While Mahler's song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (Earth's Song) will not be performed in its familiar orchestral version during NEC's Mahler Unleashed concerts, the NEC Wind Ensemble serves up Arnold Schoenberg's rarely heard arrangement of three of the suite's songs on November 29, as part of a "Mahler in Chinatown" concert. NECWE conductor Charles Peltz writes about the world of these poems and their music.
Things grow up and out in unpredictable ways. Take a song for instance, say, My Favorite Things. Born clean on a Broadway stage, the Rodgers song is sown into existence by the übergood Mary Martin. But songs—like myrtle—go where they will: “Things” is eventually sampled by hip-hop Outkast, mannequinized by the sax of Kenny G which then stands lifeless against John Coltrane’s “Things”: an untouchable level of cool and raw and deeply poetic.
So, too, do poems as seeds grow in directions inconceivable by the sower. Poet Li Bai (702–762), writing thousands of verses drawn from life experiences, wandering endlessly between Chinese courts where he never fails to impress, but where his outrageous drunken behavior also never fails to irritate, how could he know where the branches of his words would grow? Branches that would, over centuries, entice modernist poet Ezra Pound and musical iconoclast Harry Partch. Branches that would twist toward sunlight first into a 19th-century French translation and soon into German, whose leaves would brush beckoningly against the window of the imagination of Gustav Mahler.
Mahler would set four of Li Bai’s poems in his monumental Das Lied von der Erde (1909) for large orchestra, tenor, and alto. Three of these we hear tonight—“On Youth,” “On Beauty,” “ Drunk(ard) in Spring”—and they neatly underpin what Adorno and others have said: These poems gave to Mahler a revelatory view of both his cultural, Jewish aimlessness as well as the inevitable end of all wandering—death. In Schoenberg’s arrangement for chamber orchestra (c. 1920, completed by Riehn in 1983) clearer still are the “oriental” textures of the poetry that so inspired Mahler to compose the poems of “das Lied” in a musical setting equally translucent.
Why these poems in this music? And with these singers? The listening alone draws us to the uniqueness of this Mahler music. His harmonic language has grown ever more varied and rich in chromatic fruit as life’s autumn closes in. He asks the singer not to cling to lines found reassuringly in the orchestral text, but to find, as if improvising, chromatic notes around and above the pitches of the orchestra. It is as if Mahler were caught in premonition of Sarah Vaughan and Erroll Garner, laying in chromaticism in service of seemingly spontaneous creation.
Those chromatic fruits are birthed from the branches of the poetry, which in a sublimely natural way creates images rich in meaning but clear and direct, words lending themselves to the free and natural intimacy of the jazz artist.