“Dark is life, dark is death”: these words are repeated again and again in the first number of The Song of the Earth. When he was composing this work, Mahler could certainly have said the same for his own troubled existence. He was suffering from a serious heart deformity, had lost his job as musical director at the Vienna Court Opera, and his daughter had died at the age of five. As of 1907, writing became his only means of escape. To Bruno Walter, he wrote, “All I am able to do is work. Over this year, I have forgotten how to do anything else. I feel like a morphine addict or a drunkard who has suddenly been deprived of his vice.” Mahler considered The Song of the Earth—which bridged the gap between the lied and the orchestra—a true symphony. But given the dire circumstances under which he was living when he composed it, Mahler, who had just completed his eighth symphony, chose not to number the opus. After all, Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner all succumbed after completing their own ninth symphonies, did they not? Mahler realized he was dying and chose not to force the hand of fate. He did, however, conclude his symphony with a long, final “farewell,” as a kind of aspiration for eternal sleep: “Everywhere, the horizon will be blue, forever, forever.”
Das Lied von der Erde was based on eighth- and ninth-century Chinese poems, whose main themes—nature, the transience of youth, inebriation, existential questions, the brevity of life, and loneliness—were ideally suited to German Romanticism. Musically, Mahler did not overly indulge in Orientalism, which was in vogue at the time; instead, he wrote his monumental work in a post-Romantic vein. Occasionally, sounds in the score display a certain exoticism (e.g., pentatonic scales, a mandolin, harps, a glockenspiel, a triangle), but these touches of Orientalism are always removed, distant and finely scattered. [...] The first five movements of the cycle shift back and forth between vibrant passages and more introspective moments, and the intense lyricism regularly yields to muted whispers. The slow, dark, solemn last movement gives prominence to the deep bass tones of the orchestra [...]. The sense of death is like a meditation: it is increasingly tangible, increasingly obsessive, and eventually becomes irresistible.
At his birthday concert almost three years ago, Wolfgang Rihm was asked to contribute to Karlsruhe’s birthday [...]