Virginia Art Song Society's Mahler Program

On January 20, eight singers did thirteen Mahler songs and as I carefully followed , I realized that for me, Mahler songs are sound, creating feelings and moods as I listen. Maybe when they were new to me I read the texts, but no memory of text remains. My discovery is that unlike Wolf and Britten, his songs are not enriched by knowing the text.

In trying to puzzle out how this could be I find that Mahler does not coordinate words to music. His way of working is to distill the essence of the poem and create beautiful musical sounds to convey the overall mood.

Another aspect of his texts, especially in the Wunderhorn songs, is that according to Hampson, they contain ironical incongruities, such as contradictions between words and music. For instance Didi Granger sang Lob des hohen Verstands ( Ode to a brilliant mind). In a singing contest the ass judges the cuckoo, who appoints him judge, to be the best singer, while the music for both him and the nightingale is identical.

What are we to make of a song like Das irdische Leben (The Earthly Life), which the singer, Phyllis Hunter, compared to Schubert's Earl King? In Erlkönig the father does everything he can to avoid his child's death, while in The Earthly Life, the mother neglects the child's need for food until he dies. Is this folk humor which pleased Mahler? The singer's interpretation was intense and dark. Hampson suggests that Mahler viewed many of these songs as humoresques, i.e. as whimsical or playful musical compositions. Even so, when Hampson sings Irdische Leben it still sounds dreadfully serious.

Hampson writes that the humor would become clearer if it were paired with Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), recorded on Hampson's Wunderhorn CD for the first time as a piano and vocal solo. Previously it had only been heard in Mahler's Fourth Symphony as a soprano solo. "The ironical aspect of this 'humoresque' can be brought out with a special effect when it is sung by a baritone…pungent, more abrasive and more dissonant…elucidating the bucolic, thoroughly 'unheavenly' life that is presented here in such a charming and knowing manner."

Perhaps we can find a piece of the puzzle in Mahler's personality as related to his personal history. Born in 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia, by age 6 he was learning to play piano and gave his first public recital at age 10. At age 15 he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory, where Bruckner took him under his wing. He and Hugo Wolf, exact contemporaries, were friends and fellow students. Mahler tried for the Beethoven Prize in 1878, submitting his cantata Das klagende Lied which was rejected. He graduated and began a slow climb from opera house to opera house, the traditional path for an aspiring conductor. He found employment as a conductor in smaller cities. In Kassel he wrote Songs of a Wayfarer. His use of Austrian popular melodies harks back to Schubert but with flexibility of rhythm and subtlety of texture (see A History of Song by Denis Stevens, 1960, W.W. Norton & Company). From there he went to Prague, then Leipzig as second conductor. In 1888 he took over the Budapest Opera and his genius as conductor and administrator became visible. The following year he conducted the premier of his Symphony No.1.

He kept moving to more prestigious positions. In 1894 ,at age 34, he completed his Second Symphony, conducting it the following year in Berlin. For the rest of his life he divided his time between composition in summer and conducting in winter. His music met with hostility at first, but slowly caught on as his devoted disciples promoted it. Richard Strauss, who recommended him to the Vienna Court Opera position, recognized his ability as director and conductor of opera. Brahms also backed him for the job. In 1897 he converted to Roman Catholicism and won the position, setting standards that are unsurpassed even today. He came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1908 as a guest conductor. The following year the position became permanent. He later became conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He developed a serious heart ailment and returned to Europe where he died in 1911 of an infection related to his heart condition.

It is unclear whether Mahler's conversion should be seen as part of his lifelong search for meaning or to further his career or both. Peter Gradenwitz , in his book The Music of Israel, describes Mahler as a Jew who became a fervent Roman Catholic. "There must have been much pressure upon Mahler to embrace Christianity to further his career." But why "fervent" if it was only to be a ticket to the position? I would suggest that his religion is more accurately described as pantheism. He attempted to give nature a voice in his symphonies and songs , reaching for the expression of the ecstasy of a soul overwhelmed by beauty.

In Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg (1970, W.W. Norton) writes that Mahler was a sentimentalist who enjoyed his misery, wallowed in it, wanting the whole world to see how he suffered. Some of the members of the romantic cult of Mahler have taken the notion of his suffering and embroidered on it. … "the son of a brutal peasant who abused his long-suffering wife and twelve children…" Other sources give a different picture. Schonberg says that the father was a shopkeeper and that it is true that Gustav was one of twelve children. This was common in that period. Five of his siblings died at an early age. Life is fragile and before anti-biotics and birth control, even more so. But Mahler's parents saw his gift, gave him the opportunity to develop it and saw that he got to Vienna by age 15 to study at the conservatory. This doesn't sound like a brutal peasant to me. Mahler was a manic-depressive with a sadistic streak. "Musicians respected him but hated to play under his baton"; he would pick on individual players. He was nervous among people and had no small talk.

Mahler was a tireless worker driven by his desire for perfection and put so much time into his musical life that he had little time or energy for his personal relationships. Years later, his wife Alma was to write "I know that my marriage and my own life were utterly unfulfilled." He saw Freud for one session in 1910 … "because his wife at that time rebelled against the fact that he withdrew his libido from her." Freud found that Mahler had a mother fixation but admired his personal psychological insight. Mahler had married Alma eight years earlier. They had two children.

Much has been made of the fact that it was somehow prophetic that his four-year-old daughter died six years after he set the poetry of Fredrich Rückert (1788-1866) in his five-song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). What I find remarkable is that he wrote Kindertotenlieder around the time of his marriage to young Alma Schindler, reportedly one of the happiest periods in this life.

That same summer of 1901, Mahler also set five poems known simply as Rüchert Lieder. The entire cycle was performed at the Sunday meeting by four sopranos: Jennifer Bern-Vogel sang Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (Do not look at my songs), which gave a glimpse of a woman breaking free; Pam Burdett gave a passionate, nuanced performance of Um Mitternacht (At midnight); Pamela DeMeyere sang Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekhommen (I have lost touch with the world), and with rich lower tones created a sense of tranquil repose; Rita Addico-Cohen sang Ich atmet' einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle scent) and Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty, do not love me!). We are very happy to hear Rita sing again after time off to have a fine baby boy.

Lorraine Bell sang Hans und Grete (1880), the earliest composition on the program, and created the whimsical sense of timing that seemed just right. She also sang Serenade. Didi Granger also gave us Frühlingsmorgen, caressing the final phrases beautifully. Pat Rublein sang Ablösung im Sommer (Replacement in summer) and Scheiden und Meiden (Partings) with feeling. Phyllis Hunter also sang Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The Two Blue Eyes of My Sweetheart) from Songs of a Wayfarer.

The Viennese tea that followed the meeting was lovely , with homemade cake (George Rublein's), chocolate torte (Phyllis Hunter) and Strudel (Carnegie Deli, by way of Uncle Louie). Many of us had a good visit as we ate.

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