In order to even get a glimpse into this monumental work, we need to understand the biographical background that nurtured it.
Mahler had been obsessed with death for a long time but in the last years of his life, it acquired a whole new meaning. In 1907 Mahler lost his daughter Maria to scarlet fever. Soon after her death, Mahler himself was diagnosed with a congenital heart malfunction that would prohibit any activities that would exhaust his heart.
If that wasn’t enough, a long-lasting antisemitic campaign against his role as director of the then Vienna Hofoper had gotten the best of him, resulting in his resignation.
Gustav Mahler in 1909
As he wrote to Bruno Walter:
“With one stroke I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn”
Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde
Should you need a score you can find one here.
The tone of the symphony is set right from the opening piece titled “The drinking song of earth’s sorrow“. It’s a rather pessimistic reflection upon life, summarized in the verse “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” – “Dark is life, and so is death.”
Mahler opens the work with a dramatic gesture, a 16 bars introduction in A minor. This theme, played here by 4 horns, will reappear times and again throughout the movement
Wine is coming but the speaker urges the audience to wait until he’s sung them his song.
Mahler moves swiftly from A minor to Bb major, back to A minor, then A major, A minor, Bb major, and G minor. This constant harmonic fluidity makes it quite difficult to identify different sections based on the harmonic analysis. The thematic material, however, is of great help in this.
This introduction by the speaker, outlined in the first stanza of the poem, holds all the pessimism we would expect:
“The song of sorrow shall
resound in gusts of
laughter through your soul.
When sorrow draws near,
the gardens of the soul lie wasted,
Joy and song wither and die.
Dark is life, and so is death.”
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