Composer Gustav Mahler died in Vienna, Austria in 1911 of a serious heart illness. His last two professional positions in music were as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mahler composed his orchestral song cycle “Das Lied van der Erde” during the summer months of 1908. He spent the summer near Toblach in the South Tyrol, Austria, after his first season at the Metropolitan Opera.
The work had its first performance only after Mahler’s death, when Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter directed it in Munich on the 20th of November 1911.
Das Lied sets six poems taken from Hans Bethge’s collection of Chinese poems, “Die chinesische Flöte” (The Chinese Flute). The titles of these six songs are as follows:
Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking-Song of the Earth’s Sorrow)
Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn)
Von der Jugend (Of Youth)
Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)
Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring)
Der Abschied (The Farewell)
“Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (Drinking-Song of the Sorrow of the Earth) sets Bethge’s version of a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li Tai Po. The four horns of the orchestra announce the opening motif, followed by strings and woodwind before the tenor enters, with his song of sorrow, of the darkness of life and of death (Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod).
The two songs of youth and beauty are much more cheerful, of course. But the song of The Lonely One, and the Farewell, are among the most dark and sad songs in all of music.
Here is a recording of “Das Lied Von der Erde”, conducted by Bruno Walter: