Songs of a Wayfarer

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            Gustav Mahler’s excruciating beautiful music is laden with the melancholy and presentiment of hopelessness that often infused late nineteenth-century Romanticism.  His large-scale symphonic works often require large numbers of performers (in great variety), and can challenge the endurance of the audience, as well as that of the players.  More recognized in his time as conductor than as composer, he assiduously composed in summers, while pursuing a strenuous conducting career that was brought to an early end by heart disease.  He was married in 1902 to the famous--some would say infamous--and beautiful Alma Schindler, a woman almost twenty years his junior. They had two winsome daughters, one of whom, Maria (“Putzi”) died tragically at the age of four in 1907.  It is said that Alma bitterly blamed him for tempting fate by writing his Songs on the Deaths of Children.   Constant bickering with singers and the virulently anti-Semitic press in Vienna led Mahler to New York City in the same year, where he became a star conductor with the Metropolitan Opera.  His success there led him to an appointment with the New York Philharmonic in 1909 as principal conductor--a rival of Toscanini.  Life was fulfilling, for he enjoyed working with the professionalism of the players there; but that year was marked not only by great success with the première of his Eighth Symphony, but by grief at the discovery of Alma’s affair with the famous young architect, Walter Gropius of Bauhaus renown.   She married the latter after Mahler’s death, and later enjoyed a dalliance with the equally famous painter, Oskar Kokotchka, as well as with other artistic geniuses.  Mahler was heartbroken, and even consulted Sigmund Freud.  After one more season in New York Mahler’s ill health forced his return to Europe, where he died of bacterial endocarditis in May of 1911.

            Against this backdrop of personal stress and grief, Mahler seems today to be the perfect creator of intense, existentialist reflections on the banal duality, yet transcendent, nature of human existence.  His personal--and to my mind it is uniquely so--rumination on life’s meaning can be somewhat prolix and repetitive at the symphonic level, or penetratingly aphoristic in his songs.

            While the nine completed symphonies—expansive, not only in length, but in artistic import, as well—naturally tend to loom supreme in Mahler’s historical legacy, his songs inform them as with no other symphonist.  Moreover, his songs reflect the essence of his whole artistic soul; it is in them that the composer is most directly and authentically understood.  Igor Stravinsky once observed that the short, concentrated works of the composer, Anton von Webern, were like “dazzling diamonds.”  And so are Mahler’s songs. The first four symphonies are specifically related to his Lieder in tone and thematic content, and of no other significant composer may one posit this close connection.   His mastery of scoring for orchestra is reflected in his preference for writing songs with orchestral accompaniment, as well as including the voice in various symphonies.  In addition to various other songs, he composed several significant collections of orchestral LiederDes Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert-Lieder, Kindertotenlieder, and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfahrer).

            The latter group of four songs was the early work, composed in 1884-1885, when he was in his mid-twenties.  At the time he was early in his career as an opera conductor—in Kassel, Germany—and was passionately in love with one of his sopranos, Judith Richter.  In the heat of his ardor—doomed, of course--he wrote a group of poems, and subsequently set four of them for voice and orchestra.

            Although Mahler wrote the texts, they bear a connection to a large collection of German romantic poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a favorite reading for Mahler.  He later set some two dozen of the poems, and incorporated some into three of his early symphonies.  The conceit of the four Wayfarer poems as a cycle is not unlike that of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin—a young journeyman traveling along, musing over the many reflections of his beloved—in this case, a lost one.

            The first song, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" ("When My Sweetheart is Married"), is directly “derived” from one of the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

The contemplation of nature as respite from the darkness of human existence is central to Mahler’s art.  Here, the opening, simple folk-like lament over her marriage to someone else is contrasted in the central section with a turn to nature—replete with birdcalls—as solace.  But the bleakness of the beginning returns at the end:  songs and thoughts of nature end, and the young man goes to sleep only with the thoughts of his sorrow.

            "Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld" ("I Went This Morning over the Field") is in a much more optimistic mood, lightly scored, and reflects humankind’s universal turn to contemplation of the beauties of nature when faced with the realities of personal despair.  A finch chirps for him, the bluebells cheer him, and the sunshine beams.  Again, Mahler turns to his characteristic evocation of simple, folk-like textures for this perspective.  But, of course, despair returns.

            In the third movement, that despair reigns supreme.  He thinks of the “knife in his breast” driven by his lost love; he sees her blue eyes in the sky, her hair in the golden fields, and so forth.  And his corpse lies on a black bier. It’s not a good picture.

            The last song, "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" ("The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved"), brings acceptance of the finality of the sorrow of his lost love. It begins in abject contemplation of a life of eternal sorrow.  But, in typical German romantic fashion, a brief nap under a linden tree, and a snowstorm of its blossoms, brings resolution (death?), or at least acceptance.  However, one of the composer’s characteristic funeral marches tells us the truth.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan