It's easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the earth: the oceans are rising and acidifying; glaciers are winnowing; rain forests are being clear-cut; and top soil is eroding, flowing into streams. These are global issues with long-term effects, and we can feel paralyzed in the face of what is happening and what is to come.
Gustav Mahler knew something about fear and dread, too. Throughout much of his life, Mahler was occupied with the thought of death. As a child he lost numerous family members, and in 1907, at what should have been the height of his fame, Mahler suffered three hardships: anti-Semitism forced him to step down from his position as the director of the Vienna Court Opera; he was diagnosed with a type of heart defect; and his oldest daughter, Maria, died from scarlet fever. Mahler would struggle to recover.
In 1908, Mahler set out to adapt Has Bethge's Die chinesische Flote, a translation of Chinese verse into German. Mahler would mimic the title, originally titling the piece Die Flote aus Jade (The Jade Flute) instead of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).
But what is Das Lied von der Erde? A symphony? A cantata? A musical mash-up? The piece, across six movements, can be heard as Mahler's own search for the faith that was so elusive throughout his life.
Mahler came from German-speaking Bohemians who were Jewish. Eventually Mahler came to find a sense of oneness with nature. Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler's exploration of lamentation, sadness, and mortality, juxtaposed with the joy of life. The work is certainly a symphony, but on Mahler's terms.
The six movements — "Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow," "The Lonely One in Autumn," "Youth," "Beauty," "The Drunkard in Spring," and "Farewell" — paint a vivid sense of place. The listener hears about the firmament, autumn mist, lakes, grasses, lotus flowers, tigers, jade arches, horses, green willows. The text, coupled with Mahler's lush melodies and rich harmonies, creates a symphonic world of the senses.
In "Farewell," the listener hears the soloist sing about the close of day: "Evening descends into all the valleys, with its cool, refreshing shadows" as "a fine wind blows behind the dark spruce!" The movement is the longest of the work, lasting over 30 minutes. The oboe mourns; the clarinets and horns seem to be marching off into the distance. The soloist is accompanied only by the flute, holding a sustained double bass note. Mahler expands the sound world with the oboe mimicking murmuring streams, and the text speaking of a slumbering world. As the music and text continue to flow we reach Mahler's infamous F-major coda, where the composer added his own words to the text: "The lovely earth blossoms forth all over in spring and grows green anew." The soloist fades with the music, singing "forever," as if the breeze is blowing it away.
As climate change continues to shift our understanding of the planet to sustain life — our own life — I'm reminded of Mahler, of a work that bears witness to the complexity of the world, of how art can inspire new ideas, new changes of mind in our collective imagination. The lilting, lingering word forever in Mahler's text pushes us to long for a right relationship with nature.
Taylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is currently a graduate student at Iowa State University in Creative Writing and Environment.