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A Conversation on Das Lied von der Erde

“A work that ends right on the threshold of life:”
A Conversation on Das Lied von der Erde

In honor of The Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Mahler’s magnificent Das Lied von der Erde on February 9-11, I sat down with noted musicologist Stephen Hefling to talk about the piece. Dr. Hefling is one of the world’s foremost scholars on Mahler. He is Professor Emeritus of Music at Case Western Reserve University, Co-director of the Mahler New Complete Critical Edition, and Vice President of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft.
He has written numerous books and articles on the composer’s music. I was excited to see what he had to say about the work. Here’s a transcript of our conversation: 

Sophie Benn: So what makes this piece unique among Mahler’s already extraordinary body of works?

Stephen Hefling: I think what really makes it unique is the situation he faced at the time that he wrote it. He had several very difficult events to deal with. Things had gotten so uncomfortable with the press at the [Vienna Court] Opera that he submitted his resignation. He wasn’t expecting it to be accepted, but it was—they played “chicken” and he lost. Then he got the position as conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so he was going to have to move. Then came the death of his older daughter in July, and the diagnosis of his own heart insufficiency. He knew that sooner or later bacterial endocarditis would take over, and that was almost certainly going to be the end.

Mahler suddenly realized that his days were numbered, and he did a complete about-face from his previous work, the Eighth Symphony, which he referred to as the grandest thing [he’d] ever written, to Das Lied von der Erde, which he regarded as the most personal thing he’d ever written. Also, there’s a turn in philosophical perspective. He goes from this huge symphony of a thousand people, full of joyous exaltation, presenting Goethe’s vision of heaven from Faust, to a work that ends right on the threshold of life. It looks like it’s bright out there—there’s all of this wonderful, glowing, C Major sound, and the arpeggiating harp and so on—but he doesn’t say for sure. All he says is that the earth goes on and is going to green up anew. So that’s where he leaves us. That’s new.

In a lot of ways Mahler was a utopian prior to that. He gave us the Second Symphony (the “Resurrection” Symphony), and the Fourth Symphony, with its child’s vision of heaven. Certainly the Eighth Symphony is a utopian piece. And that’s all over.

SB: And the poetry that he chooses, some of them have such a preoccupation with death. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about his selection of poems, and why you think he picked the ones that he did?

SH: I think he was definitely picking poems that would move in a direction toward ecstatic dissolution, but again, he leaves us not entirely sure. He also wanted to have poetry that was occupied with relations between people and nature. All of them have some connection to nature and natural imagery—the seasons and so on.

SB: The poetry is a German translation or paraphrasing from Chinese sources, and this sense of the “ancient exotic” seems to have inspired Mahler quite a bit. How does Mahler use exoticism in this piece? Is it different from how others used it?

SH: I think again the difference is allied to the texts. His principal exotic musical device is pentatonicism—the five-note scale that you hear if you play just the black keys on the piano. It’s not that he had never done any of that before, he had a little bit in the Fourth Symphony, and in the song “Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!”, but this was the first time that he got really involved with the device.

Debussy was the person prior to that who was most famous for pentatonicism. Mahler knew Debussy’s music and liked it; he performed several of the orchestral compositions in New York. But with the possible exception of parts of Pelleas,Debussy doesn’t intertwine it with textual things the way Mahler did—because Mahler has this Eastern perspective in the poetry.

SB: So it’s more in the fabric of the work?

SH: Yeah, and it gives it a very different coloring.

SB: I think one of the extraordinary things about Mahler’s music is how much like chamber music it can feel. He’s known for creating these massive pieces and really glorious climaxes, but his music can also be quite delicate at times. What makes Mahler’s orchestration so special—especially in Das Lied, which seems to have a preponderance of these really delicate textures?

SH: Well, throughout his career, he strove for clarity and a characteristic sound. He was constantly re-touching—he re-touched his scores every time he performed them. That drives editors nuts—how do you know for sure what was the last thing he really wanted?

It has to be said that he never got to perform Das Lied von der Erde, so he probably would have re-touched the orchestration. But because of the intimate nature of the poetry—it’s mostly all in first-person perspective—he takes advantage of the chamber-like qualities that are available to him at various points in all the movements. It can be very intense and vigorous, like in the opening to the first movement, which is so heavily scored that it’s very hard for the tenor to project across all of that orchestra sound. But then we can think of the second movement, which really is a delicate kind of chamber music for the most part.

SB: It is also a really unusual piece among symphonic repertoire because it exists in this space between a symphony and a song cycle. Do you know how people have come to understand and appreciate this work?

SH: The audience was positive at the first performances, and prior to World War II it was one of his more popular pieces. The critics were hard on him. They wondered if this is a symphony, or more like a suite, or is it a bunch of songs? They didn’t like it that he was experimenting with a hybrid, despite the fact that he’d been experimenting with the incorporation of vocal music into the symphony, in a way, since the First Symphony. So that had an effect on the reception of it. But in general it’s been very well received.

SB: What kind of voices are often called upon to perform these pieces?

SH: Well, you need a real heldentenor for the tenor songs—there are a few of those around, and Paul Groves, who will be performing the work with the Orchestra, is certainly an excellent one. Then if you’re going to use an alto rather than a baritone—Mahler allowed for either possibility—it should really be a contralto. The voice that Mahler apparently had in mind was Madame Cahier, and we have some recordings of her and she was a very dark contralto, famous for doing Wagnerian roles like Erda, for example.

Sara Charles-Cahier, contralto, who performed in the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde in 1911.

I think [Michelle] DeYoung shall do a marvelous job of it, she has the timbre. There have also been a number of lighter voices that have done it successfully. One of my favorite mezzo-sopranos is Mildred Miller, who did a recording with Bruno Walter. She sang it marvelously! But I think it mainly needs to have that deep contralto quality.

SB: What do you think that audiences should most look forward to when going to hear this performance with The Cleveland Orchestra?

SH: Oh, my goodness! For people who aren’t familiar with it, Mahler himself said that when you’re meeting a work of art for the first time, you should approach it with an open, blank mind. Let it make its impressions on you, and if it’s a good work, it will. It will make itself felt as it should.

The ending of it is the most memorable part, but there are some wonderful things in-between as well. Certainly the second movement, "Der Einsame im Herbst," (“The Lonely One is Springtime”) is just gorgeous in its juxtaposition of loneliness and coldness against the recollection of ecstatic warmth. That, apparently, was the first movement that Mahler wrote. But the fifth movement is marvelously flippant in its way—a stylized portrait of inebriation, “The Drunkard in Springtime.”


A lot of people think (and I’m among them) that this probably is Mahler’s masterwork. Others might argue that either the Eighth, in its grandeur, or the Sixth, in its complete desolation at the end, is more impressive. But I find that we hear Mahler singing, really directly, throughout Das Lied von der Erde—it is his most personal work.

[Interview condensed and edited for clarity]

—Sophie Benn

Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

All audio clips and photographs courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

For Further Reading:

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde by Stephen E. Hefling (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

The Real Mahler by Jonathan Carr (Overlook, 1997)

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