
Sunlight mirrors their slender limbs
and their sweet eyes,
and the breeze lifts with wheedling caresses
the fabric of their sleeves,
bears the magic
of their pleasing fragrance through the air.
O look, racing along, what handsome lads,
there on the riverbank, on spirited horses,
afar off shining like the sun's rays;
now between the branches of the green willows
they canter along, lads in the flush of youth!
The horse of one of them whinnies joyfully,
and shies and tears away,
over the flowers and the grass his hooves are scudding,
trampling in sudden onslaught the fallen flowers.
Hey! How flutters in frenzy his mane!
How hotly steam his nostrils!
Golden sunlight weaves around these forms,
mirrors them in the shining water.
And the loveliest of the maidens sends
long looks of yearning after him.
Her proud bearing is only pretense.
In the flashing of her big eyes,
in the darkness of her passionate glance,
still surges painfully towards him the tumult of her heart.
-- English translation by Deryck Cooke
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Israel Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded live, May 18, 20, and 23, 1972
Maureen Forrester, contralto; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Nov. 7 and 9, 1959
Bo Skovhus, baritone; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond. Sony, recorded Mar. 2 and 4, 1998
IN THIS WEEK'S SUNDAY CLASSICS POST
We still have to "present" the second song of Das Lied, "Der Einsame im Herbst," "The Lonely One in Autumn." Then we'll put the whole darned thing together.