Despite popular myth, Mahler did not compose his "farewell" in the grip of a death wish. Plus, someone finally takes on London's concert coughersby Martin Kettlee / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Mahler’s song of the earth
A century after it was written, and in spite of the massive popularity of the composer’s other symphonies, a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde remains a very special event. So it is good to see that this year’s BBC Proms programmers, ever alert to anniversaries, have scheduled a centenary performance of Das Lied under Donald Runnicles on 3rd August. Even better news for admirers of this defining 20th-century work is that two of the most important singers of the current era, the tenor Jonas Kaufman and the mezzo Alice Coote, will also be singing Das Lied in Arnold Schoenberg’s redacted chamber version at Wigmore Hall next January, under Mark Elder.
All this provides us with an opportunity to reflect more carefully on the much-mythologised work. It was exactly 100 years ago, in June 1908, that Mahler and his wife Alma arrived at the mountain resort of Toblach in the south Tyrol— today the Italian town of Dobbiaco—to spend the summer. The Mahlers rented a large farmhouse outside the village and the composer arranged for a small wooden working hut to be constructed a few hundred yards away, on the edge of a small cluster of fir trees. When the hut was completed, an upright piano was moved in, along with a desk. A five-foot high fence was then constructed around the whole, topped with barbed wire, to ensure Mahler’s seclusion.
There, in the barricaded isolation of this hut, Mahler settled down to write Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth.”) At some point in 1907, he had acquired a copy of Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute, a fashionably disenchanted collection of German poems based on Chinese originals. These became the source material for Mahler’s symphony of six song movements for two soloists and orchestra. It took the composer between six and eight weeks to complete Das Lied. The result of those secluded labours, many music lovers have been encouraged to imagine, was Mahler’s farewell to the world.
Except that it wasn’t. This is made clear in Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911) (OUP), the newly published fourth and final volume of Henry-Louis de la Grange’s vast and authoritative biography. Mahler had certainly experienced profound tragedy in the preceding 18 months. His daughter Maria (“Putzi”) had died of scarlet fever aged four during the family’s previous summer vacation, and Mahler himself had been diagnosed with a heart condition (although not, as is often claimed, a terminal one). In addition, his marriage had faltered and he had left Vienna, where his career had been built, to take a conducting post in New York.
Against such a background, it is easy to see why, after Mahler’s death, Das Lied von der Erde should have become trapped in amber as his anguished, tragedy-laden renunciation of life and the world. Like Mahler’s 9th symphony, Das Lied was not performed until after his death. The premiere was given in Munich in November 1911, directed by the composer’s former assistant Bruno Walter. The work’s subject matter, especially its long final movement “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), inevitably lent support to this valedictory interpretation. Walter’s own long life (he died in 1962, aged 85), his general approach to Mahler’s work and his seminal recordings of Das Lied, especially the 1951 recording with the dying Kathleen Ferrier, further cemented this sense of the work as a leave-taking from life.
Nevertheless, as de la Grange persuasively argues, the Mahler (pictured, right, by RB Kitaj) who returned to Austria to work on Das Lied in the summer of 1908 was not a man working on borrowed time, let alone a composer in the grip of a death wish. Mahler did not foresee his own death. In fact, he was in relatively optimistic spirits that summer. His confidence in his own physical condition had improved after the exaggerated heart diagnosis of 1907. He had completed a near-normal programme of conducting in his first season in New York. And he had a considerable agenda of composition in mind.
“Mahler’s dominant thought during this summer was a return to new life,” de la Grange writes. “It would be an injustice to Mahler, and would distort the meaning and restrict the scope of his last works, to interpret them as personal dirges when in fact they are spiritual meditations on human mortality in general.” The farewell, in some respects, is to Mahler’s past, not to his life, or to life itself. Let’s hope that Runnicles and Elder have studied what de la Grange’s biography says about Mahler’s great, and overwhelmingly affirmative, late works.
Three cheers for the Times music critic Geoff Brown and his campaign against London’s concert coughers. I was at the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Festival Hall concert at the end of April that provoked Brown to denounce the “2008 coughing and spluttering convention” for having wrecked a Beethoven and Sibelius programme with their throaty eruptions. As the concert battled on under the coughers’ pitiless assault, I thought of hurrying over to the chief culprit at the end of the performance and asking for his identity so I could name and shame him in my newspaper. But then another thought took over. Perhaps he was a music lover with only days to live, whose final wish was to hear Beethoven’s violin concerto one last time. Scruple overtook me. I’m glad Brown was less inhibited.