Rückert Lieder (1901)

By Edward R. Reilly, Professor Emeritus, Vassar College

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Unlike his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder do not form a cycle. What stands out most clearly in them is their individuality. The poetic theme of each is underlined by its distinctly different thematic material, orchestral scoring and structural layout. As always, musical form is strongly conditioned by poetic structure, but Mahler here finds constantly fresh and different ways to vary traditional strophic organization and match the intricacies of Rückert’s verse. The transparency of the orchestration, the use of orchestral interludes and the interplay between vocal and orchestral lines point in several of the songs to Mahler’s later fusion of symphony and song in Das Lied von der Erde.

The most traditional of the songs was the last composed, “Liebst du um Schönheit.” It is the most clearly strophic in form, with the four stanzas presented in pairs, with a very brief orchestral interlude in the middle. The first three stanzas are clear variants of one another. The fourth begins as if it were to continue in the same pattern, but underscores the central message of the song by stressing the words “liebe” (love) and “immer” (always) through rhythmic prolongation and emphasis on the upper register in the melody. Love must be for its own sake, not for beauty, youth or treasure.

“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” explores a more unusual theme. It warns the listener not to be too inquisitive about the process of creation, and suggests that the poet does not trust himself to inquire too much: only the finished work counts, not how it was achieved. The analogy made with the work of bees in the second stanza provides Mahler with the basis for his musical imagery. A brief introduction establishes a kind of perpetuum mobile with a subtle buzzing produced by an orchestra of muted strings, without double bass, single woodwinds and a horn, together with a harp. The two stanzas are variants of one another, but the first has an extra line, which repeats the text of the opening. In this repetition Mahler preserves the rhythm and some of the melodic features of his first vocal phrase, but shifts it to a different level and concludes with an upward rather than downward movement.

“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is perhaps unique in musically evoking a fragrance, the delicate fragrance of the lime tree with which the poet associates his love. The color of the setting is still more transparent, and much brighter than “Blicke mir nicht.” The orchestration again consists of single winds, horn and harp, but only violins and violas are called for, and a celesta has been added. The continuing even motion in the strings suggests the quiet wafting of the scent through the air. The settings of the two stanzas share material, but are no longer overtly strophic. The opening vocal phrase of the second stanza makes use of the second phrase of the first stanza, and continues on a different path. It is introduced and continues in a lovely contrapuntal dialogue with an oboe solo that returns as the instrumental postlude of the song.

“Um Mitternacht” moves from the most brilliant day to deepest night, and the change is once more immediately apparent in its coloration. Mahler calls for an orchestra without strings. In addition to pairs of woodwinds (with a single oboe d’amore replacing the usual oboes), three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a single tuba, and timpani, both harp and piano are prescribed. The length, weight and scale of the song match its theme. Five six-line stanzas (each of which begins and ends with “Um Mitternacht”) are set in a rich and complex contrapuntal idiom, more symphonic than lyric in character. Three central motives are introduced in the opening bars and form the foundation for much of the song: a fluctuating dotted figure in the clarinets; a rising and falling figure, also dotted, in the flute and then the oboe (also used in the Eighth Symphony); and an even descending scale in the horns (later also used in its inverted rising form). Each of the first four stanzas, in which the poet sends his thoughts upward into the dark sky and finds no answer to life’s struggles and sorrows, presents a different quiet permutation of these motives, combined with new melodic outgrowths. They lead finally to the transcendent moment in the concluding stanza in which he finds his answer through surrender to a supreme power, the “Lord of death and life,” in a hymn-like conclusion with triumphant brass fanfares, the only big dynamic climax in the entire group of songs. This song offers an interesting contrast with another midnight song by Mahler: his setting of a Nietzsche text, which he originally titled “Was mir die Nacht erzählt” (What night tells me), in the fifth movement of the Third Symphony. There, although the two songs share at least one motive, the overt affirmative climax is deliberately avoided.

The poetic theme of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” one of Mahler’s most beautiful and moving songs, is again unusual. It evokes the peace achieved through the poet’s withdrawal from the everyday turmoil of the world and his absorption in the most meaningful and central aspects of his life: his heaven, his life, and his song. (By implication the last is the product of the preceding two). The comparatively long introduction, presented once more by an orchestra of woodwinds and strings, but this time with an English horn, and without the brighter sound of a flute, presents a wonderful expanding melody that moves upward from a simple two notes, to three, and then a more rapid extension to the line’s melodic peak, followed by a descent that completes the arc. A variant of this descent is used again to conclude and frame the three stanzas of the main body of the song. The setting of the beginning of each stanza draws on the introduction in different forms, and in each continues differently, with the second moving further afield in order to return more clearly to the opening in the third. In its melodic development, the transparent interweaving of the instrumental and vocal lines and in the subtle fluctuation between inner tension and repose, the song represents one of Mahler’s supreme achievements. At the same time it points to a later masterpiece, the “Abschied” movement in Das Lied von der Erde.