Westminster Choir - Joseph Flummerfelt, Chorus Master London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic - Pierre Boulez
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On Gustav Mahler's Ruckert Lieder
Apart from the symphony, the only other genre to exercise Gustav Mahler's attentions to any appreciable extent was that of the solo song. His work-list includes a total of almost fifty lieder, which, textually and chronologically, fall into two distinct groups. The first group covers the years 1880 to 1899, when Mahler, in general, set poems of his own composition or from the anthology "Des Knahen Wunderhom", while the second extends from 1901 to 1904, a period during which he set two further "Wunderhorn" texts but otherwise concentrated exclusively on poems by Friedrich Riickert. Mahler seems to have felt particularly drawn to Riickert by what Reinhard Gerlach has called their "artificiality masquerading in the guise of naivete". This second group includes not only the Kindertoten-lieder of 1901-1904 but also the five Ruekert Lieder. Only two of the Ruckert settings can be dated with any accuracy: a sketch of Blicke mir nicht in die. Lieder is dated June 14, 1901, while the second draft of Ich bin der Welt abhan-den gekommen bears the date August 16, 1901 . But, according to the reminiscences of Mahler's close friend, the viola player Natalie Bauer-Lechner, two of the remaining songs - Um Mil-ternacht and Ich atmet' einen linden Duft - must also have been composed in August 1901 . And, if we may trust the reminiscences of Alma Mahler, the final song, Liebst du um Schunheit, was written exactly a year later, in August 1902.
Compositionally speaking, the Riickert Lieder are notable for a number of features typical of Mahler's lieder in general - above all, minor changes to the texts of the poems allowing the composer to achieve an organic blend and, indeed, total identification of words and music, individual words and lines arc transposed, and the punctuation modified in order to clarify the meaning of the text. In this way, the ideas and concepts that Mahler found in these poems, and his interpretation of them, could be brought out and a new meaning created. In other cases, he altered words and ideas in an act of creative rewriting. Ruckert's "Herzens-freundschaft" [heartfelt friendship] becomes "Liebe" [love] in Mahler's setting, Ruckert's "Weltgewimmcl" [seething of the world] becomes "Weltgetiimmel" [turmoil of the world], and Ruckert's line "Ich leb in mir und meinem Himmel" [I live in myself and in my heaven] becomes "Ich leb allein in meinem I limmel" [I live alone in my own heaven], a change that further underscores the resignatory tone of the message. Finally, Mahler repeats words and phrases for emphasis, an emphasis that often flows directly from his musical thinking. "... dichlieb ich immer, immerdar!" [... I love you for ever, for evermore!] is a case in point.
As with his songs in general, Mahler initially scored all five Ruckert Lieder for voice and piano before orchestrating them at a later stage. (Only in the case of Liebst du um Schoheit is it believed that the orchestral version is the work of another hand.) Yet the instrumentation was never undertaken in the spirit of a mere orchestral arrangement: rather, it may he said to realize the promise contained within the piano writing in embryonic form, bringing out. the orchestral sonorities which, implicit in Mahler's musical thinking from the very first idea onwards, were written into every note of the piano version. It is in this respect, more than any other, that the Ruckert Lieder may be said to represent a new departure in Mahler's oeuvre. It is no longer symphonic textures that characterize the instrumentation, as they had in the Wun-derhorn songs, hut chamber-like intimacy; the polyphonic writing makes the individual instruments sound like so many soloists in a chamber ensemble. In Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekom-men, for example, the instruments remain subdued throughout, never rising above a hushed piano; elsewhere we find pure instrumental mixtures that treak free from Wagner's orchestral bombast (in Um Mitternacht, for instance, Mahler dispenses entirely with strings), while specific timbres such as those of the celesta, muted solo violin, oboe d'amore and even that non-orchestral instrument, the piano, acquire addi-tional importance in this music, in which the human voice appears interwoven in a delicate, airy texture of instrumental voices.
As in his earlier works, it is impossible to separate Mahler the lieder composer from Mahler the writer of symphonies. Many of the novel compositional features of these songs - the way in which the melodic line is built up from the smallest motivie cells, the complex polyphony, the linear chromaticisms and the colourful harmonies - were to provide the basis for later works: one thinks of Der Abschied from Dos Lied von der Erde, the first movement of the Ninth Symphony and, especially, the almost contemporaneous Fifth Symphony, the Ada-gietto of which contains unmistakable, albeit non-literal, echoes of that sense of kmeliness and world-oblivion that Mahler had already hymned so impressively in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen: "I live alone in my own heaven, in my love, in my love, in my song."