Just got home from a fantastic performance by the APO of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, i.e., The Song of the Earth. It came at a perfect time for me, because I’ve just got the worst kind of news about a young friend from many years ago—and Mahler’s piece, you see is a sort of response to exactly that kind of news.
Gustav Mahler wrote it when he’d just been given the heartbreaking news that his own young life was near its end, observing in the text he then set to music expressing his reaction to that news that while the beauties of the everlasting earth “will stand firm for a long while and bloom again in spring,” in contrast to the short space of time we humans have to enjoy it.
This could turn to anger, as it does in the text of the opening, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, even as the music is telling you a different story …
Strumming on the lute and emptying glasses -
these are the things that go together.
A full glass of wine at the proper moment
is worth more than all the riches of the world!
Dark is life! Dark is death!
The heavens are forever blue and the earth
Will stand firm for a long time and bloom in spring,
But you, Man, how long will you live then
Not a hundred years are you allowed to enjoy
Of all the tawdry baubles of this earth!
Look down there!
In the moonlight, on the graves
crouches a wid, ghostly figure -
It is an ape!
Hear how its howls resound piercingly
in the sweet fragrance of life!
Now take the wine! Now is the time -
Empty the golden goblet to the bottom!
Dark is life, dark is death!
… but moves through contemplation of Youth and Beauty and the changing seasons, before ending with a final Farewell to the earth—a salute that embraces every part of it while resignedly pushing off.
The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys, evening descends
with its cooling shadows.
Oh look! Like a silver boat,
the moon floats on the blue sky-lake above.
I feel the fine wind wafting
behind the dark pines!
…Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!
The dear earth everywhere
blooms in spring and grows green
afresh! Everywhere and eternally,
distant places have blue skies!
Eternally … eternally …
This, mind you, is set to stunning music that You Tube just can’t do justice to. But as I let it soothe me, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a different way to face death than that famously expressed by Kipling, who counsels not resignation but something very different:
…If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…