The Song of the Earth is a setting of translations/paraphrases of seven Chinese poems that Mahler described as ‘a symphony for tenor, contralto (or baritone) and orchestra’. Superstitious, the composer had hoped to cheat his perceived nemesis (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvořák had all died after writing their 9th symphonies) by simply not numbering this work; but – as we’ll discover next week – fate isn’t so easily fooled.
Hans Bethge’s collection of poems, published in 1907 as Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), provided the texts: four poems by the great 8th century poet Li-Tai-Po (now known as Li Bai) and one each by Ch’ien-Ch’i, Mong-Kao-Jen and Wang-Wei (poems by these last two are combined to form the last song, Der Abschied) . The subject matter moves from the black nihilism of The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sadness though loneliness (Der Einsame in Herbst), youth (Von der Jungend), beauty (Von der Schönheit) and drunkenness (Der Trunkene im Frühling) to the final (and by far the longest) song, dealing with parting and final journeys, Der Abschied (The Farewell) described by Shostakovich as ‘the greatest piece of music that has ever been written’.
Li Bai, so the story goes, died by drowning: drunk, he was trying to embrace the watery reflection of the moon .
Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
Li Bai (701–762)
Below (still battling on!) is some general stuff – useful for intervals, key signatures, etc.
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