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The Project

Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, a work about Life and Death, Youth and Old Age, Day and Night, combines western composition with an unfamiliar, far-eastern soundworld. We have adopted the Mahlerian concept Dialogue of the Diverse as the central focus of the planned concert project. Mahler’s Song of the Earth will be counterbalanced by three or four works for solo instruments - each of which will be written specifically for the project, making reference to Mahler’s work, both in content and compositional process. The project will draw out the work’s unique characteristics and apply them to a range of disciplines. The fundamental issues of the human condition – specifically mortality, loneliness and transcendence – are the threads uniting the programme, and will be explored further in the First Half, in three contemporary compositions.

The influences drawn from Das Lied von der Erde stretch further still, focusing on Mahler’s desire to combine European and Asian cultural elements into a new unity: A a new German-Japanese ensemble will perform the named work. The German leg of the concert-tour begins in the Berliner Philharmonie in 2019, in which year Berlin and Tokyo will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their twinning; there will be further concerts in Bremen and Wiesbaden. In 2020, the route leads onwards to Japan. This will enable the musicians to participate in an intercultural dialogue, through their exploration of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

The project’s programming concept is certainly unique: it was inspired by the twin global perspective which Mahler wove throughout his Song of the Earth, even at structural level. As well as the German-Japanese ensemble which will play Mahler’s richly scored orchestral work in the Second Half, the First Half of the concert will feature several world premieres performed by solo instrumentalists. We have been especially fortunate in securing top-class soloists and composers from Japan, Hungary, Israel, Germany, France and the USA. They are undertaking the challenge of interpreting Mahler’s messages anew, through the means of solo music.

The soloists and the young orchestra musicians play The Song of the Earth in common. In order for every musician to benefit from experienced professionals, a musician for each orchestra part from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany the rehearsals and play in the concerts.

The whole project is conceived as an initial concert series which leaves other possibilities wide open. In future, all variables – performance venues, partici- pants, new compositions – can vary widely between a range of places and cultural contexts; the only con- stant being a place for The Song of the Earth in each concert programme. For example, as well as established music venues, the concert project might fit very well into a museum (depending on good acoustics) – were its thematic ideals to match a certain collection, festival or exhibition.

“For me though, the Symphony means using all available technical means to construct a world” 
Gustav Mahler

While Mahler sings in Symphony VIII “of a Thousand” (1906), of the enlightenment and liberation of man through sacred and secular love, in The Song of the Earth (1908), he “constructs” a new world. The composer himself designated the 8th Symphony as “the Greatest”, but The Song of the Earth as “the Most Personal”, work that he had created.

It is not quite clear whether it was personal strokes of Fate – the early death of Mahler’s daughter or his own severe cardiac diagnosis and subsequent resignation from his position at the Wiener Staatsoper – or perhaps the discovery of Hans Bethge’s new versions of the ancient Chinese poetry, that gave the strongest impetus to compose The Song of the Earth. But what is clear is that through this work, Mahler unveils a new realm of reflection – integrating the lyricism, philosophy and compositional forms of an oriental and unfamiliar culture.

Just as Taoist philosophy reveals Creation as a binary force, given forth as Yin and Yang, Mahler builds The Song of the Earth out of self-generating, opposing and resolving contrasts and polarities. Each song reflects this through fundamental messages. They deal with issues such as mortality & eternity, life & the ever-after, night & day, youth & old age, solitude & companionship, the eternal Masculine & the eternal Feminine.

Mahler‘s creation establishes a meeting and connection with a cultural “Other”. Breaking the boundaries of our own cultural experience.

This can be seen particularly clearly in the song Von der Jugend (On Youth): a group of young friends are enjoying themselves in a pavilion standing in the middle of a pond (“inmitten eines Teiches”). A bridge is arching over towards them. The reflection of this scene in the water below turns everything on its head (“al- les auf dem Kopfe stehend”). Through such simple but evocative concepts, the poet Li Bai resists any tendency to make his subjective feelings explicit: whereas Mahler handles the text with the subjectivity characteristic of Romanticism. While he treats the first part of the song exotically, he inserts two further verses to the reflection scene, which in turn he develops musically with familiar colors from the Viennese tone palette. His portrayal of a youthful society in their pavilion evokes an idea of the composer’s own fantasies of a never-experienced, but longed-for idea of Youth.

Song-text: On Youth

Hans Bethge / Gustav Mahler (Additions/alterations shown in italics)

After the poetry of Li Bai


In the middle of the little pond

stands a pavilion of green
and white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger

a jade bridge arches

over to the pavilion.

Friends sit in the little house

well-dressed, drinking, chatting.

Some writing verses.

Their silk sleeves glide
backwards, their silk caps
perch gaily at the napes of their necks.

On the small pond’s still 

Surface, everything appears

curious in mirror image.

Everything standing on its head

In the pavilion of green
And white porcelain.

The bridge like a half-moon,

Its arch upside-down. Friends,

Well-dressed, drink, chat.

„Was it a vision, or a waking dream; Fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?“
from: Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

Contemporary Songs of the Earth

for solo instruments

The concept of polar opposition, as already explored in a thematic context, also penetrates the formal structure of the work. Mahler established a precedent with this new synthesis of the Song and Symphony forms. Almost every one of the recreated Chinese texts he selected was already a song, which would traditionally have been accompanied by only a lute or flute. The Symphony enables great contrast, having a large-scale cyclic form intended for public concert performance; whilst Song is inherently a form that lends itself to private presentation, generally accompanied by only one instrument. Uniting the two forms enabled Mahler to conceive Das Lied von der Erde as a ‘Symphonic Song-Cycle’, and suggests, in the combination of a solo voice and the tonal palette of a large orchestra, a sense of The Intimate among a crowd. He continues to apply the Dual- Form principal throughout the compositional process, even into the smallest details.

In the final song Der Abschied (The Farewell) – at the moment of crossing from the living to the other side – all power is drained from the music. There are no tangible tempi, melodies lose clarity of contour, and the singer repeats the word “ewig” (enternally) on a descending two- note motif at ever-greater time-intervals until the music finally fades completely. All familiar signs of the passing, and onward-march, of the time have dissapeared from the music in the evocation of the “eternal distant glow”, a new reality existing beyond time. The listener has the sense that with the ending of the music, they are actually listening to the particular silence of this new reality.

• Which aspects of this arena of confrontation between life and death inspire composers today?

•What does mortality mean to them, and what visions do they conjure up to depict the afterlife or eternity?

• Can a dual global perspective convince today?

• . What musical solutions can the composers of today bring to the perspective of a single musician without words?

•Which subjects will inspire musicians, who have often played in Das Lied von der Erde with a world-class orchestra, to great solo performance?

•How would their own Song of the Earth sound?

These are the questions to be given a platform in the First Half of the concert programme. At the same time these solo pieces will fulfil anew the intention of making Polarity a structural principle – bearing influence on programming and instrumentation (soloists against large orchestral textures).

Beyond this, it is specifically through the new works’ soloistic nature that a radical new light is shone on one significant theme from Das Lied von der Erde: Solitude. Mahler occupies himself particularly with this theme in the second song Der Einsame im Herbst (The Loner in Autumn) the protagonist rejects the pressures of society in favour of a hermit-like existence amongst na- ture, and in the last song Der Abschied (The Farewell) takes this further into his permanent farwell (“Ich suche Ruh für mein einsam Herz.” - “I seek the repose of my solitary heart”) that. Solitude can also be said to correspond with Mahler‘s more personal reflections at the time of composition. In two letters of 1908 he writes to his friend and colleague Bruno Walter:

Here in my solitude*, where I am much more inwardly alert, I have a clearer sense of everything that is not psychologically healthy...” “But to come to terms with myself and be con- scious of everything that I am; I was only able to experience that through solitude... If I am again to trace the path to my Self, I must once again hand myself over to the trials of solitude.

[*on summer holiday in Toblach]

Text: Sarah van der Kemp

Translation: Paul Plummer


Three composers and three soloists from six different nations present their songs from Earth for solo instruments:


Adventures of the seventh chord


Peter Eötvös has chosen a dialogue between Western and Eastern European music. He does not just return to his own roots. The family of the Israeli soloist Nurit Stark (violin) is also from Romania:

"In Western classical music, there is hardly a more typical chord than the dominant seventh chord. It is typical because it occurs frequently. And that's because he has a special job: to prepare a degree. When you hear this chord, you can be sure that the phrase will be completed. Or not yet! Maybe follows a so-called fallacy, which misleads the listener with a smile?

In> Adventures of the Dominant Seventh Chord <, I did not want to mislead anyone, maybe just surprise the good old Dominant episodes by making a big leap each time we move from Western European culture to Eastern European. The dominant seventh chord prepares for a quiet conclusion, but something quite different follows: a dance music in the style that folk musicians play in Transylvania.

There are two cultures of music juxtaposed in my play, but I do not think there is a conflict between them - just a virtual, in this case, audible border. They are just different. The western is composed and recorded and interpreted by the musicians. The eastern folk musician, on the other hand, usually can not read music, he learns by ear, and soon after that it is "his music."

The violinist plays the main role in Transylvanian dance music. He plays the melody, the others deliver rhythmic and harmonic elements. In the> Adventures of the seventh chord <fast and slow dances alternate. In between, the dominant seventh chord appears quite often - always in a different form. If he looked in the mirror, he would barely recognize himself, for his intervals have become bigger or smaller: constant surprise, a real adventure. "

                                                                                                       Peter Eötvös


Spell Song


Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde

Toshio Hosokawa Toshio Hosokawa creates his distinctive musical language from the fascinating relationship between Western avantgarde art and traditional Japanese culture. His music is strongly connected to the aesthetic and spiritual roots of the Japanese arts (such as calligraphy), as well as to those of Japanese court music (such as Gagaku). He gives musical expression to notions of beauty rooted in transience: “We hear the individual notes and appreciate, at the same time, the process of how the notes are born and die: a sound landscape of continual ‘becoming’ that is animated in itself.

Hosokawa wrote the Spell Song for oboe solo as early as 2015. He fits in so well with the concert program that Dominik Wollenweber will play two pieces: the Spell Song for solo oboe, and the solo piece for cor anglais composed for him. With the title of the commissioned composition Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde, Hosokawa refers to a passage from Mahler's sixth song Der Abschied. Much like Mahler in the Song of the Earth, the songs with high (tenor) and lower (alto) voice occupied, the soloist changes with both instruments between light and dark tone.


Spell Song

"I imagined the oboe to be a primitive instrument with a double reed, wood, and a cylinder. Perhaps music was born through a spell that calls upon the supernatural such as gods and spirits, and the voice became the ‘song’, and this ‘song’ creates an arc to the spirits. Each phrase of the ‘song’ has a form that is like eastern calligraphy, with a central note in one phrase. How to flexibly express the lively motion of the central note’s ‘life’ is the major theme behind the performance. My music is a kind of calligraphy of space and time through the use of sounds."

Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde

"For me, Das Lied von der Erde is one of the most important works of western music. It takes on the text of a Chinese poet that was translated into German, and through this, Mahler’s world of eastern music is expressed. In the final movement, ‘Abschied’, the people crossing the borderline to and fro between this world and the other, are deeply expressed by the music.

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the borderlines between this world and the other, as well as between dream and reality, are ambiguous and chaotic. From this eastern world view, I have considered music to be the instrument that connects this world and the other, and have carried out my compositional activities on the understanding that musicians are shamans that connect these two worlds.

In this solo piece, a characteristic motif of the oboe in Abschied is often used. My music is a sonic calligraphy of time and space, and the english horn was the perfect instrument to express my calligraphic line and frequent use of portamentos and appoggiaturas. The title derives from the text of Abschied."

Toshio Hosokawa


Vom Leid der Erde

Nathan Currier and Marie-Pierre Langlamet already have a long relationship. In this piece for solo harp with tape (Aeolian Windharp, Great Horned Owl, Red-winged Blackbird and American Toad), the destruction of nature by humans is discussed. The result is a dialogue between harp, electronic sounds and animal sounds.

A fitting Mahler reception in the 21st century.

"It is hard for me to contemplate Das Lied von der Erde today without some reference to the obvious: Mahler initially wanted to call his work Das Lied vom Jammer der Erde, and today’s ‘Jammer der Erde’ has become a primary fact of contemporary life. As a teenager Mahler’s music spoke to me with some special urgency, and it’s shocking to think how much of our destruction has been wrought since then – quickly checking a NOAA CO2 graph, I see that almost two thirds of civilization’s whole increase in CO2 since industrialization’s start has come.


Now I understand that urgency, which I still feel, differently. Today I see Mahler’s largest works as personal expressions of Haeckelian Monism, which I see as holding important seeds for the future. Haeckel, who coined the term ecology, also helped to initiate the idea of endosymbiosis, being perhaps the first to notice that chloroplasts (Haeckel also named and was the discoverer of the plastids) seemed like cyanobacteria trapped inside plant cells. Understanding our planet’s self-regulatory mechanisms will be key, and the symbiogenetic basis of evolutionary novelty will likely be shown to be at the core of such mechanisms. In other words, both as metaphor and as guide to action, the Haeckelian thinking Mahler confronted is still entirely contemporary. 


Vom Leid der Erde takes three common species I live around (on a horse farm), and introduces their voices into classical music in a sequential order, equating the seasonal passage there from winter to spring. Almost like the French horn’s quality of holding together the sections of an orchestra, the Aeolian harp plays a key role in binding together the components, and in mediating the inherent need for technology to dialogue with Nature in this way. The Aeolian harp is the sole instrument that plays only harmonics, and the complexity of its effects stems from the Karman vortex street effect of the wind. I use just three tunings: 1. what I like to call Mahler’s ‘Nature chord’, eerie, as in the first movement of his 3rd , the minor-major seventh chord, meant to depict the beginnings of life (Mahler wrote to Nathalie Bauer-Lechner, while composing it, that Nature was fundamentally ‘eerie’), 2. the dissonant 9-note chord that climaxes the first movement of the incomplete 10th, and 3. a purely pentatonic collection. Great horned owls were nesting on the farm this past winter, but unfortunately I hadn’t started my piece and didn’t record them, (and so had to use external sources) but the red-wing blackbirds and American toads I recorded as they arrived, both on the farm and the surrounding fields."

Nathan Currier