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Mahler’s songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert (1788 –1866) are not a cycle. The only link between them is that they were penned by the same poet. Mahler himself presented them in different selections and varying sequences, as well as together with Wunderhorn songs. As far as can be reconstructed today, they were written at different times: The oldest draft of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (Look not, love, on my work unended) is dated 14 June 1901. This means it was composed during the theatre summer break in 1901 at Mahler’s summer residence in Maiernigg by Lake Wörthersee.
Liebst du um Schönheit (Lov’st thou but beauty), which Rückert named Sicilianisches, was either composed in August 1902 or the summer of 1903, also in Maiernigg, according to Alma Mahler.
Um Mitternacht (At midnight hour) was written either in 1899 or 1900. If it was composed in 1899, it would have been in Alt-Aussee and if in 1900, in Carinthia or Val Pusteria.
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed the breath of blossoms red) was probably also written in the summer of 1901, during the first summer break that Mahler spent in his own villa by Lake Wörthersee.
The first draft of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (O garish world, long since thou hast lost me) is also dated the same year: 16 August 1901. All of the Rückert-Lieder were initially composed as songs for voice and piano and then orchestrated at a later time which was Mahler’s usual way of working. Four were published in 1905 by the Leipzig-based publisher C. F. Kahnt who later published the Kindertotenlieder and Symphony No. 6 as well, while the late-comer Liebst du um Schönheit was not printed until 1907. This is also the only Rückert-Lied that Mahler himself presented exclusively in a piano version. The orchestral version commissioned by Kahnt was scored by the Leipzig conductor Max Puttmann (1864 –1935) and was not published until 1916, after Mahler’s death.
The world premiere of the four songs published in 1905 was conducted by Mahler himself at a concert in the Brahms-Saal of the Vienna Musikverein (29 January 1905). The soloists were Anton Moser and Friedrich Weidemann, both singers from the ensemble of the Vienna Court Opera of which Mahler was the director. The choice of concert room is not without significance, even for today’s performances: Mahler wrote that his songs should only be heard in ‘small halls’ because they are ‘written in a chamber music tone’. The surviving performance materials show that the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra performed with reduced forces.
Unlike Mahler’s large-scale symphonies, which were fuelled by harsh contrasts, and unlike the sometimes epic, ballad-like Wunderhorn songs, these songs are short, self-contained, mostly intimate character pieces, with the exception of Um Mitternacht. The words are almost of a private nature, as though the poet and composer were talking of themselves: about their process of creation, the fragrance of lime trees in the bedroom and, most importantly, about their love.
Liebst du um Schönheit was meant specifically for Alma. It is almost a justification of their relationship ‘in spite of’ the age gap, the problem of which Mahler was well aware of. It is probably not a coincidence that Mahler did not orchestrate the song – in other words did not ‘intend it for the public’ (Alma even protested – in vain – against Puttmann’s orchestral version).
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, arguably Mahler’s most beautiful love song, was composed before he even met Alma in winter 1901. Without wanting to subscribe to the viewpoint that every one of Mahler’s notes had an autobiographical background, Mahler did experience an intense, tempestuous and ultimately failed relationship with the singer Selma Kurz during the time in question (spring 1900). The motivic material of this song has a central role in Mahler’s work and its echoes run like a golden thread through those works that focus on ‘love’, such as the well-known Adagietto in Symphony No. 5, where it dominates the entire closing complex. The handwritten manuscript of the orchestral version had an eventful fate: In 1905, Mahler presented it to his friend Guido Adler (founder of the Vienna faculty of musicology) on his 50th birthday. Guido Adler suffered a terrible fate during the Nazi regime. He was ostracised, robbed of his dignity and titles, and lost his library to the National Socialist Erich Schenk who went on to achieve great honours in the university world of post-war Vienna. The undignified expropriation proceedings were performed by a lawyer who received or kept the handwritten Rückert-Lied as payment – although it is no longer clear what really happened. The matter came to light when the son of the then-deceased lawyer wanted to sell the precious manuscript (it had been thought to have been lost). An heir of Guido Adler’s came forward and the ensuing legal battle ended in a settlement. Eventually, the Kaplan Foundation (New York) purchased the pages and the proceeds were shared. As a dedication, Mahler had written on the title page that he hoped he ‘would never lose’ his friend Guido Adler.
In the Rückert-Lieder, Mahler wanted to position the music and song texts so as to create an unmistakable, closed atmosphere instead of an overly narrow, detailed interpretation of the words. In spite of this, however, western musical traditions known as ‘musical rhetoric’ since the Renaissance do play a certain role. Mahler portrays the industrious, restless hustle and bustle of the worker, ‘the bees’, in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, by using a continuous quaver movement with a pattern which musical rhetoric calls ‘kyklosis’ or ‘circulatio’ – an entity moving as if it were in a circle. Of the other rhetorical figures, I will only mention the ‘fuga’ (‘flight’) between the voice and instrumental bass which Mahler uses for the words ‘mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben’ (‘whose sweet delights my fond heart once cherished’) in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen: The offsetting of rhythms expresses the loss of time itself – ‘tempus fugit’ (‘time flees’) after all, as the saying goes. With both its pentatonic tone material and specific sonority (harp, celeste), the music to Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft makes reference to Far-Eastern music as it was known around 1900. Its relatively static nature and the word play of ‘linden Duft’ (sweet fragrance) and ‘Lindenduft’ (lime tree fragrance) are clearly reminiscent of a haiku (and of course Das Lied von der Erde).
Um Mitternacht is different. Its beginning recalls familiar, nocturnal atmospheric pictures, such as the fourth movement of Symphony No. 3, which was composed in 1895: the song O Mensch! Gib acht! based on a text by Friedrich Nietzsche. Of decisive importance are the descending scales which pervade everything (in musical rhetoric: ‘katabasis’). Then, however, there is a noticeable eruption in the orchestra, with a religious text and music that confounded many a critic (e. g. Theodor W. Adorno). Mahler and Christianity is a topic of its own. On 23 February 1897, Mahler converted to Catholicism in Hamburg, partly in view of his desired position at the Vienna Court Opera. However, his interest in Christian themes went far beyond opportunistic acceptance. Symphony No. 2 – written long beforehand – had already entered the world of Christian beliefs in movements 4 and 5, as had the fifth movement of Symphony No. 3, ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (‘Three angels were singing’) in particular. The final movement of Symphony No. 4, ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘The heavenly life’) fits into this pattern, as does the phenomenal first part of Symphony No. 8, ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’. Um Mitternacht has to be seen in this context. Mahler does not only ask haunting questions and portray devastating breakdowns – he is also a composer of a gentle lyricism, flourishing utopias and hopes that are carried by his strong will.