Lead me to Das Lied

DPO performs Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

By Pat Suarez

Photo: DPO concertmaster Jessica Hung

A pianist once told me if I really wanted to get to know Beethoven’s music, I should listen to his string quartets. Beethoven’s musical soul is on full display in those sixteen works, he said. Pondering that, and noting that Gustav Mahler is coming up on the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s calendar, it occurred to me that if one really wanted to get to know Mahler, one should listen to his songs. For the millions who revere Mahler’s symphonies, this might sound almost blasphemous, but the root of what Mahler wanted to impart to his listeners is funneled through the songs that he set to music.

Mahler’s early works, save for his string quartet, centered on the human voice. Before completing his First Symphony, Mahler wrote a cantata (Das Klagende Lied) and then, fully, 21 songs, 18 of which were contained in four song cycles. After his Second Symphony came 12 songs (in the cycle The Youth’s Magic Horn); after his Fourth Symphony, whose last movement was a song, came 10 songs, with five each in the cycles Rückert-Lieder and Songs on the Death of Children. Following Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony, came his crown jewel, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). It is that crown jewel, Das Lied von der Erde, that Neal Gittleman and the DPO will perform over two consecutive concerts, beginning Jan. 8.

Das Lied, as it is known in the musical world, is six songs for tenor, alto (or baritone if an alto is not available) and orchestra. The tenor sings the odd numbered songs and the alto sings the even numbered songs. The song cycle is partially a product of a string of horrific events in the summer of 1907: Mahler was fired from his conducting post (a partisan, political move), his 4-year-old daughter died of scarlet fever and diphtheria and Mahler learned he suffered from an incurable heart condition, effectively planting the image of the sand rushing down the hourglass of his life in his head.

That summer, Mahler was given a recently published book, Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), a loosely translated book of eighth-century Chinese poetry. Mahler avoided the book, finally getting around to reading it through all of this tragedy. The book’s content about loss, persistent melancholy and the impermanence of life struck a chord in Mahler, providing not only a measure of psychological relief but also inspiration for this next project. Mahler completed this final song cycle in 1909.

The first five songs run about 30 minutes, while the final song consumes as much time as the previous five. Song One, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, opens with a huge, sweeping torrent from the orchestra, as if one were perched on a cliff, the wind blowing at gale force. The mood settles to contemplation, but the atmosphere is still unsettled: “The song of sorrow shall ring laughingly in your soul. When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul.”

Song Two, The Solitary One in Autumn, is dark, restrained in volume, but not in melancholy: “I weep often in my loneliness. Autumn in my heart lingers too long. Sun of love, will you no longer shine to gently dry up my bitter tears?”

Mahler’s disposition brightens in Song Three, Youth. This is the first song in Das Lied that displays elements of Oriental music. Even the content contains Eastern imagery: “Like the back of a tiger arches the jade bridge over to the pavilion.” As this song unfolds, one becomes aware that Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to be fans of this song as one can hear their music in it.

With Song Four, Beauty, Mahler finally looks back to his symphonies, specifically his Third. Mahler doesn’t directly quote his D-minor symphony, but the score of Youth sounds like a close sibling to it: “Young girls picking flowers, Picking lotus flowers at the riverbank. Amid bushes and leaves they sit, gathering flowers in their laps and calling one another in raillery. Golden sun plays about their form reflecting them in the clear water.”

Song Five, The Drunkard in Spring, is from the pen of Li-Tao-Po (702–763), a vagabond and drunkard whose death is rumored to have involved alcohol: “If life is but a dream, why work and worry? I drink until I no more can, the whole, blessed day!” Swirling and frothing, Mahler’s music describes a sprightly drunk.

Song Six, The Farewell, is Das Lied’s triumph. Opening with a soft tap of the gong, here is Mahler building his bridge to his Ninth Symphony. Able to stand on its own in a performance minus the first five songs, it makes one consider that, without this song, the Ninth Symphony, as we know it, would not have been possible. The melodies and orchestration are almost pre-echoes of the D-major symphony; it lays the emotional groundwork for the Ninth. The song’s poetry matches its music: “I seek peace for my lonely heart. I wander homeward, to my abode! I’ll never wander far. Still is my heart, awaiting its hour.” Its closing pages are incandescent, transporting the listener to a better place, far away.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 8-9 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. The concert opens with DPO Concertmaster Jessica Hung as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Tickets are $14-$61. For more information, please call 937.224.3521 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.


Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez @DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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