by Mitch Friedfeld

The music of Mahler — too bombastic, too heavy, too much. This is an unfortunate reaction still prevalent among parts of the music-loving public, although certainly not to most attendees of Colorado MahlerFest XVI. The Rückert songs that we will hear this weekend refute the above stereotype in the strongest way. These songs – short, subtle, sometimes whimsical, always concerned with the human condition – are Mahler's introspective look at himself and his place in the world around him. To be sure, there are big Mahlerian moments and sounds. The primary feeling, however, is of one person facing the vicissitudes of life. This "one person" is important, because these songs – unlike the Kindertotenlieder, which we heard in last year's MahlerFest — do not make us take sides on the issue of male or female singer. Also in contrast to the Kindertotenlieder, these songs make no attempt to coalesce into a "cycle": there is no unifying thought, no journey, no story being told. They are intimate snapshots of Mahler's personality.
Written mostly during the summer of 1901 when the composer was turning 41, the Rückert songs are the archetype of what we now call "Middle Mahler." Scored for a smaller orchestra whose instruments rarely all play at the same time, the songs have a chamber-like atmosphere that underscores their intimate nature. Mahler must have had frequent cause — if not time — for introspection in 1901, as this period was one of the most tumultuous of his life. The previous February, he had nearly died of internal bleeding. He was conducting the Vienna Court Opera non-stop, which in turn contributed to his health crisis. He was finishing his 4th Symphony, and would soon begin the 5th, some of the Kindertotenlieder, and these Rückert songs. Most importantly for him personally, in a matter of months he would meet, court, and soon thereafter marry Alma Schindler. This latter event has direct relevance for one of the songs we will hear this weekend. It is no wonder that Mahler, who more than perhaps any other composer believed in his art as the answer to the problems of life, turned to composing to express his innermost feelings.
There is no set order to the Rückert songs. In recordings, Ich bin der Welt, viewed by many to be Mahler's greatest song of all, is often placed last. In performance, Um Mitternacht frequently concludes the program, so as to take advantage of the song's triumphant ending. The following, except for the special case of Liebst du um Schönheit, is the order in which they were premiered in Vienna on Jan. 29, 1905, in a Lieder-Abend, Mahler conducting, that included several Wunderhorn songs and the Kindertotenlieder. As a Mahlerian evening, that one must have rivaled the concerts we will hear this weekend.

Ich Atmet' einen linden Duft

An introductory upward swoop on celeste immediately transports us into Mahler's sound world. Rückert makes word play on Linden and linde (lime and gentle), but Mahler's literary talent, in restructuring the poem, should also be noted. The lullaby-like rhythm of the violins and the pianissimo dynamics give the song a soothing feeling, as does the lack of action: the singer does nothing but breathe the scent of a lime sprig and reflect on her beloved. A concluding celeste arpeggio echoes the beginning of the song, but we are not quite back where we started. Though there has been no action, the singer, who has captured a lovers' relationship despite the song's stasis, has changed somehow. Ich Atmet', with its tone painting, lack of action, but echt-Mahlerian atmosphere and completeness, would not be out of place in Das Lied von der Erde.

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder

This piece, "Don't look at my songs," reflects Mahler's often expressed annoyance at having his works examined before they were complete. Mahler in fact told his diarist that he could have written the poem himself. Rückert puns on the words Lieder and nieder (songs and away), and a German speaker would inevitably also think of the word Lider (eyelids). Note the second verse, about bees, who also do not allow others to view their work before it is done. Mahler has been criticized for setting a poem that compares artistic creation to the mindless work of bees, but the tone painting of such activity makes one believe that he has anticipated this as well. At only a minute and a half, this is the shortest of the songs. There are plenty of moments to savor, however, for instance the French horn passages and the pizzicato string lines.

Liebst du um Schönheit

While it shares many Rückertian characteristics, Liebst du is the odd man out. Mahler wrote it as a piano-only love song for Alma. On August 10, 1902, she opened her score of Siegfried and found what Mahler had left for her. She played it, and the intention was unmistakable. That's how they did things in the early twentieth century! Rückert's text — "If you love for beauty, do not love me!" — must have made a big impression on Mahler, who was just entering into a marriage with a woman twenty years his junior, one of the most glamorous women in Vienna. The orchestration we will hear this weekend was done by Max Puttmann, a music publisher employee. While the technical aspects of Puttmann's work have been criticized, there is no doubt that his orchestration at least feels Mahlerian, and the fact that he came so close to the Mahler style before the composer's work had been so thoroughly analyzed is remarkable. Only the piano version of the song was performed publicly in Mahler's lifetime. As Puttmann's work dates from 1910, the year before Mahler died, it is at least possible to imagine that Mahler had seen and approved it. Some performers, perhaps feeling that Liebst du does not truly belong to the collection – formally, they are known as "Four Songs after Rückert" — do not include it in their recordings of the songs.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

This is the quintessential Mahler Lied, as emblematic of Middle Mahler — and of the composer's personality — as any work can be. Musically, the song has everything: chamber-like scoring, brief spotlighted virtuoso passages for various instruments, and unexpected modulations. Most importantly, the song is built on the yearning four-note rising phrase that also appears in the 4th Symphony, movement three; the 5th, Adagietto; and the second of the Kindertotenlieder. It is similarly significant as a window on Mahler's personality. According to his diarist, the composer said of this song, "It is a feeling that surges right up to the lips, but does not go beyond them. And that is precisely me." Making some slight changes in a text that at least one analyst considers little better than doggerel, Mahler transforms it into a musical and psychological masterpiece. Of the many unforgettable passages in this song, here are only two at random: the first is a contrapuntal duet, about 1:15 into the song, in which the singer's upward line is echoed and then continued downward by the basses. The other is a shattering but pianissimo dissonant chord near the end, on the singer's phrase, "In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied." The dissonance in fact calls into question the protagonist's satisfaction at being "…alone, in my heaven, in my loving, in my song." This song is a test for the audience as well. Just like the finale of Mahler 9th, it is hard to believe that anyone can even take a breath as Ich bin dies out.

Um Mitternacht

At last year's MahlerFest, Dr. Stuart Feder, who is speaking here this year as well, noted the autobiographical features of this song: the low registers and heartbeat rhythms that suggest anxiety, the downward spiraling passages that imply depression, and the fact that Mahler was just turning 41 and entering what was then considered middle-age. Mahler must also have been thinking of his own "midnight hour," his near- death experience that had occurred only six months prior to the song's composition. But at the very end, a blazing affirmation of life: "Lord! Over life and death You keep guard at midnight." Note how the upward harp arpeggios – a signature Mahlerian symbol of light, as attendees of last year's Kindertotenlieder will recall – sweep away the midnight gloom. Rückert is in great form here, putting most of the poem in the past tense but moving the affirmation into the present. Mahler emphasizes this with the most positive music of the song, but did he go too far? Some have found the conclusion unpersuasive compared to what has gone before, seeing it, as Henry-Louis de La Grange has said, "perhaps a little too loud to be as convincing as the luminous resignation" at the end of works such as Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied. As a heartfelt expression of his philosophy of life, however, no one can doubt Mahler's intellectual honesty and artistic integrity — in this song and in the collection as a whole.