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.