Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") is a composition for two voices and orchestra by Gustav Mahler between 1908 and 1909. The work was described as a symphony when published, and it comprises six songs for two singers who take turns singing the songs. 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.
The work was composed following the most painful period in Mahler's life, and the songs address themes such as those of living, parting and salvation. On the centenary of Mahler's birth, the composer, conductor, and known Mahler conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) described Das Lied von der Erde as Mahler's "Greatest symphony".
Three personal disasters befell Mahler during the summer of 1907. Political maneuvering and anti-semitism forced him to resign his post 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 (1876-1962), "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".
The following year (1908) he saw the publication of Hans Bethge (1876-1946) Die Chinesische Flöte ("The Chinese Flute"), a volume of ancient Chinese poetry rendered into German. Mahler was very taken by the vision of earthly beauty and transience expressed in these verses and chose seven of the poems to set to music as Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler completed this work in 1909.
Score Das Lied von der Erde by Universal Edition (UE) music publishers.
In writing this volume, Hans Bethge (1876-1946) himself used prior translations of the original Chinese poetry. Texts now identified as being likely sources used by Bethge include Hans Heilman's "Chinesische Lyrik" (1905), Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys' "Poésies de l'époque des Thang" and Judith Gautier's "Livre de Jade".
Gustav Mahler revering to Hans Bethge (1876-1946).
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. Der Abschied combines poems by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with several additional lines by Mahler himself. These attributions have historically been a matter of some uncertainty, and around the turn of the Twenty-First Century, Chinese scholars extensively debated the sources of the songs following a performance of the work in China in 1998.
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. This theme, and its influence upon Mahler's tonality, has been further explored by John Sheinbaum. It has also been asserted that Mahler found in these poems an echo of his own increasing awareness of mortality.
Mahler was aware 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 before dying. He had already written eight symphonies before composing Das Lied von der Erde. Fearing his subsequent demise, he decided to subtitle the work A Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Large Orchestra (Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (or Bariton- Stimme und Orchester), but left it unnumbered 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 the first movement of the Tenth had been fully orchestrated at the time of his death.