Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) had a close relationship with song throughout his career. Much of Mahler’s music (like Tchaikovsky’s) is driven by melody, and he sometimes became so attached to the melodies of his songs and the messages which they conveyed that he appropriated many of them for use in his symphonies. One of Mahler’s special gifts was his ability to convey complex emotions with seemingly simple melodic lines. A good example of this can be found in the song Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! where the opening line, “I breathed a gentle fragrance!” is brought to life with Mahler’s luxuriant melodic setting, and we can almost smell the gentle fragrance drifting by.
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), an editor and professor of Oriental languages, wrote poetry in imitation of Asian and Middle Eastern styles, in addition to the beautiful examples of German lyric romantic poems which Mahler collected for this set of songs.
When one reads through the texts of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, it is not difficult to see why they were so attractive to the hyper-romantic composer. Liebst du um Schönheit (“If you love for beauty”) was a present from Mahler to his wife Alma. This song is in the voice of a poor artist who has very little money or physical attractiveness, a predicament which Mahler related to himself. Of the third song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (“I am lost to the world”), Mahler once said, “It is truly me.” In this poem, Rückert exquisitely captures the ethos of the romantic artist – a solitary figure, withdrawn from the world and all of its earthly distractions, destined to be alone and forgotten. The poetry’s tone of peaceful resignation is captured and amplified in the music, and indeed Mahler was a master at composing music in this vein.
The largest song in the set, Um Mitternacht (“At midnight”), takes us on a far-reaching journey of the soul. Mahler exploits the poem’s symmetrical construction, using repetition of phrases and patterns to draw us deeper and deeper into the night. By the end of the song Mahler leads us into a Wagner-like music drama, grounding us in the reality of time, yet transcending human and earthly spiritual boundaries.
— Ryan Dorin is currently working towards completion of a Ph.D. in Music Composition at New York University. He is currently composing and drawing an animated opera.