chapter  7
59 Pages

Gustav Mahler: Romantic Culmination Stephen Hefling (after the original essay by

WithChristopher Lewis)

Although Mahler has always been best known as a composer of expansive post-Wagnerian symphonies, the lied was central to his creative oeuvre, both as a genre in its own right and as an impetus towards, or even a specific component of, his symphonic compositions. Indeed-probably under the influence of Schubert, whose music he loved-Mahler had begun intertwining the traditionally separate spheres of lied and instrumental music in his First Symphony (1888), which draws heavily upon his earlier song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer). His culminating synthesis of song and symphony, written twenty years later, is Das Lied von der Erde (The song about the earth, 1908), widely regarded as Mahler’s masterpiece; the composer himself called it “the most personal thing I have yet created” (GMB2a, 371 [GMBE, 326]). After considerable hesitation, Mahler ultimately subtitled this, his last vocal composition, “A Symphony for a Tenor and an Alto or Baritone Voice”:1 the four inner-movement vignettes of Das Lied von der Erde are similar to Mahler’s previous lieder in many respects, but owing to the proportions and structural procedures of its two outer movements as well as the size of the work as a whole, Das Lied resembles Mahler’s symphonies more than his (or anyone’s) song cycles. Accordingly, it is best considered in the context of Mahler’s other ten symphonic worlds (Hefling, 2000). So, too, for the two orchestral Wunderhorn songs-“Urlicht” (Primal light) and “Das himmlische Leben” (Heavenly life)—that Mahler incorporated wholesale into his Second and Fourth Symphonies respectively: although they were initially conceived simply as independent lieder, they have never had, so to say, a life of their own outside their symphonic contexts; the same is true of “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three angels sang), which was written explicitly for the Third Symphony. Nevertheless, because “Das himmlische Leben” constituted such a crucial turning point in Mahler’s compositional career, discussion of it here seems inevitable. Otherwise, the focus of this chapter is principally Mahler’s remaining songs, composed during the twenty-five-year span from 1880 through 1904 (see Table 7.1).