Mahler Rocks My World

I started stuyding voice with my dear Karen in July ’03. I’ve been singing my whole life, of course, and was working on several things at the time just for my own pleasure. Most of the lot were beautifully depressing works, among them Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. I’d not been particularly familiar with Mahler for long but when I fell, I fell hard. His songs are intense, laden with emotive power and I was hooked. Karen wasn’t sure it was good for me to be singing nothing but lead and heavy and wanted me to brighten up my repertoire as I expanded it. It’s funny how difficult it can be to appreciate things that are lighter; they can seem pathetically fluffy when compared to such devastating richness. It took some time to wean me off, but she has managed to divert my attention in other directions, recently Schubert. And it’s not like all Mahler is as grief-ridden as the Songs for Dead Children. Heavy, perhaps, but not dead children.

I can’t remember the exact chronology, but I think the first time Gustav really caught my ear was at a performance in the University at Albany’s Recital Hall. Findlay Cockrell was accompanying, and I unfortunately can’t recall the name of the mezzo. But, in any case, she sang some of the Ruckert-lieder, including Um Mitternacht, which was the first song I started studying soon thereafter, having the good fortune of a Dame Jane Baker CD at the public library. I had been a chorus member in an Albany Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony some years back, but maybe it wasn’t the 1st. Heck, I honestly just showed up at the performance and sang. I don’t know if I was supposed to, but it was a pretty cool experience to sing with that many people, as several local choruses had massed. I think I might have appreciated it more had I been able to spend time with the piece and know it more, but it was cool anyway.

That was it, really, until the Ruckert-lieder. I’m listening to some now, and just as the paragraph tabbed in, Margaret Price began Liebst du um Schoenheit, a tremendously delicate invitation to love. The song says if you love for beauty or youth or gold… do not love me. Love the mermaid, or the spring. The final, aching strophe, though, says if you love for love, oh, yes, do love me. Mahler so fluidly mapped a rush up the spine onto the staff, melding the poetry to melody seamlessly. Oh, and then Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft, it really is that exact breath of innocence that really does flower when a sensory input triggers fond memory and awareness. Certainly a sentiment not written on much in these raunchy times, and refreshing enough for that simple point, but the interplay between the gentle line and the delicate piano is such a delight.

Oh and onto the song that brings me to my knees. ( ) (Still paralyzed) Okay. (Um Mitternacht is playing now and I can move again. Seriously – I’ve been listening through Movements 3 -7 repeating and started typing on each one as it happened to come around and, well, when I listen, it gets me. Especially if I haven’t heard or practiced it in a while, as is the case currently.) There have been times when I couldn’t sing it through, having gotten so swept up in the emotion of it. Ich bin der welt…, man, damn. That is a song for saints, I tell you. Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen, I to this world have become dead. I have died to this world and live only in my song, my song and my love. It melts me. This song to me vibrates with the release and forgiveness of God.

It is truly the case with these works that familiarity is wherein the best gifts lie, for there the poetry’s meaning suffuses the masterfully crafted music, but there is frequently a language barrier that needs to somehow be overcome. Thinking about the performances I’ve seen, I find it least helpful to only have the poetry read as a translation, good to have the poetry and a good translation printed, and best to have both done. Even then, if there isn’t some familiarity with the language, it takes time to feel just how each word fits into each phrase. And then, on top of that, it takes some time to also understand the layer of music and what the accompaniment is saying. But the lieder repertoire is so well worth the introduction, and songs tend to take on the feel of an old friend when some study is invested.

Testimony to the craft of Mahler, even familiarity doesn’t stop his music from giving me chills. But, Karen has had her way with me, and some less weighty songs have made their way into my repertoire. I’ve enjoyed learning songs by Duke, Schumann and Berlioz, especially. Of course, this might make one chuckle with the knowledge that there are a few pieces that leap to mind which aren’t any lighter than Mahler. I keep pretty busy with the things I’m currently working on but I am excited for the day when I start working the Mahler lieder again. Their craftsmanship is impeccable and their effects, haunting. Thanks, Gustav.

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