Time & Place: Mahler's Life between Worlds


Explore the last years of Mahler's life as he traveled back and forth between the Old World and the New. See where he experienced some of his most spectacular triumphs and his deepest disappointments.

Arriving in the New World

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Arriving in the New World

Gustav and Alma sailed from Cherbourg, France to New York, arriving at Ellis Island on 21 December 1907. Alma wrote that the arrival “so took our breath away that we forgot all our troubles.”
Met Premiere

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Met Premiere

Metropolitan Opera House
Mahler conducted his debut performance, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year's Day 1908. He found himself frustrated with the condition of the institution: “As a result of the absolute incompetence and fraudulent activities of those who have for years had control…the situation at the Opera is bleak.” Yet this frustration did not extend to the country itself; as he wrote to artist Alfred Roller. “I shall probably also be spending the next few years here in America. I am quite entranced with this country.”
New York Residence

Mahler's Life in the New World

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New York Residence

Mahler first lived in the Hotel Majestic on Central Park West and 72nd Street, taking a suite on the 11th floor, then at the Hotel Savoy on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. According to a friend: “His best hours were when he had just conducted a successful concert and was able to gather round him, in the corner salon in the Hotel Savoy, a few people who he knew understood him and respected his true nature.”
Summer Retreat

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Summer Retreat

Mahler's composing hut in Toblach
Mahler returned to Europe in the summer to a composing hut in Austria at Toblach. His delicate health made exercise problematic, which was a source of frustration: “For many years I have been used to constant and vigorous exericise — roaming about in the mountains and woods, and then, like a kind of jaunty bandit, bearing home my drafts...now I am told to avoid any exertion, keep a constant eye on myself, and not walk much.”
Symphony Conductor

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Symphony Conductor

Mahler resigned from the Met and assumed the conductorship of the New York Philharmonic for the 1908-09 season. In an interview, he laid out his goals: “It will be my aim to educate the public...and that education will be made gradually and in a manner which will enable those who may not have a taste for the best to appreciate it.”
Alma in Treatment

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Alma in Treatment

Alma Mahler sought treatment at a spa for what was probably depression. She began an affair with architect Walter Gropius. “I am so perturbed by Almschi's letters, which have such a peculiar tone. What on earth is going on?” Mahler wrote to his mother-in-law Anna Moll from Munich, where he was preparing the premiere of his Eighth Symphony. Ironically, Anna Moll knew of and sanctioned the liaison.
Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler rehearsing the Eighth Symphony in Munich
Mahler conducted the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Munich on 12 September 1910, with a specially assembled orchestra and chorus drawn from Leipzig and Vienna as well as Munich. Before the first rehearsals he wrote to Munich conductor Franz Schalk: “I must be absolutely convinced of the willingness of all performers to go to it with all their strength in order to rehearse as long as necessary...otherwise I would rather drop the whole thing. This is not a choir outing but a serious and very difficult undertaking.” The performance was a stunning success.
Freud and Mahler

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Freud and Mahler

Sigmund Freud
After discovering that his wife Alma was having an affair with architect Walter Gropius, Mahler consulted Sigmund Freud in Leiden, Holland. Freud later wrote: I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability for psychological understanding of this man of genius. No light fell at the time on the symptomatic façade of his obsessional neurosis. It was as if you would dig a single shaft through a mysterious building.
Farewell Concert

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Farewell Concert

Mahler returned to New York with Alma in November of 1910 to resume conducting the New York Philharmonic. He was stricken with a sore throat in December and on February 21 conducted what would be his final concert at Carnegie Hall, with a fever of 104 degrees.
Ethnic Neighborhoods

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Ethnic Neighborhoods

Mahler in New York
Gustav and Alma took advantage of New York's ethnic diversity. They visited a medium, a Chinese opium den, and the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, where according to Alma, her husband did not see the immigrants as “our own sort of people.” He asked: “Are these our brothers? Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?”

Mahler's Life in the New World

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Mahler's health was in decline in the spring of 1911. He traveled by boat back to Europe with a private nurse, arriving in a Paris clinic, then going onto Vienna, where he died on May 18. He was buried on May 22 in Grinzing cemetery alongside his daughter.
The Song of the Earth

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Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), A Symphony for Tenor and Contralto (or Baritone) and Orchestra, after Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute


  • I. The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow” (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde)
  • II. “The Lonely Man in Autumn” (Der Einsame im Herbst)
  • III. “Of Youth” (Von der Jugend)
  • IV. “Of Beauty” (Von der Schönheit)
  • V. “The Drunkard in Spring” (Der Trunkene im Frühling)
  • VI. “The Farewell” (Der Abschied)

Gustav Mahler made the first sketches for this music in 1907 but did most of the work in the summer of 1908, completing the last song in short score—that is, with the instrumentation indicated but not fully written out—on September 1 that year. The full score was finished in 1909. Mahler did not live to hear this work, whose first performance was given by his friend, disciple, and former assistant, Bruno Walter, in Munich on November 20, 1911. Walter chose two American singers from the roster of the Vienna Court Opera, William Miller and Mme. Charles Cahier (Sara Jane Layton Walker from Nashville, Tennessee, who always used her married name).

The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets with high clarinet in E‑flat and bass clarinet, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, two harps, mandolin, celesta, timpani, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, snare drum, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Early in 1907, Gustav Mahler was given a newly published verse collection of German translations from the Chinese, Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte, The Chinese Flute. Mahler, distracted and overworked, put the book aside. Late that summer, when he came across the gift again, he was worse than overworked. In July, his daughter Maria, four‑and‑a‑half, had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he had learned that he himself suffered from a severe heart condition. Work pulled him out of despondency. Those melancholy verses spoke to Mahler with singular urgency. He began sketches, and the songs were his chief project for the following summer.

It was clear to him from the beginning that he was writing no ordinary song cycle but something larger and more cohesive, something, in fact, symphonic. Bruno Walter recalled Mahler’s describing the work as “a symphony in songs,” and Mahler did in the end head the score “a symphony for tenor and contralto (or baritone) and orchestra.” Ever since Bruno Walter chose a contralto when he conducted the first performance in 1911, most performances have followed Walter’s lead. But Mahler expressed no clear preference, and in fact when the poems’ speakers are referred to, the references are masculine.

Das Lied von der Erde is not, however, among Mahler’s numbered symphonies. It would be his ninth, but, with Beethoven and Bruckner in mind, he was superstitious about ninth symphonies and convinced that he would not be granted the time to go beyond that freighted number. He thought to put one over on the gods by not assigning a number to the symphony after the Eighth, and when he finished the symphony he called No. 9 he triumphantly told Alma that it was of course “really the Tenth” and that the danger was past. But the gods were not taken in by Mahler’s bookkeeping, and death claimed him as he was at work on the symphony he called No. 10.

“Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”)—The poet is Li T’ai‑po, born in Szechwan in 701. Legend has him drown when he fell out of a boat by moonlight, drunk, whereupon a dolphin bore him to sea and immortality; in duller fact, he died in bed in the year 762. Wine was, however, one of his favored topics. Here he invites us first to contemplate the brevity of human life and then to drain our goblets. From Li’s melancholy poem Mahler makes a savage song. It explodes with the fierce call of all four horns in unison and with the cackle of sardonic laughter in woodwinds, trumpets, and violas. It is a song full of bittersweet sounds and of ugly ones. As musical composition it is as extraordinary as it is a penetrating setting of a poem. Mahler spreads a feast of variation: Nothing appears twice the same way, and even the refrain of “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” is sung each time at a higher pitch than before. Along with this developing variation (to borrow Schoenberg’s phrase about Brahms), we find Mahler extending the resources of counterpoint by means of what we might call simultaneous variation. At (for example) the passage about the span of human life—“Nicht hundert Jahre darfst du dich ergötzen”—tenor and violins have almost the same melody, but the fascination is in the almost-but‑not‑quite, in the way what seems to be a single line keeps splitting in two. This sort of multiple vision recurs throughout this song (and others in Das Lied von der Erde, particularly the last). As Mahler grew older, his poignant and vivid art was tied more and more to his bold polyphonic fantasy. In this song we meet his craft in its most prodigiously developed state, and in the service of communicative powers that border on the annihilating. “What do you think,” he asked Bruno Walter, “Is it at all bearable? After hearing this, won’t people want to do away with themselves?”

After this ferocious tavern homily comes the contrast of the second song’s fatigued quiet. The poet of “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely Man in Autumn”) is Chang Tsi. Muted violins paint the background against which the oboe projects its plaintive song, a song more elaborate than is for many minutes granted the baritone. His declamation is a series of restrained scale passages. Only with the thought of the beloved place of rest does passion begin to inform the singing. The anguished plea to the sun of love—“will you never shine again?”—is a sudden flight of ardent song, but before the sentence is finished Mahler reverts to the bleak opening music.

There follows, after these intensely serious songs, a triple intermezzo, all on poems by Li T’ai‑po. First “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”)—the orchestra even pretends for a moment to be Chinese in this dexterously charming projection of a genre scene so familiar as to be a cliché. Under the bits of pentatonic melody and the ding of the triangle it is all quite Viennese. And in a moment it is over.

“Von der Schönheit” (“Of Beauty”) is more spacious, and while “Of Youth” is the delighted observation of a single mood, we now have a song as varied as the pounding heartbeats of the seductive girls with their great yearning eyes. The song rises to a fiery gallop, only to return to languor. The music continues the delicious erotic reverie long after words have failed.

“Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunkard in Spring”) is perhaps our friend from the first song, but in reckless good humor. The realization that spring is come softens him—the violin solo is the quintessential Mahler pastoral tune—but he retreats, from his own tenderness to the safety of his wine flask while the music returns to the bright, bass‑starved sound of its opening page.

“Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”) constitutes almost half the work. Here Mahler made a conflation of two poems. The first is by Mong Kao‑Jen; the second, beginning with “Er stieg vom Pferd,” is the work of Wang Wei. These eighth-century poets were themselves friends who addressed these respective verses to one another.

The song begins with a deep tolling over which the oboe keens. Veiled violins bring consolation, but the music disintegrates. In less than a minute-and-a-half, Mahler has given us the basic material for the movement. The silence that follows the disintegration prepares the entrance of the voice. At this moment, the music in effect begins over—or, if you prefer, what we hear now is a variation on the first eighteen measures, a variation in which the tolling is reduced to a sustained low C on the cellos, the oboe’s part is taken by the flute, and the voice assumes the contours of the horns’ and clarinets’ sighs. After the flute dies away, the music makes a third start of tolling and lament; before the double song is done, there will have been nine such new beginnings. They are widely various in tone and mood, in key, in scale, in their propensity to introduce new material or avoid it. Developing variation is here the governing principle. The idea of simultaneous variation is also very much with us. Perhaps the richest instance of it occurs in one of the most lovely phrases in Das Lied von der Erde, the one about the rising moon: “O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt/Der Mond am blauen Himmelssee herauf,” where baritone, clarinets, and cellos have almost the same melody, almost at the same time.

The first two stanzas and the beginning of the third are scene‑setting. With “Ich sehne mich, O Freund” comes a sudden surge of feeling. Here, with the fresh sound of mandolin, Mahler gives us a new melody of miraculous breadth. A broad orchestral interlude marks the break between the two poems and is also the most magnificent of Mahler’s funeral marches. The music for the second poem is a condensed re‑experiencing of that for the first. The great hymn to spring—“Die liebe Erde”—brings the earlier “new melody” back in still more beautiful form. Voice and instruments reiterate “ewig” (“forever”) until sound and silence become one. Mahler sings a farewell, but his song of and to the earth is, at its close, a song of love and of life.

— Michael Steinberg


Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

Schon winkt der Wein im goldnen Pokale,
Doch trinkt noch nicht, erst sing ich euch ein Lied!
Das Lied vom Kummer soll auflachend
In die Seele euch klingen.
Wenn der Kummer naht, liegen wüst die Gärten der Seele,
Welkt hin und stirbt die Freude, der Gesang.
Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.

Herr dieses Hauses!
Dein Keller birgt die Fülle des goldenen Weins!
Hier diese Laute nenn ich mein!
Die Laute schlagen und die Gläser leeren,
Das sind die Dinge, die zusammen passen.
Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit
Ist mehr wert als alle Reiche dieser Erde!
Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.

Das Firmament blaut ewig und die Erde
Wird lange fest stehn und aufblühn im Lenz.
Du aber, Mensch, wie lang lebst denn du?
Nicht hundert Jahre darfst du dich ergötzen
An all dem morschen Tande dieser Erde!
Seht dort hinab! Im Mondschein auf den Gräbern
Hockt eine wild‑gespenstische Gestalt—
Ein Aff ist’s! Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen
Hinausgellt in den süssen Duft des Lebens!
Jetzt nehmt den Wein! Jetzt ist es Zeit, Genossen!
Leert eure goldnen Becher zu Grund!
Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!

--Li T’ai-po

Der Einsame im Herbst

Herbstnebel wallen bläulich überm See;
Vom Reif bezogen stehen alle Gräser;
Man meint’, ein Künstler habe Staub von Jade
Über die feinen Blüten ausgestreut.

Der süsse Duft der Blumen ist verflogen;
Ein kalter Wind beugt ihre Stengel nieder.
Bald werden die verwelkten, gold’nen Blätter
Der Lotosblüten auf dem Wasser ziehn.

Mein Herz ist müde. Meine kleine Lampe
Erlosch mit Knistern;
Es gemahnt mich an den Schlaf.
Ich komme zu dir, traute Ruhestätte!
Ja, gib mir Ruh, ich hab Erquickung not!

Ich weine viel in meinen Einsamkeiten.
Der Herbst in meinem Herzen währt zu lange.
Sonne der Liebe, willst du nie mehr scheinen,
Um meine bittern Tränen mild aufzutrocknen?

--Chang Tsi

Von der Jugend

Mitten in dem kleinen Teiche
Steht ein Pavilion aus grünem
Und aus weissem Porzellan.

Wie der Rücken eines Tigers
Wölbt die Brücke sich aus Jade
Zu dem Pavilion hinüber.

In dem Häuschen sitzen Freunde,
Schön gekleidet, trinken, plaudern,
Manche schreiben Verse nieder.

Ihre seidnen Ärmel gleiten
Rückwarts, ihre seidnen Mützen
Hocken lustig tief im Nacken.

Auf des kleinen Teiches stiller
Wasserfläche zeigt sich alles
Wunderlich im Spiegelbilde.

Alles auf dem Kopfe stehend
In dem Pavillon aus grünem
Und aus weissem Porzellan;

Wie ein Halbmond steht die Brücke,
Umgekehrt der Bogen. Freunde,
Schön gekleidet, trinken, plaudern.

--Li T’ai-po

Von der Schönheit

Junge Mädchen pflücken Blumen,
Pflücken Lotosblumen an dem Uferrande.
Zwischen Büschen und Blättern sitzen sie,
Sammeln Blüten in den Schoss und rufen
Sich einander Neckereien zu.
Goldne Sonne webt um die Gestalten
Spiegelt sie im blanken Wasser wider,
Sonne spiegelt ihre schlanken Glieder,
Ihre süssen Augen wider.
Und der Zephir hebt mit Schmeichelkosen das Gewebe
Ihrer Ärmel auf, führt den Zauber
Ihrer Wohlgerüche durch die Luft.

O sieh, was tummeln sich für schöne Knaben
Dort an dem Uferrand auf mut’gen Rossen?
Weithin glänzend wie die Sonnenstrahlen,
Schon zwischen dem Geäst der grünen Weiden
Trabt das jungfrische Volk einher!
Das Ross des einen wiehert fröhlich auf
Und scheut und saust dahin,
Über Blumen, Gräser, wanken hin die Hufe,
Sie zerstampfen jäh im Sturm die hingesunknen Blüten,
Hei! Wie flattern im Taumel seine Mähnen,
Dampfen heiss die Nüstern!
Goldne Sonne webt um die Gestalten,
Spiegelt sie im blanken Wasser wider.

Und die schönste von den Jungfraun sendet
Lange Blicke ihm der Sehnsucht nach.
Ihre stolze Haltung ist nur Verstellung.
In dem Funkeln ihrer grossen Augen,
In dem Dunkel ihres heissen Blicks
Schwingt klagend noch die Erregung ihres Herzens nach.

--Li T’ai-po

Der Trunkene im Frühling

Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum dann Müh und Plag?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!

Was hör ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag ihn, ob schon Frühling sei.
Mir ist als wie im Traum.

Der Vogel zwitschert:
Ja! Der Lenz ist da,
Sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lausch ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!

Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer ihn his zum Grund,
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an?
Lasst mich betrunken sein!

--Li T’ai-po

Der Abschied

Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge.
In alle Täler steigt der Abend nieder
Mit seinen Schatten, die voll Kühlung sind.
O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt
Der Mond am blauen Himmelssee herauf.
Ich spüre eines feinen Windes Wehn
Hinter den dunklen Fichten!
Der Bach singt voller Wohllaut durch das Dunkel.
Die Blumen blassen im Dämmerschein.
Die Erde atmet voll von Ruh und Schlaf.
Alle Sehnsucht will nun träumen,
Die müden Menschen gehn heimwärts,
Um im Schlaf vergessnes Glück
Und Jugend neu zu lernen!
Die Vögel hocken still in ihren Zweigen.
Die Welt schlaft ein!
Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten.
Ich stehe hier und harre meines Freundes;
Ich harre sein zum letzten Lebewohl.
Ich sehne mich, O Freund, an deiner Seite
Die Schönheit dieses Abends zu geniessen.
Wo bleibst du? Du lässt mich lang allein!
Ich wandle auf und nieder mit meiner Laute
Auf Wegen, die von weichem Grase schwellen.
O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens- Lebenstrunk’ne Welt!

--Mong Kao-Jen

Orchestrales Zwischenspiel

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum, es müsste sein.
Er sprach, und seine Stimme war umflort:
“Du mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Auf’s neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig . . .ewig . . .”

--Wang Wei

German translations by Hans Bethge, from the Chinese.


The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow

The wine is sparkling in the golden goblet,
but don’t drink yet. First I’ll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow will
echo through your souls, laughing out loud.
When sorrow nears, the soul’s gardens wither;
joy and song die.
Life is dark, as is death.

Master of this house!
Your cellar holds a wealth of golden wine!
I call this lute my own!
To strike the lute and empty the glasses—
these things go together.
A full goblet at the right time
is worth more than all the kingdoms of earth!
Life is dark, as is death.

The sky is blue forever, and the earth
will endure, and bloom in spring.
But you: How long will you live?
You are not allowed to enjoy
the rotten trifles of this earth for even a hundred years.
Look down there! In the moonlight, on the graves
squats a wild and ghostly figure.
It’s an ape! Listen as his cries
pierce the sweet air of life!
Now take the wine! Now it’s time, friends!
Drain your golden cups!
Life is dark, as is death!

--Li T’ai-po

The Lonely Man in Autumn

Blue mists of autumn float over the lake;
the grasses are covered with hoar-frost.
You might think an artist had sprinkled jade dust
over the delicate buds.

The sweet scent of the flowers has vanished;
a cold wind bends their stems.
Soon the wilted, golden lotus petals
will float across the water.

My heart is weary. My little lamp
crackled and died;
it speaks to me of sleep.
I am coming to you, dear resting place!
Yes, give me rest. I need to be refreshed.

I often weep in my solitude.
The autumn in my heart is lasting too long.
Sun of love, will you never shine again
and softly dry my bitter tears?

--Chang Tsi

Of Youth

In the middle of the pond
stands a pavilion of green
and white porcelain.

The jade bridge
arches like a tiger’s back
across to the pavilion.

Friends are gathered in the little house,
dressed beautifully, drinking, talking,
some writing verses.

Their silken sleeves glide
backward, their silken caps
perch on the backs of their necks.

On the pond’s motionless
surface, everything
is oddly mirrored.

Everything stands on its head
from inside the pavilion of green
and white porcelain.

The bridge stands like a half‑moon,
its arch reversed. Friends,
dressed beautifully, are drinking, talking.

--Li T’ai-po

Of Beauty

Young girls are picking flowers,
picking lotus flowers at the water’s edge.
They sit among bushes and leaves,
gathering flowers in their laps and
bantering with each other.
Golden sun bathes these images,
mirrors them in bright water.
The sunlight, reflected from their slender limbs,
is mirrored in their sweet eyes.
And the caressing breeze lifts their
sleeves, carries the magic
of their perfumed scent through the air.

Look: What handsome boys come galloping
along the shore on proud horses?
Gleaming like the sun’s rays,
the young men come riding
between the trees and green meadows.
One rider’s horse neighs happily
and runs to and fro,
hooves flying across flowers and grass.
In a storm they trample the fallen buds.
How the mane flows,
and how the nostrils steam!
Golden sun bathes these images,
mirrors them in bright water.

And the loveliest of the maidens
sends the rider long looks of yearning.
Her proud bearing is only show.
In the gleam of her large eyes,
in the darkness of her warm gaze,
her heart, sad and excited, follows him.

--Li T’ai-po

The Drunkard in Spring

If life is just a dream,
why are we tormented with troubles?
I drink until I can drink no more,
the whole blessed day!

And when I can drink no more
because throat and soul are full,
I’ll stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

What do I hear as I awake? Listen!
A bird is singing in the tree.
I ask him if spring is already here.
It’s as if I’m in a dream.

The bird chirps:
“Yes! Spring is here.
It arrived during the night!”
Pondering deeply, I listen.
The bird sings and laughs.

I fill my cup again
and empty it to the last drop,
and I sing until the moon gleams
in the black firmament!

And when I can sing no more,
I go to sleep again.
What does spring matter to me?
Let me be drunk!

--Li T’ai-po

The Farewell

The sun departs behind the mountains.
The cool shadows of evening
descend into all the valleys.
Look! Like a ship of silver
the moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I feel a light wind stir
behind the dark firs.
The brook sings so beautifully in the darkness.
The flowers grow pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes deeply, filled with peace and sleep.
Now yearning inclines toward dreams,
the weary turn homeward
to sleep, where they recapture
forgotten happiness and youth.
The birds crouch quietly on their branches.
The world falls asleep!
From the shadows of my firs comes a cool rustling.
I stand here and await my friend;
I await his last farewell.
Oh, my friend, I long to enjoy
this evening’s beauty at your side.
Where are you? You are leaving me alone so long!
I wander back and forth with my lute
along paths covered with soft grass.
Oh beauty! Oh world, drunk with love and life forever!

--Mong Kao-Jen

Orchestral Interlude

He dismounted and offered him the drink
of farewell. He asked him where
he was heading, and also why he had to go.
He spoke, and his voice was soft with tears:
“My friend,
fortune was not kind to me in this world.
Where am I going? I go to travel in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I’ll turn toward home, where I belong.
I will never stray far.
My heart is calm and awaits its hour.
Everywhere, the beloved earth
blooms in the spring and
is newly green! Everywhere and forever
the distances are blue and bright!
Forever . . . forever . . . ”

--Wang Wei

Translations: Larry Rothe

Ninth Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Symphony No. 9 in D major


  • I. Andante comodo
  • II. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (in the tempo of a leisurely Ländler, somewhat clumsy and very crude)
  • III. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai
  • IV. Sadagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (very slowly and somewhat held back)

Mahler began his Ninth Symphony in the late spring of 1909 and finished the orchestral draft that fall. On April 1, 1910, he was able to report to his friend and former assistant Bruno Walter that the score, “a very positive enrichment of my little family,” was complete. It was Walter who conducted the first performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on June 26, 1912.

The score calls for four flutes and piccolo, three oboes and English horn, four clarinets (fourth doubling E-flat clarinet) and bass clarinet, four bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, low-pitched chimes, two harps, and strings. (Mahler’s autograph has only a single harp; the decision to divide the part between two players was Bruno Walter’s.)

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

The Ninth Symphony is the last score Mahler completed. Some dark part of him would have wanted it so, for, with Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth in mind, he entertained a deep-rooted superstition about symphonies and the number nine. He had even tried to deceive the counting gods by calling Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the work that followed the Eighth Symphony, “a symphony for contralto (or baritone), tenor, and orchestra,” but not giving it a number. Das Lied von der Erde is, therefore, a secret Ninth Symphony, while the official Ninth is “really” the Tenth. But there was also the side to Mahler that caused him, for all his fascination with death, always to choose life. That was the Mahler who was more interested in writing music than in flirting with his superstitions or his penchant for morbid fancy; that was also the Mahler who, within days of completing the Ninth Symphony, plunged with tempestuous energy into the task of composing a Tenth, a task on which he had made significant progress when he died of a streptococcal blood infection seven weeks before his fifty-first birthday.

The Ninth was also the last of Mahler’s completed scores to be presented to the public, something that has surely contributed to the tradition of reading the work as the composer’s farewell to life. The gestures of dissolution and parting with which this symphony ends are of an annihilating poignancy matched not even by Mahler himself; nonetheless, it is well to understand that Mahler cannot have meant this as an actual farewell. To insist on reading it thus is to indulge in a sentimentality that weakens the stab of this music. Mahler’s symphonies fall into groups whose members share points of view and even material details, each piece being more richly understood in the context of its group. The Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies, for example, are all tied to Mahler’s love for and work on the Romantic anthology of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). The Ninth is part of a trilogy that begins with Das Lied von der Erde and leads to the unfinished Symphony No. 10. It is in some respects commentary upon and extension of the song-symphony, while the Tenth both quotes Das Lied von der Erde and further explores certain ideas and features of the Ninth.

Mahler wrote the Ninth Symphony in the midst of the whirlwind that was the last chapter of his not very long life. That chapter began in 1907. Four momentous things happened that year.

On March 17, Mahler resigned the Artistic Directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, bringing to a close a ten-year term whose achievement has become legend. Mahler was, however, drained by the struggles and tempests that were the price of that achievement, worn down by anti-Semitic attacks on himself and his young protégé Bruno Walter, and eager to give more time to composing and performing his own music. He was not, however, able either to resist the lure of the podium or to do without his income as a conductor, and on June 5 he signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he would make his debut conducting Tristan und Isolde on New Year’s Day 1908.

On July 5, his daughter Maria, four and a half, died at the end of a two-week battle with scarlet fever and diphtheria, just hours after an emergency tracheotomy had been performed at the Mahlers’ summer house at Maiernigg in Carinthia. A few days after the funeral, a physician who had come to examine Mahler’s exhausted wife and her seriously ill mother, responding to the composer’s half-joking “as long as you’re here you might as well have a look at me too,” discovered that things were not as they should be with Mahler’s heart. Most biographies report a diagnosis of subacute bacterial endocarditis. Recent interpretation of the evidence suggests that what was discovered was a defect in the mitral valve, presumably stemming either from Mahler’s family history or rheumatic fever. Subacute bacterial endocarditis would be a result of this defect, but would probably have developed no earlier than the fall of 1910. It is not a condition Mahler would have been likely to survive for four years. Beginning with Mahler’s widow, biographers have tended to dramatize the account of Mahler’s physical condition after the summer of 1907.

In any event, Mahler, that dedicated hiker, cyclist, and swimmer, to say nothing of fiery conductor, was put on a regimen of depressingly restricted activity. Still, what happened from 1907 until 1911 is not the life story of an invalid. 1907: Concerts in Saint Petersburg and Helsingfors (Helsinki) and Mahler’s meeting with Sibelius, the last opera performance (Fidelio) and the last concert (his own Symphony No. 2) in Vienna, departure for New York. 1908: Performances at the Metropolitan Opera at the beginning and end of the year, concerts with the New York Symphony, the premiere in Prague of the three-year-old Symphony No. 7, the composition that summer of Das Lied von der Erde. 1909: The termination of his association with the Met and the start of a three-year contract with the dilapidated New York Philharmonic, work on the Symphony No. 9. 1910: Concerts with the Philharmonic in New York and other American cities, engagements in Paris and Rome, the triumphant premiere in Munich of the Symphony No. 8 (written in the summer of 1906), the completion of the Ninth Symphony, followed immediately by extensive and concentrated work on the Tenth, and a meeting at Leyden with Freud. 1911: The last New York Philharmonic concert on February 21, the onset of a streptococcal blood infection, unsuccessful serum treatment in Paris, and, on May 18, death in a Vienna sanatorium.

In the Ninth, Mahler returns to a four-movement design for the first time since the Sixth Symphony of 1903-05. But if the four movements of the revised Sixth still correspond to those of the normal Classical and Romantic symphony, Mahler is clearly after another aim altogether in the Ninth. He begins with a very large movement whose basic tempo is semi-slow but which tends to spill over into allegro. Next comes a double intermezzo in the form of a vividly contrasted pair of scherzos, a set of Ländlers and a burleske. The finale is an adagio whose weight and span approach those of the first movement.

As for the first movement, it is surely Mahler’s greatest achievement in symphonic composition. Shortly before Mahler was born, Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk: “I should now like to call my deepest and most subtle art the art of transition, for the whole fabric of my art is based upon such transitions.” The composer Richard Swift has pointed out that it was “with a powerful feeling of recognition” that Mahler first read the Wagner-Wesendonk correspondence in 1904, remarking to his wife upon its “transcendent and superhuman” nature. The Ninth’s first movement is the high point of Mahler’s own practice in the deep and subtle art of transition, of organic expansion, of continuous variation.

In deep quiet, cellos and horn set a rhythmic frame. The notes are oddly, disconcertingly placed in the time flow; Leonard Bernstein suggested that their halting rhythm represents, or perhaps reflects, the irregular pulse of Mahler’s own faltering heart. Cellos and horn play the same pitch, A, and it will be more than fifty measures—more than three minutes of playing time—before we meet a bar in which A is not a crucial component, and then it takes a violent, deceptive cadence to wrench the music in another direction. The harp begins a kind of tolling about that low A, while a stopped horn projects another thought, also with A as its point of departure and in a variant of the faltering-pulse rhythm. The accompaniment becomes denser, though it always remains transparent, with each detail highly individual. All this prepares a melody that the second violins build up step by step, full of literal or subtly varied repetitions.

We soon hear that the melody is in fact a duet, for the horn re-emerges with thoughts of its own on the material. Listening still more closely, we can notice that the accompanying figures in the harp, the clarinet, and the elaborately divided lower strings are using the same vocabulary too—the same intervals and the same rhythmic patterns. Do the accompaniments reflect the melody, or is the melody the expansion of the elements that make up the ever-present, ever-changing background? Before this melody is done growing, the first violins have replaced the horn as the seconds’ duet partner, while the clarinet (anticipated by the English horn) and the cellos cross the border, turning from accompanists into singers. In this beginning you have a miraculous example of Mahler’s inspired art of transition, so painstakingly worked (as we can tell from the orchestral draft) and so convincing in its appearance of utter spontaneity and natural growth. The transitions, moreover, exist in two dimensions—horizontal, as the melody proceeds through time from one event to the next, and vertical, in the integration of the melodic strands and their accompaniments.

This long opening melody keeps returning, always with new details of shape and texture, and its D-major presence is the anchor to which the movement is bound. The most persistent element of contrast comes in the form of an impassioned, thrusting theme in minor, whose stormy character is new but whose intervals, rhythms, and accompaniments continue the patterns established earlier. The “faltering pulse” and the harp tollings persist; dramatic abruptions shatter the long-breathed, seamless continuities; urgent trumpet signals mark towering climaxes. From one of these high points the music plunges into sudden quiet and the slowest tempo so far. The coda is virtually chamber music with simultaneous monologues of all but dissociated instruments—flute, oboe, violin, piccolo, horn, just a few strands of cellos and basses to begin with. The space between events grows wider—it is as though the music continued, but beyond our hearing—until at last silence wins out over sound. With the completion of this immense and wonderfully poised arch, about one third of the great symphony is done.

The second movement returns us forcefully to earth. Mahler always had a love for the vernacular, and here is one more of his fantastical explorations of dance music. He shows us three kinds: a Ländler that is leisurely, clumsy, heavy-footed, coarse (the adjectives are Mahler’s); something much quicker and more waltz-like (and taken over almost literally by Shostakovich in the scherzo of his Fifth Symphony); and another Ländler, the slowest of these three musics, gentle, lilting, sentimental. These tunes, tempos, and characters lend themselves to delightful combinations and interchanges. This movement, too, finishes in a disintegrating coda, but the effect here is toward an intriguing mixture of the ghostly and the cute.

Where the second movement was expansive and leisurely, the third, which Mahler styles burleske and which he wants played “very defiantly,” is music of violent urgency. The first four measures, which take about three seconds to play, hurl three distinct motifs at us. That sort of concentration is fair warning of what is to follow. Mahler inscribed the autograph “to my brothers in Apollo,” connecting this reference to the leader of the muses to the virtuosic display of contrapuntal craft unleashed here. A contrasting trio brings a march and even some amiability—also, later, a twisted reminiscence of one of the exuberant march tunes in the Third Symphony’s first movement. Most surprising, and deeply touching as well, is the trumpet’s shining transformation of one of the Burlesque’s most jagged themes into a melody of tenderly consoling warmth. It is, however, the fierce music, returning now at still greater speed and in yet more ferocious temper, that brings this movement to its crashing final cadence.

Now Mahler builds an Adagio to balance and, as it were, to complete the first movement. He begins with a great cry of violins. Now all the strings, who are adjured to play with big tone, sound a richly textured hymn. Their song is interrupted for a moment by a quiet, virtually unaccompanied phrase of a single bassoon, but impassioned declamation in the choral style immediately resumes. That other world, however, insists on its rights, and Mahler gives us passages of a ghostly and hollow music, very high and very low. Between the two extremes there is a great chasm. The two musics alternate, the hymnic song being more intense and urgent at each of its returns. We hear echoes of Das Lied von der Erde and phrases from the Burleske.

Here, too, disintegration begins. All instruments but the strings fall silent. Cellos sing a phrase which they can scarcely bear to let go. Then, after a great stillness, the music seems to draw breath to begin again, even slower than before: adagissimo, slow, and ppp to the end, Mahler warns. As though with infinite regret, with almost every trace of physicality removed, muted strings recall moments of their—and our—journey. The first violins, alone unmuted among their colleagues, remember something from still longer ago, the Kindertotenlieder, those laments on the deaths of children that Mahler, to his wife’s horror, had written two years before death took his daughter Maria. “Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!”—the day is so lovely on those heights. “Might this not,” asks Mahler’s biographer Michael Kennedy, “be his requiem for his daughter, dead only two years when he began to compose it, and for his long-dead brothers and sisters?” More and more, the music recedes, a kind of polyphony to the last, the cellos and second violins gently firm, the first violins and violas softly afloat. Grief gives way to peace, music and silence become one.

—Michael Steinberg

This note first appeared in different form in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I am most grateful to Dr. Susan M. Filler for information about Mahler’s medical condition in the last years of his life

Tenth Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Adagio from Symphony No. 10


Although some of the ideas for his Symphony No. 10 go back to 1908, Mahler did most of the work on this unfinished score in the summer of 1910. The first attempt at preparing a practical full score was undertaken by the composer Ernst Krenek in 1924. He presented the first and third movements only, and these sections were performed on October 14, 1924 by Franz Schalk and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The score for the Adagio calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

When Bruno Walter conducted the posthumous premieres of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Munich in November 1911 and the Symphony No. 9 in Vienna in June 1912, it seemed that all of Mahler’s music had been offered to the public. It was assumed that the Tenth Symphony was in too fragmentary a state ever to be performed, and word went about that Mahler had asked his wife to destroy whatever drafts remained.

In 1912, Arnold Schoenberg, that paradoxical confluence of the rational and the mystic, wrote: “We shall know as little about what [Mahler’s] Tenth . . . would have said as we know about Beethoven’s Tenth or Bruckner’s. It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must die. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for we are not yet ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too near the hereafter. Perhaps the riddles of this world would be solved if one of those who knew them were to write a Tenth. And that is probably not going to happen.”

Mahler, for that matter, had his own misgivings about going beyond the Ninth. He had called Das Lied von der Erde a symphony without numbering it, so that the symphony he called No. 9 was actually his tenth. Thus he had dealt with “the limit” by circumvention, or so he believed. With ten symphonies completed (counting Das Lied von der Erde), Mahler moved virtually without pause from the last pages of the official No. 9 to the first of No. 10. In 1911, the discovery of penicillin was still seventeen years away. Had that antibiotic been available to combat his blood infection, there is little doubt he would have finished his work-in-progress that summer.

Schoenberg did not know how far Mahler had actually progressed on his Tenth. Only Mahler’s widow had any idea until 1924, when she asked the twenty-three-year-old composer Ernst Krenek to “complete” the symphony. Krenek felt this to be an “obviously impossible” assignment, but he prepared a practical full score of two movements, the Adagio, which was complete, and Purgatorio, which was nearly complete. At the same time, Alma Mahler Gropius, as she then was, allowed the Viennese publisher Paul Zsolnay to publish a large part of Mahler’s manuscript in facsimile. Her decision was surprising.

Gustav Mahler, in 1910, was a man in torment, for he believed himself on the point of losing his intensely beloved, much younger, beguilingly beautiful wife. Alma Maria Schindler met Mahler in November 1901, became pregnant, and married him four months later. Their devotion was mutual and passionate, but they were fundamentally out of tune. Eight years into their marriage, Alma, flirtatious by temperament and frustrated by Gustav’s sexual withdrawal from her, was restless. In May 1910, she met Walter Gropius, four years her junior and about to embark on one of the most distinguished careers in the history of architecture. Under trying and even bizarre circumstances—Gropius had by accident (!) addressed the letter in which he invited Alma to leave Gustav to “Herr Direktor Mahler”—Alma chose to stay with her husband, who later told her that if she had left him then, “I would simply have gone out, like a torch deprived of air.” Through the score of the Tenth Symphony, Mahler scribbled verbal exclamations that reflect this crisis, and it cannot have been easy for Alma to agree to the publication of such painfully intimate material. The so-called Krenek edition of the Adagio and Purgatorio, long the only available performing edition of any music from the Tenth Symphony, lacked too much both of science and art to be satisfactory. In 1959 the English musician and writer Deryck Cooke began work on what he called a “performing version” of all five movements. This was introduced in 1964 and revised in 1976. With the appearance of the Adagio in the critical Mahler edition and of Deryck Cooke’s second “performing version,” the Krenek edition has for all intents and purposes dropped out of circulation.

Some considerable voices, including those of Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Rafael Kubelík, and Pierre Boulez, have spoken out against the “complete” Mahler Tenth, and Cooke himself would never have taken the position that his version was the last word. All this is background to a performance of music that Mahler did complete, the Adagio we hear now.

In the Tenth Symphony, Mahler returned to the symmetrical five-movement design he had used in his Fifth and Seventh symphonies and in the original version of the First Symphony. This idea was not clear to Mahler to begin with, and he changed his mind more than once about their order within the whole. He called his first movement an “Adagio,” but he does not enter that tempo until measure 16. He begins, rather, with one of the world’s great upbeats: a pianissimo Andante for the violas alone, probing, wandering, surprising, shedding a muted light on many harmonic regions, slowing almost to a halt, finally and unexpectedly opening the gates to the Adagio proper. This is a melody of wide range and great intensity—piano, but warm, is Mahler’s instruction to the violins—enriched by counterpoint from the violas and horn, becoming a duet with the second violins, returning eventually to the world of the opening music.

These two tempi and characters comprise the material for this movement. A dramatic dislocation, with sustained brass chords and sweeping broken-chord figurations in strings and harp, brings about a crisis, the trumpet screaming a long high A, the orchestra seeking to suffocate it in a terrifying series of massively dense and dissonant chords. Fragments and reminiscences, finally an immensely spacious, gloriously scored cadence, bring the music to a close.

— Michael Steinberg