Mahler's Song of the Earth

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon
, Conductor
Michelle DeYoung, Mezzo-soprano
Stuart Skelton, Tenor

Friday, July 10, 2009
4:30 PM
Donor Gates Open
5:00 PM
Public Gates Open
8:00 PM
Concert Starts
Reserved $55/$35/$25
Lawn $10


Mendelssohn:         Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (“Italian”)
Mahler:        Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”)


"The performance of Das Lied von der Erde was blessed with excellent vocal soloists.  Michelle DeYoung, a proven Mahler singer, brought an earthy yet sumptuous voice and beautifully direct emotional expression to her singing, especially her poignant account of The Farewell."

– New York Times


Program Notes

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (“Italian”)

As with Mozart and Schubert, Mendelssohn lived a prolific but tragically short life. Unlike the others, he enjoyed the benefits of a wealthy upbringing and never depended on income from composition to survive. His comfortable financial situation also allowed frequent travels. At 12, the prodigious Felix was taken to meet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who immediately recognized his talent. Goethe and Mendelssohn fashioned a friendship that transcended the 60-year difference in their ages. They corresponded frequently, and Felix made several trips to see the elderly poet during the next 11 years, until Goethe’s death in 1832.

Mendelssohn visited his mentor one last time in 1830, the year Goethe censured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Weimar was only an intermediate stop on his first trip to Italy—Venice, Florence and finally Rome. Mendelssohn experienced an eventful stay in Rome. Pope Pius VIII died, and Pope Gregory XVI was elected his successor. The coronation festivities fell on Felix’s 22nd birthday. During this momentous time, Mendelssohn began the Italian Symphony, a title of his own devising. “I am now trying to reflect whether I have made the best use of my time, and on every side I perceive a deficiency. If I could only compass one of my two symphonies! I will reserve the Italian one till I have seen Naples, which must play a part in it,” he wrote home on March 1, 1831. Manuscript evidence indicates that some symphonic sketches were made in Naples.

Work was not concluded in Italy but after Mendelssohn’s return to Berlin. He completed the symphony on March 13, 1833, as part of a commission from the London Philharmonic Society, which gave its premiere on May 13. The composer personally delivered the final manuscript of the Italian Symphony. Mendelssohn remained highly critical of the work throughout his lifetime; the published score appeared in print only after his death.

Many composers seemed to have influenced Mendelssohn’s musical style. His interest in “archaic” composers—Bach, Scarlatti and others—contributed contrapuntal elements to his writing. Beethoven exerted some influence over Felix, as he did over most composers of the age. Mendelssohn scholar Philip Radcliffe points out that “it may be said in general that of his predecessors Beethoven was probably the one whom he was most eager to emulate, and with whom he had least in common temperamentally.” Radcliffe argues further that he “certainly could never achieve the peculiarly dynamic collaboration of heart and mind that enabled Beethoven to explore so astonishingly wide an emotional range without a loss of balance.” Mendelssohn nearly always appeared of good countenance, even amidst great external turmoil. Spiritual fire, like that of Beethoven’s character, was never part of his demeanor. Perhaps Mendelssohn’s style more closely approached that of Mozart, with its cool, polished beauty.

The opening of his four-movement Italian Symphony lacks the dramatic intensity with which Beethoven began the Fifth Symphony, for example. The hunting-horn call presents a rustic, folk-like atmosphere. By movement’s end, there have been no large emotional swings, not even contrasts in intensity as would have been present in a Mozart symphony. The song-like Andante con moto bears a slight Beethovenian solemnity. A fast-tempo minuet follows. The only musical remembrance of Italy appears in the final movement: the Saltarello, a fast triple-meter dance characterized by vigorous leaping steps. This dance was popular in several regions of Italy during the 18th and 19th centuries, and Mendelssohn likely heard the music during his sojourn.

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”)

Tragedy struck Mahler twice during the summer of 1907. His young daughter Maria Anna died of scarlet-fever diphtheria—despite an emergency tracheotomy—at the family summer home in Maiernigg on July 12. Mahler received more serious news two days later from his physician. He was diagnosed with a “bilateral valvular defect from birth, although compensated.” The grief was overwhelming, and Mahler left Maiernigg for the Tyrolean town of Schluderbach. Alma Mahler, the composer’s wife, wrote: “Now, after the death of the child, after the terrible diagnosis of the doctor, in the mood of frightful loneliness, away from our house, away from his place of work (from which we had fled)—now these exceedingly sad poems took hold of him. Already in Schluderbach, on long, lonely walks, he sketched the orchestra songs that one year later were to become Das Lied von der Erde.”

Despondent over the morbid turn of events, Mahler immersed himself in a recently published collection of 83 Chinese poems freely translated by Hans Bethge—Die chinesische Flöte. Whether the poetry soothed his anguish or merely intensified his suffering seems less important than the transcendental work it inspired. From this poetic array grew a composition of symphonic proportions. Mahler chose texts by several eighth-century authors, including the great Li-Tai-Po (702-763), Chang-Tsi (fl. c. 800), Mong-Kao-Jen and Wang-Sei. Fearing the fate of other great symphonists who died after completing their ninth symphony—Beethoven and Bruckner, especially—Mahler considered several programmatic names, but finally settled on Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Thinking he had cheated Fate, the next symphonic work became Symphony No. 9. Ironically, Mahler died before he could complete his Symphony No. 10.

Das Lied von der Erde addresses very profound issues, life’s transient nature and human mortality, painfully close to Mahler. The whole work labors under a sad resignation to death. Even the opening drinking song struggles under oppressive melancholy—“Dark is life, is death.” In the autumn of life, there is only loneliness. Life, youth, beauty, revelry all fade away. In a monumental final movement, Mahler bids his farewell.

Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere, gave context to this musical portrait. “It is a work more characteristic of his self than any one ever written by him, not excluding even his First Symphony. That work had been marked by a consciousness of self, natural in a young and passionate man to whom his personal experience signifies the world. Now, however, while the world seems to vanish beneath him, the ego itself is turned into experience, and a force of emotions which knows no limitations is seen to develop in him who is about to depart. Every note he writes speaks only of himself, every word he sets to music, though it may have been written thousands of years ago, expresses but himself. Das Lied von der Erde is the most personal utterance in Mahler’s creative work and perhaps in music.”

—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan  2009

Park Details

Friday, July 10, 5:45 p.m. — Bennett • Gordon Hall
Preview Concert
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute