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Composed: 1883-1885; 1890

Length: c. 15 minutes

Orchestration: Three flutes (3rd = piccolo), two oboes (2nd = English horn), three clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle), harp, strings, and solo voice

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 6, 1953, Erich Leinsdorf conducting, with soloist Carol Brice

About this Piece

Although Schubert found that being known primarily as a composer of Lieder did not carry enough artistic significance to make him a “serious” composer on par with Beethoven, over the course of the 19th century public perception of both the composer and the genre shifted. What had begun as domestic music, meant to entertain or edify privately among family or a circle of friends, became emblematic of the Romantic era’s preoccupation with integrating multiple art forms. The art song gained intellectual and spiritual gravitas as it developed. Linking multiple poems together in a song cycle allowed composers to trace complex emotional arcs; Schubert himself composed several song cycles, most famously Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827).

Also true to Romantic sensibilities, composers expanded the accompaniment beyond the intimacy of a single piano, opting for the diverse palate of tone color available from the ever-increasing orchestra. Yet with its continued emphasis on the realization of poetry, orchestral Lieder tended to display the contemplative spirit of its modest roots rather than the extravagance of other genres combining voice and orchestra, such as opera.

By the time Gustav Mahler started his career, Schubert was a long-acknowledged early master of a respected genre and an obvious model for the younger composer’s early attempts at Lieder. Mahler had written several stand-alone songs for voice and piano, starting as a teenager, but around the end of 1883 (when he was in his mid-20s), heartbreak prompted him to attempt his first song cycle. He had become infatuated with soprano Johanna Richter while he conducted at the opera house in Kassel, but their relationship ended unhappily.

Mahler wrote the poetry for Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) himself, though he was heavily influenced by the folk verses in the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn,” selections from which he would later set for voice and orchestra). His poems are almost certainly autobiographical; Mahler casts the protagonist/himself as “a travelling journeyman who has met with adversity, setting out into the world and wandering on in solitude.”

He originally penned six poems but trimmed the cycle down to four, which he composed for voice and piano. (They are performed by either male or female singers.) During this time, Mahler also worked on his first symphony, honing techniques that would distinguish him as one of the last great Romantic symphonists. Sometime around 1890 Mahler decided to orchestrate the accompaniment, bringing his symphonic sensibilities back to his first song cycle.

Irony abounds in the first song, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”): Chipper triangle and woodwind flourishes alternate with slow, drooping phrases from the singer and strings as the narrator expresses anguish at his beloved marrying someone else. Mahler realizes the poem’s nature imagery in the second half, with birdsong evoked through trills, but the slow, mournful wedding song returns.

The melody of the second song, “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (“This Morning I Went Over the Field”), became the opening theme of Mahler’s first symphony – and his treatment of the theme in the symphony informed his instrumentation choices when later setting the songs with orchestra. The song is relentlessly cheerful and the accompaniment bustling with layers of activity as the surrounding nature repeatedly asks the narrator, “Is it not a beautiful world?” But for the final refrain, the tempo slows as he responds that his happiness can never bloom.

The third song, “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”), opens with a tumultuous orchestral introduction before the narrator courses through waves of agony. The storm retreats as Mahler thins out the texture, leaving flutes, horns, harp, and muted strings to accompany the singer as the narrator reflects on the pain of constant reminders of lost love. But the forces of the orchestra cannot be held back for long, overwhelming the narrator once more.

The final song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”), begins with a funeral march, similar to the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony – both works share his penchant for juxtaposing major and minor instances of the same musical gesture. As the song continues, it incorporates gently rocking lullaby tropes to represent the narrator resting beneath the linden tree. It seems that the wandering has come to an end, yet the song ends inconclusively, with flutes and harp unable to find resolution.

- Linda Shaver-Gleason