Das Lied von der Erde

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Das Lied von der Erde
Symphony by Gustav Mahler
Photo of Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr 01.jpg
Gustav Mahler in 1907
KeyA minor - C major
Textfrom Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte
Composed1908 (1908): Toblach
RecordedBruno Walter, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1936
  • contralto
  • tenor
  • orchestra
Date20 November 1911 (1911-11-20)
ConductorBruno Walter

Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") is a composition for two voices and orchestra written by the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler between 1908 and 1909. Described as a symphony when published, it comprises six songs for two singers who alternate movements.

Mahler specified the two singers should be a tenor and an alto, or else a tenor and a baritone if an alto is not available.[1]

Mahler composed this work following the most painful period in his life, and the songs address themes such as those of living, parting and salvation.

On the centenary of Mahler's birth, the composer and prominent Mahler conductor Leonard Bernstein described Das Lied von der Erde as Mahler's "greatest symphony".[2]


Three disasters befell Mahler during the summer of 1907. Political maneuvering and antisemitism forced him to resign as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, his eldest daughter Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. "With one stroke," he wrote to his friend Bruno Walter, "I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn".[3]

The same year saw the publication of Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, a volume of ancient Chinese poetry rendered into German. Mahler was captivated by the vision of earthly beauty and transience expressed in these verses[4] and chose seven of the poems to set to music as Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler completed the work in 1909.

Text of Das Lied von der Erde[edit]

The Universal Edition score of 1912 for Das Lied von der Erde shows Mahler's adapted text as follows.

1. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" or "The Drinking Song of Earthly Woe")[edit]

2. "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Solitary One in Autumn")[edit]

3. "Von der Jugend" ("Youth")[edit]

4. "Von der Schönheit" ("Beauty")[edit]

5. "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunkard in Spring")[edit]

6. "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell")[edit]

Text in Mahler's sources[edit]

Mahler's source for the text was Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte. Bethge used prior translations and adaptations of the original Chinese poetry.[5] Texts now identified as being likely sources used by Bethge include Hans Heilman's Chinesische Lyrik (1905),[6] Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys' Poésies de l'époque des Thang,[7] and Judith Gautier's Livre de Jade.[8][9][10]

Four of the songs -- Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, Von der Jugend, Von der Schönheit and Der Trunkene im Frühling—were derived from poems written by Li Bai, the wandering poet of the Tang dynasty. Der Einsame im Herbst is based on a poem by Qian Qi, another poet of the Tang Dynasty.[11] Der Abschied combines poems by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with several additional lines by Mahler himself. These attributions have been a matter of some uncertainty, and around the turn of the 21st century, Chinese scholars extensively debated the sources of the songs following a performance of the work in China in 1998.[12]


Mahler had already included movements for voice and orchestra in his Second, Third, Fourth and Eighth Symphonies. However, Das Lied von der Erde is the first complete integration of song cycle form with that of the symphony. The form was afterwards imitated by other composers, notably by Shostakovich and Zemlinsky. This new form has been termed a "song-symphony",[13] a hybrid of the two forms that had occupied most of Mahler's creative life.

Das Lied von der Erde is scored for a large orchestra, consisting of the following:

3 flutes (3rd doubling 2nd piccolo)
3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais)
3 B clarinets
E clarinet
bass clarinet
3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)
4 horns
3 trumpets
3 trombones
4 timpani (used only in "Von der Schöneit")
bass drum
snare drum
tambourine (used only in "Von der Schönheit")
tam-tam (used only in "Der Abschied")
celesta (used only in "Der Abschied")
alto solo
tenor solo
2 harps
1st violins
2nd violins
double basses (with low C string)

Mahler deploys these resources with great restraint; only in the first, fourth and sixth songs does the full orchestra play together. The celesta is only heard at the end of the finale, and only the first movement requires all three trumpets, with two playing in the fourth movement and none playing in the sixth. In many places the texture resembles chamber music, with only a few instruments being used at one time.

Mahler's habit was to subject the orchestration of every new orchestral work to detailed revision over several years. Though the musical material itself was hardly ever changed, the complex instrumental 'clothing' would be altered and refined in the light of experience gained in performance. In the case of Das Lied von der Erde, however, this process could not occur as the work's publication and first performance occurred posthumously.

The score calls for tenor and alto soloists.[1] However, Mahler includes the note that "if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone". For the first few decades after the work's premiere, this option was little used. On one occasion Bruno Walter tried it out, and engaged Friedrich Weidemann, the baritone who had premiered Kindertotenlieder under Mahler's own baton in 1905. However, Walter felt that tenor and baritone did not work as well as tenor and alto, and he never repeated the experiment.[14]

Following the pioneering recordings of the work by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under conductors Paul Kletzki and Leonard Bernstein, the use of baritones in this work has increased.

Arnold Schoenberg began to arrange Das Lied von der Erde for chamber orchestra, reducing the orchestral forces to string and wind quintets, and calling for piano, celesta and harmonium to supplement the harmonic texture. Three percussionists are also employed. Schoenberg never finished this project, but the arrangement was completed by Rainer Riehn in 1980.

In 2004, the Octavian Society commissioned Glen Cortese to create two reductions of the work, one for a chamber ensemble of twenty instruments and one for a small orchestra with woodwinds and brass in pairs. Both these reductions are published in critical editions by Universal in Vienna.

Mahler also arranged the work for piano accompaniment, and this has been recorded by Cyprien Katsaris with Thomas Moser and Brigitte Fassbaender. Katsaris has also performed this version in concert.[15]


The first public performance was given, posthumously, on 20 November 1911 in the Tonhalle in Munich, sung by Sara Cahier and William Miller (both Americans) with Bruno Walter conducting. Mahler had died six months earlier, on 18 May.

One of the earliest performances in London (possibly the first) occurred in January 1913 at the Queen's Hall under conductor Henry Wood, where it was sung by Gervase Elwes and Doris Woodall. Wood reportedly thought that the work was 'excessively modern but very beautiful'.[16]


According to the musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler found in Chinese poetry what he had formerly sought after in the genre of German folk song: a mask or costume for the sense of rootlessness or "otherness" attending his identity as a Jew.[17] This theme, and its influence upon Mahler's tonality, has been further explored by John Sheinbaum.[18] It has also been asserted that Mahler found in these poems an echo of his own increasing awareness of mortality.[19]

Curse of the Ninth[edit]

Mahler was aware[20] of the so-called "curse of the ninth", a superstition arising from the fact that no major composer since Beethoven had successfully completed more than nine symphonies: he had already written eight symphonies before composing Das Lied von der Erde. Fearing his subsequent demise,[citation needed] he decided to subtitle the work A Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Large Orchestra (Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester), rather than numbering it as a symphony. His next symphony, written for purely instrumental forces, was numbered his Ninth. That was indeed the last symphony he fully completed, because only two movements of the Tenth had been fully orchestrated at the time of his death.


1. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde"[edit]

The first movement, "The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery" (in A minor), continually returns to the refrain, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod (literally, "Dark is life, is death"), which is pitched a semitone higher on each successive appearance.

 \relative c'' { \set melismaBusyProperties = #'() \clef treble \key a \minor \time 3/4 g'2.( | d | bes | g | ees' | d) | bes | a | g } \addlyrics { Dun- kel ist das Le- ben, ist der Tod. } \midi{\tempo 4 = 180}

Like many drinking poems by Li Bai, the original poem "Bei Ge Xing" (a pathetic song) (Chinese: 悲歌行) mixes drunken exaltation with a deep sadness. The singer's part is notoriously demanding, since the tenor has to struggle at the top of his range against the power of the full orchestra. This gives the voice its shrill, piercing quality, and is consistent with Mahler's practice of pushing instruments, including vocal cords, to their limits. According to musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, the tenor should here create the impression of a "denatured voice in the Chinese (falsetto) style".[21]

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key a \minor \time 3/4 \partial 8*1 e8\ff | a2. | e4. d8 e a | e2. } \midi{\tempo 4 = 180}

The movement begins with a three-note horn call which recurs throughout the song, most notably at the climax in which the singer describes an ape calling "into the sweet fragrance of life." The climax also marks the first of the three whole-tone passages that occur in the symphony.

2. "Der Einsame im Herbst"[edit]

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c' { \set Staff.instrumentName = #"Ob." \clef treble \key d \minor \time 3/2 R1. | R1. | d'2( c1) | a4. d8 c2( a) | d4. a8 d2( a) | f4( bes) a1 } \new Staff \relative c' { \set Staff.instrumentName = #"1.Vn" \clef treble \key d \minor \time 3/2 d8(\pp e f g f g f e d e f g) | f( e d e f g a bes a g f g) | a( bes a g f e f g a g f e) | d( e f g a bes a g f e f g) | a( bes a g f g a g f e d e) | d( e f g f g f e d e f g) } >> } \midi{\tempo 4 = 100}

"The lonely one in Autumn" (for alto, in D minor) is a much softer, less turbulent movement. Marked 'somewhat dragging and exhausted', it begins with a repetitive shuffling in the strings, followed by solo wind instruments. The lyrics, which are based on the first part of a Tang Dynasty era poem by Qian Qi,[11] lament the dying of flowers and the passing of beauty, as well as expressing an exhausted longing for sleep. The orchestration in this movement is sparse and chamber music-like, with long and independent contrapuntal lines.

3. "Von der Jugend"[edit]

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key bes \major \time 2/2 f8(\p g bes c d f d c | bes g f g d4) } \midi{\tempo 4 = 190}

The third movement, "Of Youth" (for tenor, in B-flat major), is the most obviously pentatonic and faux-Asian. The form is ternary, the third part being a greatly abbreviated revision of the first. It is also the shortest of the six movements, and can be considered a first scherzo.

4. "Von der Schönheit"[edit]

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 2/4 \key g \major \autoBeamOff r4 bes8 a | \time 3/4 d,4 g fis8 e | \time 4/4 g4 d } \addlyrics { Jun- ge Mäd- chen pflü- cken Blu- men, } \midi{\tempo 4 = 70}

The music of this movement, "Of Beauty" (for alto, in G major), is mostly soft and legato, meditating on the image of some "young girls picking lotus flowers at the riverbank." Later in the movement there is a louder, more articulated section in the brass as the young men ride by on their horses. There is a long orchestral postlude to the sung passage, as the most beautiful of the young maidens looks longingly after the most handsome of the young men.

5. "Der Trunkene im Frühling"[edit]

 \relative c' { \key a \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \clef treble e\f \times 2/3 { d8\p-. b-. d-. } e4\f \times 2/3 { d8\p-. b-. d-. } | e4\fp fis16-. d-. b-. d-. e4\fp fis16-. d-. b-. d-. } \midi{\tempo 4 = 110}

The second scherzo of the work is provided by the fifth movement, "The drunken man in Spring" (for tenor, in A major). Like the first, it opens with a horn theme. In this movement Mahler uses an extensive variety of key signatures, which can change as often as every few measures. The middle section features a solo violin and solo flute, which represent the bird the singer describes.

6. "Der Abschied"[edit]

The final movement, "The Farewell" (for alto, from C minor to C major), is nearly as long as the previous five movements combined. Its text is drawn from two different poems, both involving the theme of leave-taking. Mahler himself added the last lines. This final song is also notable for its text-painting, using a mandolin to represent the singer's lute, imitating bird calls with woodwinds, and repeatedly switching between the major and minor modes to articulate sharp contrasts in the text.

The movement is divided into three major sections. In the first, the singer describes the nature around her as night falls. In the second, she is waiting for her friend to say a final farewell. A long orchestral interlude precedes the third section, which depicts the exchange between the two friends and fades off into silence.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key c \minor \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 r8 c'-. c32(-> d\> c b\! c8\p~ c4) } \midi{\tempo 4 = 60}

Lines 1–3, 17–19, and 26–28 are all sung to the same music, with a pedal point in the low strings and soft strokes of the tam-tam; in the first two of these sections, a countermelody in the flute imitates the song of a bird, but the third of these sections is just the bare pedal point and tam-tam.[22] The singer repeats the final word of the song, "ewig" ("forever"), like a mantra, accompanied by sustained chords in the orchestra, which features mandolin, harps, and celesta. "Ewig" is repeated as the music fades into silence, the final chord "printed on the atmosphere" as Benjamin Britten asserted.[23] It is also worth noting that throughout Das Lied von der Erde there is a persistent message that "The earth will stay beautiful forever, but man cannot live for even a hundred years." At the end of "Der Abschied," however, Mahler adds three original lines which repeat this, but purposefully omit the part saying that "man must die".[22] Conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein asserts that this ties in with the Eastern idea of Nirvana, in that the "soul" of the singer, as she or he dies, becomes one with the everlasting earth.[24]

 { << \new Staff \relative c' { \set melismaBusyProperties = #'() \clef treble \key c \major \time 3/4 e2.~\pp | e~ | e( | d) | R | R | R | R | R | R \bar "|." } \addlyrics { e- - - wig! } \new PianoStaff \relative c' { \new Staff { \clef treble \key c \major \time 3/4 s2. | <d g,>2.~ | <d g,>~ | <d g,>~ | <d g,>~ | <a' e>~ | <a e g,>~ | <a e g,>~ <a e>~ | <a e>4 r r \bar "|."  } } { \new Staff { \clef bass \key c \major \time 3/4 s2. | e~ | e~ | e~ | e | <e g, c,>~ | <e g, c,>~ | <e g, c,>~ | <e g, c,>~ | <e g, c,>4 r r \bar "|." } } >> } \midi{\tempo 4 = 160}

The last movement is very difficult to conduct because of its cadenza-like writing for voice and solo instruments, which often flows over the barlines. Mahler specifically instructed the movement to be played "Ohne Rücksicht auf das Tempo" (Without regard for the tempo). Bruno Walter related that Mahler showed him the score of this movement and asked about one passage, "Can you think of a way of conducting that? Because I can't."[25] Mahler also hesitated to put the piece before the public because of its relentless negativity, unusual even for him. "Won't people go home and shoot themselves?" he asked.[26]


Original score as written by Mahler[edit]

Versions with female and male soloists[edit]

Versions with two male soloists[edit]

Versions with one male soloist[edit]

Original version for high and middle voice and piano[edit]

  • Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor), Cyprien Katsaris (piano) (Warner Apex 2564681627 - reissue number)
  • Hermine Haselböck (mezzo-soprano), Bernhard Berchtold (tenor), Markus Vorzellner (piano). Recorded 2008 at the occasion of the 100th anniversary in the Kulturzentrum Toblach, in cooperation with the Gustav-Mahler-Musikweks Toblach 2008 (C-AVI MUSIC 4260085531257)

Schoenberg and Riehn arrangement[edit]

Cantonese translation[edit]

In 2004, Daniel Ng and Glen Cortese prepared a Cantonese version. The world premiere of this version was given on 14 August 2004 by the Chamber Orchestra Anglia at the British Library, conducted by Sharon Andrea Choa, with soloists Robynne Redmon and Warren Mok.[27] It was performed again by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 22 July 2005, with mezzo Ning Liang and tenor Warren Mok, under the direction of Lan Shui.

Related works[edit]

American poet Ronald Johnson wrote a series of concrete poems called "Songs of the Earth" (1970) based on a "progression of hearings" of Mahler's work.[28]


  1. ^ a b Das Lied von der Erde | Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges "Die chinesische Flöte") | von Gustav Mahler | Partitur | Translated: The Song of the Earth. A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra (after Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute"). By Gustav Mahler. Score. Published by Universal Edition 1912.
  2. ^ New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts. Original Broadcast February 7, 1960 "Who is Gustav Mahler?"
  3. ^ Richard Freed, programme note Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ J. Johnson, 'Mahler and the idea of Nature', in J. Barham (ed.), Perspectives on Gustav Mahler (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2005), 22ff.
  5. ^ Hans Bethge. Die chinesische Flöte. Insel-Verlag. Page 103. 'Geleitwort'. Final paragraph.
  6. ^ R. Piper & Co. Verlag, München 1907.
  7. ^ D'Hervey de Saint-Denys (1862). Poésies de l'Époque des Thang (Amyot, Paris). See Minford, John and Lau, Joseph S. M. (2000)). Classic Chinese Literature (Columbia University Press) ISBN 978-0-231-09676-8.
  8. ^ Judith Gautier. Le livre de Jade. Felix Juven. Paris.
  9. ^ S. Spencer. Wagner Remembered. Faber. London, 2000. Page 213.
  10. ^ Teng-Leong Chew, 'Perspectives: The Identity of the Chinese Poems Mahler adapted for 'Von der Jugend' Archived 2006-12-22 at the Wayback Machine,' in The Mahler Archive
  11. ^ a b Quantangshi, 卷236_23 《效古秋夜長》, by 錢起 (Qian Qi)
  12. ^ A summary of the interpretations of Tang poem origins of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (in Chinese:关于马勒《大地之歌》唐诗歌词之解译研究的综述)
  13. ^ M. Kennedy and J. Bourne Kennedy (Eds.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (OUP, London 2007).
  14. ^ Audiophile Audition Archived 2014-04-07 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Alex Ross (1993-02-23). "Classical Music in Review". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  16. ^ H.J. Wood, My Life of Music (Gollancz, London 1946 edn), 287.
  17. ^ Adorno 1960, 1966.
  18. ^ John J. Sheinbaum, 'Adorno's Mahler and the Timbral Outsider', Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 2006, Vol. 131 no. 1, pp. 38–82.
  19. ^ M. Kennedy, The Dent Master Musicians: Mahler (Dent, London 1974 and 1990), p. 155. 'It voices the aching regret of a man who must soon leave the world', (Blom 1937, p. 4).
  20. ^ M. Kennedy, The Dent Master Musicians: Mahler (J.M. Dent, London, 1974 and 1990), p. 156.
  21. ^ Theodore W. Adorno, Mahler:Eine musikalische Physiognomik Bibliothek Suhrkamp no 62 (Suhrkamp 1960). See also T. W. Adorno, Wagner - Mahler: Due Studi (Einaudi, Saggi, Torino 1966.
  22. ^ a b Gustav Mahler, "Das Lied von der Erde: Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges "Die chinesische Flöte")" (Universal-Edition, Vienna, 1912)
  23. ^ Letter to Henry Boys, 29th June 1937, quoted in Mitchell and Reid (eds.) (1991) Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, London: Faber, p. 493
  24. ^ "Das Lied von der Erde: A Personal Introduction (1972); documentary by Humphrey Burton starring Leonard Bernstein, Rene Kollo, Christa Ludwig, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
  25. ^ De La Grange, Henry-Louis, Gustav Mahler, Volume IV: A New Life Cut Short. Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0-19-816387-9), p 510 (2008).
  26. ^ SCO Programme Note
  27. ^ See http://idp.bl.uk/archives/news24/idpnews_24.a4d#4
  28. ^ Songs of the Earth, © 1970 by Ronald Johnson and 2000 by his estate.


  • Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler:Eine musikalische Physiognomik, Bibliothek Suhrkamp 62 (Suhrkamp 1960).
  • Adorno, Wagner - Mahler: Due Studi (Einaudi, Saggi, Torino 1966).
  • Jeremy Barham, Perspectives on Gustav Mahler (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2005).
  • Hans Bethge, Der Chinesische Flöte: Nachdichtungen von chinesischer Lyrik (Leipzig 1907).
  • Eric Blom, Mahler's "Song of the Earth" (with introduction by Bruno Walter)" (Columbia Graphophone Company, Hayes (Middlesex) 1937).
  • Teng-Leong Chew, 'Perspectives: The identity of the Chinese poem Mahler adapted for 'Von der Jugend', Naturlaut, Vol 3 no 2, p. 15–17.
  • Teng-Leong Chew, 'Tracking the Literary Metamorphosis in Das Lied von der Erde'[permanent dead link]
  • Teng-Leong Chew, 'Das Lied von der Erde: the Literary Changes'
  • Henry-Louis de La Grange, Gustav Mahler III: Le Génie Foudroyé (1907–1911) (Paris 1984).
  • Fusako Hamao, 'The Sources of the Texts in Mahler's Lied von der Erde,' 19th Century Music 19 Part 1 (Summer 1995), 83–94.
  • S. E. Hefling, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)', (Cambridge University Press 2000).
  • Hans Heilman, Chinsesischer Lyrik Vom 12 Jahrhundert vor Christ bis zur Gegenwart (Munich 1907).
  • M. Kennedy, The Dent Master Musicians: Mahler (Dent, London 1974 and 1990).
  • Kennedy (ed.), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music', (OUP, London 1996 edn.).
  • G. Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde in Full Score (Dover 1998).
  • Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985).
  • John J. Sheinbaum, 'Adorno's Mahler and the Timbral Outsider,' Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 2006 Vol 131 no 1, 38–82.
  • Arthur B. Wenk, 'The composer as poet in Das Lied von der Erde,' 19th Century Music 1 Part 1 (1977), 33–47.

External links[edit]