“DAS KLAGENDE LIED”
Often translated as “The Sorrowful Song”, “The Song of Lamentation”, and “The Plaintiff Song”. Cantata composed in 1880 originally in 3 movements later revised in 1893 and 1899 with the first movement discarded along with changes in orchestration and arrangement to the second and third movements.
Mahler began to write the words of “Das klagende Lied” during the early part of his final year in the Vienna Conservatory where he was a student from 1875 to 1878. The draft text of the 3 movements was dated 18 March, 1878 and musical setting on the text began in the autumn of 1879 and was completed on 1 November, 1880. It was during this time that Mahler fell in love with Josephine Poisl, the daughter of a local postmaster in Iglau (Jihlava) and it is possible that he had her in mind while composing this work (he also composed 3 other works for Josephine and this will be covered in another article).
It is believed that it was the score of this completed 3-movement cantata that he did submit for the Beethoven Prize in the autumn of 1881 with Johannes Brahms being one of the members of the jury. The prize eventually went to Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) for his piano concerto and Mahler was deeply wounded by that decision. Later, he sent the score to Franz Liszt in 1883 hoping that it will be performed but Liszt later sent back the score to Mahler citing “the poem” as the basis for his rejection. After another attempt and subsequent failure to get his work published by the publishing house of B. Schott’s Söhne in Mainz, Mahler decided to revise the work.
The first revision of the work took place in the second half of 1893 with a significant reduction and re-arrangement in orchestration and voices. The revisions, for example, include reducing the number of harps from six to two and the vocal soloists from eleven to four in the first movement. The boys’ voices were also removed. The off-stage orchestra, which played an important role in the work, was also completely removed from the 2nd and 3rd movement. The revision to the opening movement indicated that Mahler did not initially plan to discard the 1st movement. It was only during the autumn of 1893 while his revision was in progress that he decided to omit the 1st movement.
Further revisions were made between September and December of 1898 where Mahler’s initial decision to omit the off-stage parts in the 2nd and 3rd movement was reversed. The revisions were so extensive that Mahler had to write out a new score with only 2 movements, corresponding to the 2nd and 3rd movements of the original score. The first performance of this revised version took place on the 17th February 1901 in Vienna with Mahler himself being the conductor.
In 1893, Mahler wrote the outlines of his first revisions into the original 3-movement score and passed it to his sister, Justine who subsequently passed it to her son, Alfred Rosé. Rosé used this score to prepare for the performance of the 1st movement in Brno in 1934 and then a hybrid version with the 1st movement along with the revised 2nd and 3rd movement in Vienna in 1935. Since then, he kept the score in private but later sold it to James M. Osborn in 1969 who later donated it in March the same year to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven.
Since then, the work is generally performed in its entirety, i.e. with the 1st movement along with the revised 2nd and 3rd movement. Lately (since 1997), however, the original first edition of all the three movements is now made available.
The score of the revised 2 movements remained with Alma Mahler-Werfel until her death and was subsequently passed to the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
“Das klagende Lied” comprises of 3 movements, being the following:
1. Waldmarchen (Forest Legend)
2. Der Spielmann (The Minstrel)
3. Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece)
The work generally lasts for about 60 to 70 minutes.
Waldmarchen (Forest Legend)
This first movement tells of a haughty queen whose beauty is beyond compare but no knight seemed to be to her liking. However, in the forest, there can be found a beautiful red flower and whoever succeeds in finding the flower can have the queen’s hand in marriage. There went two brothers in search of the flower. The younger brother is gentle and mild but the older brother could only curse. The younger brother finally managed to find the flower and feeling a little tired, stuck the flower in his hat and took a nap. His brother continued looking for the flower in vain but alas! saw his brother sleeping with the precious flower in his hat. He took out his sword and there went wasted his younger brother’s life.
Der Spielmann (The Minstrel)
The second movement tells of a minstrel who one day found a bone while passing the forest. Seeing it, he decided to make a flute out of the bone, not knowing that the bone belongs to the younger brother who died under the sword of his own elder brother. He played on the new flute and what sorrowful music came out of it! Music so sorrowful and at the same time so beautiful! He who hears it would melt into tears. Wherever the minstrel went, the song of lament, which tells the whole tragic story, will be heard. Finally, the minstrel decided to play the flute in the palace during the wedding of the queen to the young knight, i.e. the elder brother (now king).
Hochzeitsstück(The Wedding Piece)
This movement tells of the minstrel’s visit to the palace on the wedding day to reveal the whole secret. The whole palace was jubilant and happy until the minstrel played the flute to the new king. The whole story became known and the queen fell to the ground. The musicians fell silent and the knights and ladies flee in terror. The ancient walls collapsed and the lights in the hall became dark. Ah, what happened to the wedding feast? Indeed what happened to the wedding feast?! Ah! Sorrow!
Inspiration/Sources of the Text
It is believed that Mahler drew on several sources for his version of the “Das klagende Lied”. One of the sources could be from an anthology of fairy tales by Ludwig Bechstein (1801-1860) whereby one of the stories was also titled “Das klagende Lied”. Differences between Mahler’s version and Bechstein’s version is, among others, the employment of a minstrel instead of a shepherd to discover the bone and his use of two boys instead of a boy and a girl as in Bechstein’s version.
Another notable source/influence is that of a tale by the Brothers Grimm with the title “Der singende Knochen” (“The Singing Bone”) whereby we can find the idea of the rivalry between two brothers for the favours of a beautiful queen.
This work is considered by Mahler himself to be his own ‘Opus 1’. Indeed, in this work, one can find the roots to his later works that spans the next 30 years of his career as a composer.
Notable examples are his use of a large-scale orchestra and his fondness of employing non-ordinary instruments such as the D-flat flutes and E-flat cornets in the first movement. It is also apparent that Mahler is bend on composing music which has an underlying story/meaning often based on existing literature. His early symphonies that were based heavily on the Wunderhorn poems stand in testimony of this observation. Note also that Mahler will go to such length as to compose/modify the literature to meet his musical needs as can be seen even in his late work of “Das Lied von der Erde”. It must also be noted that in general, his work is ‘narrative’ in nature, be it a story, a legend, a fairy tale or a philosophical argument and the ultimate narration would of course be that of Mahler’s own life story. It is therefore appropriate for Pierre Boulez to remark that “from the first, Mahler’s musical form tends towards the epic and the novelistic”.
The use of the off-stage band to create a sense of contrast (using “different rhythms and clashing tonalities” as pointed out by Donald Mitchell in the liner notes to the Kent Nagano recording, see below) and irony and also to portray a sense of dimension and distance can also be traced to this work. Notice that this technique was also employed, for example, in the finale of the second symphony.
Cross referencing/quotation between Mahler’s early work can also be observed. Examples are his quotations in “Im Lenz”, the “Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen”, the First symphony and the Second symphony. Notice that the tremelo in the opening of “Der Spielmann” followed by the ascending/descending motifs from the lower strings cannot but reminds one of the opening of the first movement of the Second symphony. Incidentally, both of them are also in C minor. Fragments of the “Dies Irae” theme can also be heard in this movement.
As Donald Mitchell pointed out in his essay, one of the “most arresting discoveries has been Mahler’s systematic use… of a motivic-based polyphony.” This technique will also be further refined and employed by Mahler in his future masterpieces.
Speculations has it that one of the reasons for the removal of the first movement was due to Mahler’s desire to suppress his feeling of guilt on the death of his beloved younger brother, Ernst, in 1874. However, another explanation for the removal of this movement is based purely on dramatic reasons in that the first movement was deemed redundant since the story was told again in “Der Spielmann” and made clearer still when the king (his brother) played on the flute in the “Hochzeitsstück” movement. What is missed out if the first movement is removed is the motive for getting the flower in the forest which subsequently led to the fratricide, a part which I think is important to elucidate the meaning of the whole work.
The work can also be taken a step further from its explicit themes of love, rivalry, murder, revenge and justice. The choice of a minstrel to reveal the secret and thus bring about justice can also be taken to indicate the belief in the power of music to transform society.
15 different recordings were listed in Vincent Mouret’s site. Notable recordings include one by Wyn Morris with the New Philharmonia Orchestra recorded in 1967 for Nimbus. This version comprises of only the revised 2nd and 3rd movements.
The first recording incorporating the 1st movement but bundled with the revised 2nd and 3rd movements is one by Pierre Boulez recorded in 1970 for CBS (now Sony Classical). Other notable recordings of this hybrid version include that by Riccardo Chailly with the Radio Sinfonie Orchester Berlin made in 1989 for Decca and Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra made in 1996 for RCA.
The original 1880, 3-movement version is now available on recording. However, only 2 recordings of this original version are currently available. The first is by Kent Nagano with the Hallé Orchestra made in 1997 for Erato and the second is by Harmut Haenchen with the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest made in 2000 for NedPho.
Ho Hock Doong (Hock-doong, Ho)
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
13 March, 2001
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- “On Wednesday Evening at Half Past Seven” The Young Gustav Mahler and his circle of friends in Vienna, Herta Blaukopf
- “Das klagende Lied” Genesis-Sources-Versions, Reinhold Kubik
- Das klagende Lied: Mahler’s ‘Opus 1’, Donald Mitchell
- “Das klagende Lied” written by Edward R. Reilly for the American Symphony Orchestra’s “Dialogues and Extensions” section of their website.
- Synopsis summarised from poem in liner notes, Sony Classical, Sony Music Entertainment Inc.
- Vincent Mouret’s site at http://mapage.noos.fr/vincent/klagende.html