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Large-Scale Song Cycles

2022-07-11 — Michael Haupt

There's a triad of late-romantic symphonic song cycles that I love so much I'd actually attend a concert night where all of them would be played. Sure, it'd take four hours or so, but people go to the opera all the time to take in long performances either. So what's the problem?

The three pieces were written by three different composers who were in close contact with each other. These pieces all are large-scale orchestral works with solo voices, one also with choir. I love them for their sheer expressiveness and colourfulness. (And scale, I'll admit it. I like large orchestras.)

It begins with Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Written after the composer's monumental Eighth Symphony, it had all the hallmarks of a symphony, but Mahler refused to call it so, because of the superstitious belief that composers would not live long past their Ninth - see Beethoven, and Schubert (who however cheated with the numbering). Das Lied von der Erde uses poems by Chinese poet Li Bai, which, in spite of some sanguine outbursts, all have a distinctly melancholic tone to them - an air of departure and sadness is woven into the texts, and into the musical fabric. This becomes especially clear in the long final movement. This performance is a bit dated, but Leonard Bernstein conducting with René Kollo and Christa Ludwig singing (in order of appearance) make it a classic. As an interesting side note, the final melody to which the words "ewig, ewig ..." ("forever, forever ...") are sung forms the main theme of the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, establishing a tight connection between the two works. Das Lied von der Erde premiered in 1911, after Mahler's death.

Arnold Schönberg - infamous for his seminal contributions to "atonal music", or the twelve-tone technique - also wrote a fair amount of very, very tonal compositions. His major song-cycle Gurre-Lieder is one such example. Schönberg worked on it for a long time: he worked on the initial script from 1900-1903, and then on the orchestration in 1910-1911, finishing it in the same month that also saw the premiere of the aforementioned Das Lied von der Erde. The work premiered in 1913. It's massive: Schönberg really didn't care much about saving energy, so the orchestra is huge, and the (large!) choir is used, after an appearance by the male voices, in its entirety only in the very final (and comparatively short) movement. Gurre-Lieder also features a narrator soloist in addition to the singers, for the first time in music history. - The piece is based on lyrics by Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen, and tells a tragic love story. Let's take this performance from the Proms for example. I fail to grasp how the conductor is not blown off the podium when the 200+ voices strong choir goes off towards the end.

While the names of Mahler and Schönberg are popular or yield at least some raised eyebrows ("... twelve-tone technique? yuck!"), Alexander von Zemlinsky is much less widely known even among people who take a general interest in classical music. That's sad, because his music is immensely wonderful - highly chromatic yet always in the tonal space, and of an intense expressiveness. Enter Lyrische Symphonie, which premiered in 1923. Like Mahler before him, Zemlinsky looked to the farther East for inspiration, and used texts by nobel prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore for his work. Here is a rather impressive performance that also has an actual concert video. It says something about the relative popularity of the work that there is a far greater number of performances that just have a CD cover on display. In a way, that's a shame - the Lyrische Symphonie should definitely be more widely known.

Returning to the top, I'd go to a concert sporting all of these three works any time. It's very unlikely, but I'd probably be in a dream-like state for weeks thereafter.

Tags: music