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Mahler and the Vocal Tradition

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/15/2000 -  and 17/02
Gustav Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Scenes of Youth, Kindertotenlieder, Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, Rueckertlieder
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Wolfram Rieger (piano)

The long overdue popularity of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler may have obscured the primary role in his musical life, that of a man of the theater of the human voice. Writing symphonies was an avocation for Mahler, a welcome summer hiatus from his career as the foremost opera conductor of his time. He spent 1888-91 at the Budapest Opera, appointed by Emperor Franz Joseph as the first Jewish man to such a prominent musical position, 1891-97 at Hamburg, 1897-1907 in the worldís most influential conducting position, the music directorís chair at the Vienna Opera, and in New York at the Metropolitan Opera from 1908-1911, leaving only to return to Europe to die. Mahler conducted several significant world premieres of works by Hugo Wolf and Siegfried Wagner and introduced the Viennese public to the works of Puccini and Dvorak. He also established many of the standard conventions of modern operatic conducting, including Otto Nicolaiís idea of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the midst of Beethovenís Fidelio. It was only a function of the lack of time that prevented him from composing a full-length opera

Mahler grew up with the central European vocal tradition and his early works for voice and orchestra are reminiscent of two great men of lieder, Franz Schubert and Carl Loewe. His first song cycle, Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer-1885) is dramatic, like Loewe, and touched with poignant Schubertian sadness. The first song, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (On my loveís wedding day), is a sad song of rejection. The second, Ging heutí Morgen ueberís Feld (Through the fields I took my way), is a gay song of walking in the countryside and waking to the beauties of nature. Its theme is used as one of the main themes in the first movement of Mahlerís First Symphony. The song ends sadly, however, as the wayfarer sings that his happiness will never return. The third song, Ich habí ein gluehend Messer ( I have a glowing dagger), is a wild, dramatic whirlwind reminiscent of the heroic ballades of Loewe. In this song, the wayfarer is tormented by the pain of his lost love. The fourth and last song, Die zwei blauen Augen (Your sweet eyes of blue), is another sad song of hauntingly lost love. Its theme is the second subject of the third movement of Mahlerís First Symphony. There is reconciliation at the end, as the hero sleeps under a Linden tree and awakens to a new world of peace. This song cycle is Mahlerís Winterreise, full of youthfully dramatic emotion about loving and losing, with all of the words written by the composer. As in all of Mahlerís song cycles, the songs may be sung by either an alto or a baritone.

Between 1892 and 1901, Mahler composed 14 lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youthís Magic Horn), a collection of folk poetry. Many of these songs are used in his symphonies numbers 2, 3 and 4. The symphony #2 ("Resurrection") contains two Wunderhorn songs, St. Anthony preaches to the Fish and Urlicht (Primal Light). Urlicht is the entire fourth movement of the Resurrection symphony and establishes the religious mood of the second half of the work. The song is for contralto solo and sings of thoughts of heaven. It is the introduction to the great fifth movement of the symphony, the first major choral music written by Mahler.

In its original conception, the Third Symphony contained three Wunderhorn songs. However, the third was so long that Mahler moved one of the songs, Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), to become the entire finale of the Symphony #4. This simple G Major tune tells of a childís view of heaven and can be sung in a childlike manner or, since it is written for soprano, in a grandmotherly way. It forms a very gentle ending to Mahlerís most gentile symphony. The two songs that remain in the third are Abloesung im Sommer (Relief in Summer) in an instrumental version, and Es Sungen Drei Engel (three angels were singing) sung by a solo alto, a womenís chorus and a boyís choir.

One more Wunderhorn song is worthy of special mention. It is entitled Wo die Schoenen Trompeten Blausen (Where the fine trumpets sound) and it depicts a soldier who is leaving for the war. In a world of tin soldiers and childrenís marching songs, it is shocking to listen to the words of a man who knows that his path will lead to his own death. The poignancy of this song is breathtaking, particularly in the context of the innocence of the Wunderhorn.

There follow the first two of Mahlerís mature vocal masterpieces. Ten poems of Friedrich Rueckert are divided into two works: The Five Rueckert Lieder (1903) and the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children-1904). The Rueckert Lieder are songs of great beauty while the Kindertotenlieder are works of monumental sorrow. Each is scored for alto or baritone and orchestra. The first Rueckert Lied (they can actually be performed in any order) is the deceptively simple love song, Liebst du um Schoenheit (If Thou lovest beauty). This is Mahlerís only love song and its ending is extremely moving. As Theodore Adorno describes: "Öas if the feeling could not get outÖcanít finish what it is saying, all it can do is sob." The second song, Blicke Mir Nicht in die Lieder (Do not try to read my songs), is a perpetual motion piece, comparing the creation of great art with the instinctive production of the bees. This is a delightful miniature with a devil-may-care attitude.

The third song, Ich Atmetí Einen Linden Duft (I breathed a fragrance soft), is a marvelous, Mendelssohn-like depiction of a fairy land with very thin orchestration. The great Mahler biographer, Henri-Louis de la Grange, describes this song as a spiderís web. Here Mahler uses his first Oriental chords and scales, a technique he would later expand in Das Lied von der Erde. The fourth song, Um Mitternacht (At midnight), is one of the darkest songs ever written. The poet despairs at midnight and can find no solace. The piercing cry of the oboe díamore expresses his wretchedness. He seeks comfort in religion, but his God is that of vengeance, as depicted masterfully by Mahler with strident brass. Although the words of the last verse are hopeful, the music is chilling.

The last song, Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen (I have become a stranger to the world), is the greatest of all of Mahlerís songs. Once again a variant of the oboe, the cor anglais, sings a poignant cry which begins and ends the lied. The orchestration is very spare, with only a harp and pizzicato basses as a bottom. The singer tells of his withdrawal from the world, a withdrawal which allows him to live only in his love and his art. It is a higher spiritual plane, but one modulation near the end is particularly disturbing. As de la Grange points out, the music is that of a Zen garden, but it always remains melancholy. The theme of this song is also used as the main subject of the famous Adagietto for Harp and Strings from Mahlerís Symphony #5. This movement was written as a gift for Mahlerís sweetheart, Alma Schindler, and, on one level, is a heartfelt love song. However, it can also be played as a funereal dirge. The song and the Adagietto can each be interpreted as both lovely and sad and express Mahlerís genius at its height. Like Schubert before him, he makes the most sorrowful moments transcendently beautiful and tinges the most beautiful moments with grief.

Much has been written about Mahlerís complicated psyche (he was Siegmund Freudís most celebrated patient) and his composition of such a dark work as the Kindertotenlieder at one of the happiest times of his life is mystifying. Now his wife, Alma warned Mahler not to tempt fate by writing about the deaths of children. He was not thinking of his own children, however, but rather his siblings, several of whom had died at an early age. Mahlerís moods never seem to match the external events in his life, for when the unthinkable happened and his beloved daughter Putsi died as a child, he responded by composing the Symphony #7, his most joyous work.

The Kindertotenlieder sing of a fatherís regret at not doing more for his children and his heart-wrenching grief at their sudden deaths. Mahler was so moved by the solemnity of these songs that he notes on the instrumentation page of the score: "The five songs are intended as a unified, indivisible whole, and therefore in performance the continuity must be maintained (even by disregarding interruptions such as applause at the end of a number)." He had conducted Wagnerís Parsifal often in Vienna and he wished these songs to be accompanied with the same respectful silence. Once again the oboe is used as the messenger of sorrow, opening the entire cycle with a doleful, haunting melody, marked "klagend" (sorrowfully) in the score. Although these songs can be sung by a woman, it is understood that it is the father speaking and Mahler always used a baritone, or a dramatic tenor, in performance.

The Kindertotenlieder present a subject that is hard with which to come to terms. There is an episode of the television show "M*A*S*H" which revolves around the army doctors, who must deal daily with questions of life and death, trying to respond to a recording of these songs. Eventually, the record is thrown away, as the doctors cannot cope with their grief. There is also coincidentally an episode of "Cheers" where one of the characters, Rebecca, tries to be flippant on the subject of the Kindertotenlieder. Grief is immeasurably hard to reconcile but Mahler and Rueckert, in their honest expression of it, offer some comfort.

The challenges for Thomas Hampson to present virtually this entire ouevre over two evenings are enormous. In choosing the voice and piano versions, Hampson is siding with the more intimate interpretations of these art songs, which requires him to scale down his powerful operatic voice and yet, since he has chosen cavernous Carnegie Hall as his venue, he must project to the back of the top balcony. He solves these acoustical dilemmas masterfully and, in partnership with the very emotive pianist Wolfram Rieger (who, judging from the old piano rolls, plays like the composer himself, creating the illusion of an entire orchestra), presents a thoroughly intelligent and immensely entertaining survey of these important vocal compositions. Hampson is that rare operatic singer who also knows how to sing lieder and never imposes the conventions of one technique upon the other. What he does take from his stage training is the "blue air" that separates singer from audience and with great skill imposes the personae of the various songs into this physical space, creating the illusion of character in the seemingly untheatrical environment of the recital. Hampson acknowledged his pianist with applause and the crowd responded in kind. This was a duet of concerts unusual in both its scholarship and its performance quality.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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