Mahler’s Masterpiece Premieres

Six months after Gustav Mahler’s death, Bruno Walter conducted Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony of songs that embodied the composer’s farewell to life.

Summary of Event

Gustav Mahler saw his songs and symphonies as spiritual adventures, milestones in the history of his soul, and in Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) he sought to communicate to others his highly charged emotional experiences as he wrestled with the abiding verities of life and death. In an irony the grim import of which he would readily have grasped, Mahler did not live to conduct the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde. Lied von der Erde, Das (Mahler)
Symphonic music
[kw]Mahler’s Masterpiece Das Lied von der Erde Premieres (Nov. 20, 1911)[Mahlers Masterpiece Das Lied von der Erde Premieres (Nov. 20, 1911)]
[kw]Lied von der Erde Premieres, Mahler’s Masterpiece Das (Nov. 20, 1911)
Lied von der Erde, Das (Mahler)
Symphonic music
[g]Germany;Nov. 20, 1911: Mahler’s Masterpiece Das Lied von der Erde Premieres[02890]
[c]Music;Nov. 20, 1911: Mahler’s Masterpiece Das Lied von der Erde Premieres[02890]
Mahler, Gustav
Mahler, Alma
Walter, Bruno

Throughout his life, Mahler had endured many heart-wrenching ordeals, including the premature deaths of several of his brothers and sisters, and these traumas had taught him both of life’s transience and of the evil that dwells beneath life’s surface, always threatening to destroy human happiness. In 1907, he received further confirmation of these convictions when his five-year-old daughter died of scarlet fever and when, two days after her death, he learned of his own fatal heart disease. From 1901 to 1904, he had composed Kindertotenlieder
Kindertotenlieder (Mahler) (songs on the deaths of children), the chamber orchestration of which anticipated that of Das Lied von der Erde, and after his daughter’s death he could not escape the feeling that he had taunted fate into taking his child away from him. These shocks transformed Mahler’s physical and emotional life, and they also transformed his spiritual and musical life, thus preparing the ground from which Das Lied von der Erde would grow. As he wrote to his friend Bruno Walter, his daughter’s death and his heart disease had made him “thirstier than ever for life,” and he wanted to express these feelings in music.

A friend of Mahler’s wife’s father had given Mahler a collection of Chinese poems that Hans Bethge had translated into German. Several of the poems expressed bitter and melancholic feelings that echoed Mahler’s own, and in 1907 he started sketching melodies for those texts that he found most meaningful. He worked assiduously on ways to unify the songs, at first glance so dissimilar in meaning and mood, into a symphonic world in which the earth’s ephemeral beauty would be interrelated with the transitoriness of human life.

In Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler created an eclectic blend of Eastern and Western music. He deftly wove such “Orientalisms” as the pentatonic scale into orchestrations evocative of the disembodied beauty of a Chinese watercolor. Unlike the deeply Christian vision of his Eighth Symphony Eighth Symphony (Mahler) (pr. 1910), the world of Das Lied von der Erde exhibits a feeling for nature. Indeed, Mahler depicts a world in which God seems absent, and the composer agonizes between affirming and negating the poles of several basic conflicts: life and death, joy and sadness, love and separation. These struggles sharpen his taste for nature’s beauty and heighten his passionate joy at being alive.

Before he died, Mahler allowed Bruno Walter to study the manuscript of Das Lied von der Erde. Walter was so moved by the piece that he could scarcely utter a word when he handed it back to Mahler, who turned to the last movement and expressed his concern that experiencing its anguish might drive members of the premiere audience to “make an end of themselves.” After Mahler’s death, his widow, Alma, chose Walter to conduct the premieres of her husband’s posthumous works; Walter, in turn, selected Munich for the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde because it had been the site of Mahler’s final triumph, the premiere of his Eighth Symphony. The timing for Das Lied von der Erde’s premiere was also propitious: during a two-day festival in Mahler’s honor.

Even though Walter had earlier conducted a stirring rendition of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde was clearly the highlight of the festival. The orchestra for Das Lied von der Erde was large, including, in addition to the usual strings, winds, and brasses, such unusual instruments as the celesta, glockenspiel, tam-tam (gong), and mandolin. Mahler made use of the full power of the orchestra only sparingly; for most of the work, the singers are supported by a solo instrument or a small group of instruments. For Walter, Das Lied von der Erde was the most Mahlerian of all the composer’s works, and its psychic key was Mahler’s proximity to death. Walter therefore saw that the work’s basic tension was between existence and extinction, both of which Mahler, through his music, had been able to reconcile.

This song symphony, which listeners in Munich heard for the first time on November 20, 1911, has six movements. As in several of Mahler’s earlier symphonies, he used long first and last movements to frame the inner movements. In Das Lied von der Erde, the outer movements give extended expressions of the theme of acceptance of life’s paradoxes, whereas the inner movements depict the fleetingness of life’s joys.

At the end of Walter’s first performance of Das Lied von der Erde, a silence of several seconds followed, as the audience was too moved to react immediately. One eyewitness reported seeing some people, the blood drained from their faces, trembling with emotion; many others were in tears. After these moments of silence, the audience erupted in ecstatic cheers, as Walter, his face radiating profound appreciation for the creation of his absent friend, returned to the stage again and again to bow. Although some critics in the audience agitatedly discussed faults in the score, others shared the audience’s overall mood of elation and gratitude for what they said was Mahler’s most moving composition. For once, Mahler had created a symphony in which form and emotion were ideally matched. The genuine melancholy and otherworldliness of the music did not sound artificial or forced. Unique among the arts, music is able to express several conflicting emotions simultaneously, and in Das Lied von der Erde Mahler had been able to blend sadness and joy into an affirmation of life as well as death.


Gustav Mahler passionately believed that God had chosen him to enrich humanity by creating new worlds of music, and he suffered deeply when his works met with incomprehension and vilification. Like the premieres of Mahler’s previous symphonies, the first hearing of Das Lied von der Erde generated much critical comment. Mahler, in the course of his career, had made many enemies—for example, anti-Semitic critics who found his compositions bombastic, even decadent. As he would have expected, the reviews of the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde were not as enthusiastic as the initial reaction of the audience. One reviewer wrote that the orchestra had been emphasized to the disparagement of the singers, who had to overcome great difficulties merely to make themselves heard. Other critics worried about the weaknesses in structure of this symphony of songs, in particular the great disparity in the lengths of the movements. These criticisms did not bother Bruno Walter, who believed that Mahler had written about his own destiny and needed for this new experience a symphony new in structure, instrumentation, and invention.

After the premiere, the story of Das Lied von der Erde’s influence was not smooth and untroubled. The division of opinion—either ardently enthusiastic or angrily antagonistic—that was present at the start continued through the early decades of the twentieth century. Walter was certainly convinced of the greatness of the piece and championed it by playing it whenever he could. When he conducted it in Munich again in 1915, one critic noted that the astonishing amount of negative criticism that had been directed against the work had deprived the public of its beauty for more than four years.

Mahler’s late compositions, especially Das Lied von der Erde, probably had their most detailed musical influence on the members of the so-called Second Viennese School Second Viennese School —that is, Arnold Schoenberg Schoenberg, Arnold and his disciples Alban Berg Berg, Alban and Anton von Webern. Webern, Anton von For them, Mahler was a musical Moses, leading them from the desert of a barren Romanticism into the promised land of a fertile modernism. Das Lied von der Erde influenced several of Schoenberg’s compositions, especially his Gurrelieder (1912; songs of Gurre). Just as Mahler had combined the song cycle with the symphony in Das Lied von der Erde, so Schoenberg fused the song cycle and the cantata. During World War I, Webern composed some songs for voice and small orchestra based on the Chinese poems that had inspired Mahler.

In the period before World War I, Das Lied von der Erde had premieres in various European countries and each time created the same division of opinion that had characterized the premiere in Germany. Mahler had his defenders who found his song symphony deeply moving, but others found it pretentious and drawn out, with its gloomy message and disproportionately long final movement. World War I hindered performances in many European concert halls, but in the United States, Leopold Stokowski was able, in December, 1916, to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in the piece’s American premiere.

Walter continued to promote Mahler’s symphonies after World War I. He then witnessed music passing through a crisis: It was either intellectualized into arid atonality or popularized into shallow entertainment, both of which alienated large segments of the traditional audience. For Walter, Mahler’s music was the solution to this crisis, because it had both modern harmonic and polyphonic ideas and a profound depth of feeling. In Das Lied von der Erde, Walter believed, Mahler had extended music’s power so that it was now able to express the full longings and aspirations of humanity. He hoped to increase Das Lied von der Erde’s influence by allowing an actual concert of the work to be recorded in Vienna on May 24, 1936.

With Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany and with the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s, performances of Mahler’s works, including Das Lied von der Erde, were put to an end in those countries, and the Nazis began a policy of defaming the composer and his music. Walter continued to play Mahler’s symphonies in countries not controlled by the Nazis, and, after 1939, when he settled in the United States, he often conducted Mahler’s works.

Despite Walter’s successes, it was really not until after World War II, particularly with the advent of the long-playing record, that Mahler’s music became widely popular. Indeed, the belated recognition of Mahler as one of music’s great composers is one of the most remarkable features in the history of twentieth century music. Walter played an important part in this phenomenon as well. From 1947 on, he made return visits to Europe, where he was able to conduct Mahler’s works in various concerts. His recordings, too, contributed to the acceptance of Mahler’s symphonies.

As Das Lied von der Erde became more widely known, its influence spread to other arts. For example, Antony Tudor choreographed a ballet based on its music that the Ballet Theatre first presented in 1948 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Das Lied von der Erde (ballet)[Lied von der Erde]
Ballet;Das Lied von der Erde[Lied von der Erde] The choreographer Kenneth MacMillan MacMillan, Kenneth also used Das Lied von der Erde as the basis of a ballet; MacMillan interpreted the piece as being about Death, whom he personified by a figure with a half mask, which set him off from the other dancers. In MacMillan’s ballet, Death takes a man away from a woman, but both Death and the man return to her, and at the ballet’s end the audience finds that in Death there is the promise of renewal.

Ballets and increased record sales were indications of Mahler’s increasing popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During his life, Mahler had conducted premieres of his works, but they always provoked the fierce hostility of critics. Nevertheless, during the postwar decades, his symphonies began to be played regularly by most conductors, and the best of his works gradually became important parts of the standard repertoire. In the United States, Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of Mahler’s symphonies through his concerts, records, and lectures did much to make them an integral part of modern musical life.

The eventual transformation of Mahler’s reputation raises a question: Why did so many people find Mahler’s compositions essential to their musical lives? In Das Lied von der Erde, he was able to create a new kind of symphony by wedding the lyric and the dramatic; in general, he took the traditional symphony and enlarged it until it was able to encompass the marvelous musical worlds he envisioned. These new worlds entranced people, as did Mahler’s ability to embody in his creations some of the basic contradictions of the twentieth century. In an age made increasingly anxious by fiercely contending ideologies and horrific wars, many people turned to art to find meaning in their lives, and Mahler’s music, which plumbed emotional depths and soared to spiritual heights, helped to satisfy their emotional and spiritual yearnings.

At the end of his own troubled life, Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde to find peace in the midst of his tragedies. This work certainly had immense significance for him, as it has had for countless listeners. When Jascha Horenstein, a great conductor of Mahler’s music, was near to his own death in 1973, he said that for him one of the saddest things about leaving this world was that he would never again hear Das Lied von der Erde. Lied von der Erde, Das (Mahler)
Symphonic music

Further Reading

  • Cooke, Deryck. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Discusses systematically the songs and symphonies (Das Lied von der Erde is part of Cooke’s treatment of Mahler’s last period). Provides texts of the songs, along with translations. Index.
  • Feder, Stuart. Gustav Mahler: A Life in Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Psychoanalytic biography addresses emotional themes in Mahler’s life and compositions, connecting particular crises with musical themes and works.
  • Gartenberg, Egon. Mahler: The Man and His Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1978. Intended for the general listener of Mahler’s music as well as for the student and scholar. Instead of interweaving biographical and musical material, the volume is divided into a biography and musical analyses of Mahler’s compositions. Includes biographical sketches of the principal personages mentioned in the text, a bibliography, and an index. Illustrated.
  • La Grange, Henri-Louis de. Mahler. Vol. 1. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. This first volume in a definitive three-volume life of the composer covers the years 1860 to 1901. Illustrated with forty-eight pages of photographs. Includes four appendixes, one of which provides extensive and detailed analysis of all of Mahler’s works composed up to 1901. Comprehensive notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Mahler, Alma. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters. Translated by Basil Creighton, edited by Donald Mitchell. New York: Viking Press, 1969. Alma Mahler’s reminiscences of her husband, first published in 1946. Divided into a memoir of Alma and Gustav’s marriage and a collection of letters. Includes a biographical list and an index.
  • Mitchell, Donald. Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death: Interpretations and Annotations. Vol. 3 in Gustav Mahler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. This third volume of Mitchell’s trilogy on Mahler centers on Das Lied von der Erde. Heavily illustrated with musical examples, and some sophistication in musical matters is necessary to follow some of the analyses. Bibliography, index of Mahler’s work, and general index.
  • Ryding, Erik, and Rebecca Pechefsky. Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. This first full-length biography of Walter in English describes his life and work from the time of his early successes as a conductor in Germany. Draws on Walter’s collected papers and letters, numerous interviews, and reviews of his concerts. Includes discussion of his relationship with Mahler and his devotion to Mahler’s music.
  • Walter, Bruno. Gustav Mahler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. This brief book, translated into English from the German, is an affectionate portrait of the composer by a conductor who was his good friend. Not a systematic biography but a memoir of their first meeting and other encounters and a series of reflections on Mahler as an opera director, conductor, composer, and personality. Index.

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